Why Is The DNI Hiding An ‘Urgent’ Whistleblower Complaint From Congress?

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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September 16, 2019 2:25 p.m.
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What’s there to hide?

That’s what a congressional panel investigating a potentially urgent whistleblower complaint from the intelligence community wants to know.

On Friday, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) accused acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire of withholding a “credible” whistleblower complaint — made by someone within the intelligence community — from Congress.

But nobody apart from a few select people knows what it is that the anonymous tipster alleging.

Schiff took the unusual step on Friday of publicizing the situation, which, according to Schiff, had been roiling behind the scenes for weeks.

And, what’s more, Congress appears to have only learned of the whistleblower’s existence after Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson deemed the complaint of “urgent concern” and sent a letter to Congress informing it of the situation.

The allegation could suggest a breach of federal statutes, and Schiff’s decision to publicize the matter suggests the situation is an urgent one.

“This is unheard of,” former House general counsel Charles Tiefer told TPM. “The intelligence community normally feels absolutely obliged to furnish the demands of the intelligence committees.”

It’s not clear what the subject of the whistleblower complaint is, though a close reading of letters accompanying a subpoena that Schiff sent to the DNI on Friday demanding whistleblower-related records suggests that it may implicate people outside of the intelligence community itself.

An ODNI spokesperson confirmed to TPM that the agency had received the House Intel subpoena.

“We are currently reviewing the request and will respond appropriately,” the spokesperson said. “ODNI and Acting DNI Maguire are committed to fully complying with the law and upholding whistleblower protections and have done so here.”

The timeline of the whistleblower complaint has been swift.

According to Schiff’s letter, the whistleblower first sent a “disclosure intended for Congress” to the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General on Aug. 12.

That triggered a two-week deadline for Atkinson to review and assess the complaint.

At the period’s end — on Aug. 26 — Atkinson purportedly reached his conclusion, finding that the whistleblower had made a credible allegation that met a legal standard of “urgent concern.” He then submitted a copy of the disclosure and “accompanying materials” to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, beginning another seven-day countdown to the deadline for Maguire to forward the information to the congressional intelligence committees.

This is where things get hairy. Schiff alleges that Maguire’s office has withheld the complaint from Congress, disregarding the law.

And in fact, according to Schiff’s letters, the House only became aware of the disclosure through another somewhat mysterious occurrence. All the Committee says about this is that, on Sept. 9, the Intelligence Community Inspector General sent the committee a letter notifying the House that the whistleblower complaint existed.

In his letter, Schiff praised Atkinson.

“The Committee also deeply appreciates IC IG Michael Atkinson’s upstanding and principled handling of this matter, and fully expects that he and all members of his staff will also be protected from any reprisal or threat of reprisal for bringing this matter to the attention of the Committee, as Mr. Atkinson is required to do,” Schiff wrote.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also not received the whistleblower complaint, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The intel community watchdog’s letter launched an escalating battle between Schiff and the DNI. One day later, on Sept. 10, House Intel demanded that Maguire produce a full copy of the whistleblower complaint, the inspector general’s evaluation of the complaint, and any communications about the complaint between the national intelligence director’s office and “other Executive Branch actors including the White House.”

Schiff writes that on Friday — Sept. 13 — Maguire replied, denying Schiff’s request. That evening, the Intelligence Committee chair blew open the situation with a public press release, and spent part of Sunday on CBS’s Face The Nation discussing the issue.

Neither Schiff’s office nor that of the DNI returned requests to make Maguire’s Sept. 13 letter publicly available.

But Schiff’s description of Maguire’s reasons for refusing the request add to the mystery.

A letter accompanying the Sept. 13 subpoena states that the DNI believes the whistleblower complaint “concerns conduct by someone outside of the Intelligence Community” and that it “involves confidential and potentially privileged communications.” Schiff also wrote in the letter that the DNI’s office “consulted the Department of Justice about the complaint” and that it refused to confirm or deny whether White House attorneys had worked on the issue, or whether the subject of the complaint went to an “area of active investigation” by the Committee.

From these facts, Schiff concluded that “the serious misconduct at issue involves the President of the United States and/or other senior White House or Administration officials.”

Tiefer, the former House general counsel, told TPM that “House Intelligence routinely obtains far more sensitive intelligence than this.”

“This whistleblower complaint is not ‘sources and methods,'” he said. “In fact, it is a document expected eventually to be made public by the court system.”

The nature of the complaint remains unclear, as do the specifics of what the DNI believes the privilege issues implicated in the whistleblower disclosure may be.

The situation follows on a brazen strategy by the Trump administration to stonewall congressional subpoenas at virtually every turn, and is playing out as another whistleblower drama — involving potential misconduct in how the IRS is treating Trump’s taxes — unfolds in the shadows.

The Intelligence Community Inspector General’s office declined to comment. A spokesman for Schiff did not return a request for comment.

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