Republicans have been skipping House Intelligence meetings for months

Democrats see a boycott motivated by partisan politics. Republicans argue they have legitimate security concerns.

Either way, GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee have skipped all but one of the panel's proceedings, public and private, since before Congress went into its coronavirus-lockdown in early March. And that impasse shows no signs of ending, even as the panel takes up issues like China, Covid-19 and the annual intelligence policy bill.

Democrats see it as yet another manifestation of the toxic partisan split dividing the panel during Donald Trump's presidency, in contrast to the still-bipartisan spirit that prevails on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“It seems almost counterproductive on their part,” House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told POLITICO when asked about the Republican no-shows. “It seems rather childish but I hope that they will reconsider.”

The committee, with 13 Democratic and eight Republican members, has held at least seven bipartisan hearings and roundtables, both open- and closed-door, since the pandemic shut down much of Washington in March and April. The sessions, all unclassified, included a virtual hearing in mid-June where representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google answered questions about foreign efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election.

The lone session to have a GOP presence was an April 28 roundtable attended by then-Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, a week before the Senate hearing on his nomination to be Trump’s director of national intelligence.

Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) noted that Republicans have expressed concerns about alleged political bias by those same big tech platforms. “How do you explain to your constituents that you have representatives from those three companies and you just chose not to show up?” he asked.

Republicans rejected the idea that they’re formally snubbing the committee’s work. The real problem, they say, is that Democrats insist on discussing sensitive information in virtual online sessions instead of meeting in person.

“These things get hacked. Why are we putting ourselves at that risk?” asked Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a member of the committee. “You border on classified information and maybe sometimes even spill into it. It’s just not the way to conduct business. And there is no reason for it."

"Maybe it’s inconvenient for Adam Schiff to come back here from California," Wenstrup added. "It’s just not appropriate within the intelligence community and it’s not fitting of protocol.”

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said: “I really don’t believe it’s a boycott. It’s not an organized effort at all. I would just say that we have concerns about the format.”

“We’re here. Why aren’t we doing it like we used to?” asked Stewart, who also serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which is slated to hold live markups where members can join remotely. “I think we can meet together and do it safely.”

The committee's top Republican, California Rep. Devin Nunes, repeatedly declined to comment when asked about the matter.

Democrats say the Republicans haven’t provided a good explanation about why they’ve withdrawn or indicated what could get them back to the table. But Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) attributed the Republicans' absences to factors like Schiff’s leading role in the president's impeachment — and, before that, the years of acrimony caused by the panel’s GOP-led Russia investigation.

“They have their grievances, right?” Himes said. “The whole thing is absurd but they haven’t even really negotiated.”

Even before the pandemic shutdowns, Republicans on House Intelligence had boycotted a February hearing in Himes' subcommittee on emerging technology and national security, accusing Democrats of staging "publicity events" rather than looking into issues like alleged FBI abuses in domestic surveillance. That hearing occurred weeks after the end of Trump's impeachment trial.

The intelligence committee normally meets in a secure room in the Capitol — one that a specialized CIA cleaning crew had to scrub in March after Daniel Goldman, the panel's former impeachment counsel, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Since early March, the intelligence committee has held two open virtual hearings using Cisco Webex, the same video conferencing platform that other congressional panels have used.

The panel has also convened a series of closed but unclassified roundtable discussions with past government officials focused on aspects of the coronavirus — such as Chinese disinformation around the pandemic, biothreats and the intelligence community’s handling of Covid-19. Attendees included former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The roundtables, including some that have been strictly Democrats-only by design, are conducted via Microsoft Teams, which features end-to-end encryption to prevent eavesdropping.

A senior committee official dismissed Republicans' cybersecurity objections as "non-concerns," saying the committee's staff had "consulted our security and the House security” about the risks of a breach. "There was actually less risk of that happening during a Microsoft Teams or WebEx session than there was logging into your House email or Gmail account from your home computer," the official said.

The impasse threatens to derail a series of products the panel is looking to issue in the coming weeks and months.

The committee plans to meet in person, or at least partially, to mark up its annual intelligence authorization bill by the end of July. But because of pandemic-era social distancing requirements, the panel will perform what’s called a “strawman,” where majority members are located in one secure room, the minority in another, with the budget directors and lawyers in another who then walk members through the entire bill by telephone.

The committee is also finishing up its so-called "deep dive" on China, investigating the various national security threats posed by Beijing's use of technology for surveillance, influence and political control domestically and internationally. The panel has been going back and forth with the intelligence community over the draft of its full report, and going through a classification review of the executive summary, which Schiff will make public when the review is finished, according to the senior committee official.

In addition, the Democrat-controlled panel is reviewing the Covid-19 pandemic and the intelligence community’s role in it. In particular, it's examining how the clandestine apparatus is postured to collect, analyze and disseminate intel on global health issues, including cross-border pandemics and epidemics.

Of the various policy efforts, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe that the intelligence bill has the best chance to bridge the latest divide.

“The IAA has historically been bipartisan," Swalwell said. "We have to signal to the Congress that we are aligned, as Republicans and Democrats, and that’s what helps us pass that” by wide, bipartisan majorities."

Wenstrup noted that the bill passed in previous years even during the height of the Russia investigation.

“The committee’s been able to work through things before,” he told POLITICO.

Wenstrup and Stewart insisted that if the panel began to convene in person, the GOP would show up.

“If it was in person I believe we would be there,” Stewart said.

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Senate confirms Ratcliffe as Trump’s intelligence director

The Senate on Thursday confirmed Rep. John Ratcliffe as President Donald Trump’s top intelligence official, in a move aimed at ending nine months of reshuffling at the top of the nation's spying establishment.

Lawmakers voted 49-44 in a party-line vote to confirm the Republican congressman from Texas as the sixth director of national intelligence since the office was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The split was a contrast to the 85-12 vote in 2017 that had confirmed Ratcliffe's predecessor, former Republican Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, and comes amid an escalating feud between Trump and Democrats over the political use of intelligence.

But Ratcliffe's path to the intelligence post was still relatively smooth — this time around. Thursday’s vote came just two days after a divided Senate Intelligence Committee approved his nomination, and well before initial expectations for full chamber consideration sometime after Memorial Day.

Trump had originally picked Ratcliffe for the job in July, after the Texas Republican had put on an aggressive public display in his grilling of former special counsel Robert Mueller. But despite serving on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, Ratcliffe was something of a puzzle to key Republican senators, and he soon withdrew his name amid questions about whether he had inflated his resume.

Ratcliffe got a second nod from Trump this year after serving on the president’s impeachment defense team. And by Thursday, even Senate Democrats were eager to see Ratcliffe succeed acting Intelligence Director Richard Grenell, a Trump ally who has used his temporary perch to push organizational changes to the national security apparatus.

Grenell, who is also the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has also provided Congress with newly declassified documents related to the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the FBI’s Russia investigation. Democrats contend that the GOP is politicizing those documents to attack former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

In contrast, Ratcliffe had vowed at his confirmation hearing to be independent and deliver unvarnished intelligence assessments to Trump, even if he believed it would risk his job.

Still, Democrats don't seem entirely convinced.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote that he had asked Ratcliffe earlier this week if he agreed with the intelligence community’s initial January 2017 assessment that Russia had interfered in the last presidential election with the goal of putting Trump in the Oval Office — a finding recently backed the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“He could not confirm it,” Schumer said.

He said he also asked Ratcliffe to brief the congressional “Gang of Eight” every two weeks on election interference and requested that Congress be notified within 72 hours if Russia or another country attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.

“In neither case could he commit,” Schumer said.

After the vote, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said "nothing would be better than to be proved wrong on" concerns about Ratcliffe's independence and partisan history.

"But time will tell. With Coats, we made that leap, and he ended up being independent. I hope to see the same from Mr. Ratcliffe," Warner told POLITICO.

Republican accolades rolled in after the Senate vote.

In a statement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was tapped earlier this week to serve as the acting chairman of the Intelligence panel, said it was "critical to have a Senate-confirmed DNI ensuring the wide array of intelligence agencies are sharing information across lines, coordinating capabilities" and furthering U.S. national security goals.

"Director Ratcliffe understands this responsibility, and I am confident that he will fulfill all of the roles assigned to the DNI with integrity," Rubio added.

Ratcliffe is a "man of character who will bring strength and accountability to the role," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Grenell tweeted: "Congratulations, @RepRatcliffe ! You will be the best DNI ever! #USA"

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Senate Intelligence panel approves Ratcliffe as spy chief

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday endorsed the confirmation of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be the nation’s top intelligence official.

The panel approved Ratcliffe as President Donald Trump’s next director of national intelligence in a straight party-line vote, 8 to 7, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's top Democrat, told reporters after a closed-door meeting. Ratcliffe would be the first permanent spy chief since Dan Coats stepped down last August.

The vote tally was much different from when the committee approved Coats in 2017, 14 to 2.

"I think there were many of the same concerns that were raised when he first came up in August," Warner told POLITICO.

While the nomination must still be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate, Tuesday’s vote marks a remarkable turnaround for Ratcliffe, whom Trump floated almost a year ago to oversee the country’s 17 intelligence agencies. The Texas Republican withdrew his name from consideration just days later in the face of tepid support from the Senate GOP, along with concerns about his thin resume and partisan attitude about government investigators.

Ratcliffe's withdrawal set off a monthslong merry-go-round at the leadership of the clandestine community, as the president selected counterterrorism chief Joseph Maguire to temporarily assume the DNI post. Maguire ruined his chances of becoming the permanent chief earlier this year after Trump heard he had authorized congressional briefings on Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 campaign.

Trump then replaced Maguire as acting DNI with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who possessed limited intelligence experience but began making a series of organizational changes to the country’s spy agencies. Those included last week's announcement that the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is part of ODNI, would take over election security briefings for political candidates and organizations.

Ratcliffe, who was elected to Congress in 2015, sits on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees and was a member of Trump’s impeachment defense team. He drew national attention in a hearing last year where he accused former special counsel Robert Mueller of treating Trump unfairly during his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Donald Trump is not above the law. He's not. But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law, which is where volume 2 of this report puts him," Ratcliffe said at the time. He was referring to the volume of the Mueller report that declines to reach a conclusion about whether the president had obstructed the Russia investigation.

Ratcliffe worked hard at shedding the image of a partisan Trump acolyte during his confirmation hearing earlier this month.

“Let me be very clear: Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside influence,” Ratcliffe said. He added that he would give intelligence briefings to the president even if he knew Trump would disagree with the conclusions, or if he believed it risked his job.

Tuesday’s vote came the day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tapped Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to temporarily serve as the Intelligence committee’s chairman, after Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) decided to step aside while he faces an FBI investigation into his stock trades.

If confirmed by the full Senate, Warner said he hopes Ratcliffe "will execute the job in the way he described during the hearing." Warner added that it's "never more important than right now" to maintain the integrity and independence of the intelligence community.

Ratcliffe is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate in a vote likely to be held after Memorial Day, according to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

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Intel hearing on global threats delayed amid fears of provoking Trump’s ire

U.S. intelligence community leaders will not testify publicly or privately before House lawmakers next week about global threats, as negotiations on the timing and format of the annual hearing continue, according to people on both sides of the talks.

The Worldwide Threats hearing that takes place in the House and Senate has become an awkward source of tension after POLITICO first reported that intelligence officials pushed for the hearing that features both public and classified sessions to be moved entirely behind closed-doors over fears their bosses might provoke President Donald Trump’s ire.

“We are still in discussions with the IC, and look forward to their agreeing to attend the one public oversight hearing with all major IC agencies the Committee holds each year,” a House Intelligence Committee official told POLITICO.

Last year’s public hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee saw the chiefs from NSA, CIA and other agencies present findings that split from many of the president’s public statements on North Korea, Iran and Russia.

Trump later lashed out at them on Twitter, suggesting the leaders “go back to school.”

The day after POLITICO’s report, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) invited intelligence agency leaders to appear before his panel on Feb. 12.

“The hearing provides an opportunity for I.C. seniors to provide an unclassified, yet important broad understanding of how threats have evolved and what the nation can expect in the year to come,” Schiff wrote in a letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.

Congressional sources told POLITICO that the clandestine community would still prefer the testimony be entirely classified but aren’t aggressively pursuing the argument in the face of bipartisan resistance in both chambers. People familiar with the talks asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the ongoing negotiations.

An ODNI spokesperson said that “we are still having productive discussions with the committees on the timing of the Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings.”

One Capitol Hill source said the agency chiefs would likely prefer to appear before the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee first to avoid the hyper-partisanship that has seized its House counterpart in recent years, and in the hope the session would focus on the top threats to the nation without careening into other topics.

Indeed, since Schiff sent his invite, he has alleged that the NSA and CIA may be withholding documents on Ukraine from Congress due to pressure from the White House.

The last time Maguire testified publicly was in October, when he appeared before Schiff’s panel for a tense session over his handling of the whistleblower complaint that exposed Trump’s political pressure campaign on Ukraine, which sparked impeachment proceedings.

A House Judiciary Committee hearing this week with FBI Director Christopher Wray signaled that the president’s congressional allies remain eager to grill national security leaders over missteps dating back to the 2016 election.

Wray’s congressional appearance was his first since the Justice Department inspector general report that chastised the FBI’s monitoring of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page and GOP lawmakers hammered him repeatedly over the watchdog’s findings.

“The failures highlighted in that report are unacceptable. Period. … It cannot be repeated,” Wray said during the nearly five-hour hearing. “I do not think anyone has carte blanche to bypass rules, and I intend to make that painfully clear, that that is not acceptable in the FBI today.”

Now that Trump’s impeachment trial has wrapped in the Senate, it should be easier for the panel to schedule the annual assessment from the intelligence community, which usually takes place anytime between February and May.

A spokesperson for Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) declined to comment.

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