House Intelligence Chairman: Justice Department has helped withhold Trump whistleblower complaint

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has refused to give Congress "urgent" whistleblower complaint

Published September 19, 2019 12:59PM (EDT)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and President Donald Trump whisper during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Salon)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and President Donald Trump whisper during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Salon)

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on Thursday that the Department of Justice has helped withhold a whistleblower complaint made by an intelligence officer.

Speaking to reporters after a closed door meeting with the inspector general for the intelligence community, Schiff said he did not know if the White House was involved in preventing the disclosure of the complaint.

"We do know that the Department of Justice has been involved in the decision to withhold that information from Congress," he said. "We do not know — because we cannot get an answer to the question — about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress."

"We do not have the complaint, we do not know whether the press reports are accurate or inaccurate about the contents of that complaint," he continued.

Schiff said Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, declined to disclose details of the complaint because he was not authorized to do so. The intelligence whistleblower act prohibits for details to be offered until the actual complaint has been provided to Congress. So far, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has refused to turn over the complaint to congressional panels.

Over the past week, the secret whistleblower complaint has spilled into public view and prompted a standoff been acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire and the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff has demanded Maguire's testimony and a copy of the complaint. Maguire has agreed to testify publicly next week.

Schiff revealed last Friday that an unspecified whistleblower complaint had been filed with the inspector general of the intelligence community on Aug. 12 but was being withheld from his panel, even though the independent watchdog deemed the matter an "urgent concern."

Under such circumstances, federal law requires the complaint to be transmitted to congressional intelligence committees within seven days. In this case, however, Maguire refused to turn over the complaint after consulting with officials at the Department of Justice, according to a series of letters between an ODNI lawyer and Schiff, which have been made public.

President Donald Trump's communication with a foreign leader is at the root of the whistleblower complaint, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The complaint was made by an intelligence officer who was troubled by a "promise" the president made during the call, The Post reported, citing two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump on Thursday denied having said something "inappropriate" to a foreign leader during a phone call.

"Another Fake News story out there ― It never ends!" he tweeted. "Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!"

He then questioned whether anybody is "dumb enough" to believe that he would say something "inappropriate" on the phone with a foreign leader.

Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, first informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the existence of the whistleblower complaint — without revealing its substance — in a letter earlier this month.

Schiff responded to the notice from Atkinson by submitting a formal request for a copy of the complaint in a fiery letter to Maguire, in which he also warned that he was prepared to subpoena U.S. intelligence officials for the document.

"In an unprecedented departure from past practice, you have not transmitted the disclosure to the committee, nor have you notified the committee of the fact of the disclosure or your decision not to transmit it to the committee," Schiff wrote in the letter, adding his panel will "resort to compulsory process to compel production of the entire whistleblower complaint in complete and unaltered from, the ICIG's determination, as well as all records pertaining to you and your office's involvement in the matter, including any and all correspondence with other executive branch actors, to include the White House."

In response, Jason Klitenic, counsel of the ODNI, told Schiff the agency had determined "that no statute requires disclosure of the complaint to the intelligence committees" because "the disclosure in this case did not concern allegations of conduct by a member of the Intelligence Community or involve an intelligence activity under the DNI's supervision."

Atkinson, in a letter to Schiff, noted he respectfully disagrees with that determination. He wrote, "The subject matter involved in the complaint's disclosure not only falls within DNI's jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI's responsibilities to the American people."

Maguire's refusal to turn over the requested material is, according to Schiff, believed to be the first time the DNI has sought to overrule the inspector general and withhold a complaint from Congress.

"We do not know whether this decision to withhold the disclosure was made only by you or whether it involved interference by other parties, including the White House. The committee's recent experience has heightened concern of improper White House efforts to influence your office and the intelligence community," Schiff wrote in the letter to Maguire. "The failure to transmit to the committee an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint, as required by law, raises the prospect that an urgent matter of a serious nature is being purposefully concealed by the committee."

As a result, Schiff said that his panel could conclude that the "serious misconduct at issue involves the president of the United States and/or other senior White House or administration officials."

By Shira Tarlo

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