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GOP shutters disputed Russia probe despite new revelations

[WASHINGTON] Republicans shut down the House Intelligence Committee's contentious Russia probe Thursday, despite new revelations that Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign may have benefited from the exploitation of personal information from millions of Facebook users.

In a closed-door meeting, the panel voted over Democrats' objections to approve and release a Republican-written final report, said Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who led the panel's investigation."It went through," he said.

Democrats said that Republicans rejected several efforts to pursue open leads, as well as a push to hold in contempt a witness who refused to answer many of their questions.

"It's a rather sad chapter in our committee's history," said Adam Schiff of California, the panel's top Democrat. He said Republicans also refused requests to vote in public.

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The panel Republicans are asserting there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians in the 2016 election. The report will be Congress's first official finding on that issue - although it won't be immediately released because declassification could take several weeks.

Mr Conaway said Wednesday the report will present a full account of what occurred during the election. "Everything we know about - that's right," he assured. He added that the committee had "followed the facts".

Mr Conaway characterised most of the report as "pretty non-controversial", dealing more on such questions as protecting electoral systems, and that the collusion angle is only part of it.

Committee Democrats say it is clearly premature to end the probe. Adam Schiff of California, the panel's ranking Democrat, says the Republican commitment to "follow the facts" is now "the latest casualty of the political imperative of protecting the president, no matter the cost to our democracy." Mr Schiff has said that Democrats will write and release their own conclusions from the investigation, and that they plan to continue their work.

Mr Schiff and other Democrats say the panel has yet to interview key witnesses like George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser; former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and KT McFarland, Flynn's former deputy. Other witnesses, they add, have been allowed to refuse to answer some questions, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Donald Trump Jr; former White House strategist Steve Bannon; Corey Lewandowski, who ran the Trump campaign for a time; and outgoing White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

In the case of Mr Bannon, the committee hasn't taken action in response to his refusal - even under subpoena - to answer some questions. Mr Conaway acknowledged there is "no current activity" to do so.

Democrats are also critical of Republicans ignoring new reports that the data firm Cambridge Analytica was allegedly able to exploit information from Facebook users without their permission to benefit Trump's campaign.

Cambridge Analytica's now-suspended chief executive, denied in a BBC interview that the firm had engaged in improper tactics to sway elections.

On their own, Mr Schiff and Democrats have already invited two key witnesses in that matter to testify, even if the Republicans aren't interested. One of them, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, has agreed to be interviewed.

Mr Conaway said Republicans, too, were "obviously concerned" about what Cambridge Analytica did with Facebook data. He added that the committee could look into that as part of its regular oversight duties on issues of national security.

Decisions to call more witnesses on that topic would be up to the committee's chairman, Devin Nunes of California, who didn't respond to whether he would do so. "I'll be moving on to the farm bill," said Mr Conaway, who is also House Agriculture Committee chairman.

But Mr Nunes and other Republicans have indicated they are moving on, too, with plans to look into anti-Trump activities they say took place in the State Department and intelligence agencies during the Obama administration.

Those loom as topics almost guaranteed to deliver yet more dysfunction and partisanship to the already fractured Intelligence Committee.

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