‘Urgent Concern’ About the President
A whistle-blower’s report has alarmed the intelligence agencies’ watchdog. Why won’t the administration share it with Congress?
By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
• Sept. 19, 2019
It’s not every day that a whistle-blower in the intelligence community files a complaint about the president of the United States. But it seems to have happened last month, when an unidentified intelligence employee alerted the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, to multiple acts by President Trump, including a promise he is said to have made to a foreign leader during a phone call.
The complaint alarmed Mr. Atkinson enough that he considered it a matter of “urgent concern” and alerted the acting director of national intelligence, or D.N.I., Joseph Maguire.
Under federal law, the D.N.I. “shall” deliver an inspector general’s report about an “urgent concern” to Congress within a week of receiving it. But Mr. Maguire has so far refused to. Taking his marching orders from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, he has claimed that the whistle-blower’s complaint did not involve an “intelligence activity,” and that it contained “potentially privileged matters.”
So Mr. Atkinson reached out to Congress himself. In a letter dated Sept. 9, he informed Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, of the existence of the complaint. On Tuesday, with the director of national intelligence still stonewalling, Mr. Atkinson followed up to say that the complaint “not only falls within the D.N.I.’s jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the D.N.I.’s responsibilities to the American people.”
On Thursday, Mr. Atkinson appeared before a meeting of the House Intelligence Committee that was closed to the public and the news media. Mr. Maguire is scheduled to appear before that committee in an open hearing next week. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said they expect him and Mr. Atkinson to brief them next week, too.
Maybe there’s not that much to the complaint; we can’t know yet. What we do know is there is an important principle at stake: that Congress is supposed to have oversight — through confidential hearings — of complaints like this. There’s a solid case to be made that Mr. Maguire, who has not invoked executive privilege as a reason for withholding the complaint, is ignoring the plain language of the law. While the lawyers battle over who is authorized to withhold what from whom, it’s worth making two observations: first, that the intelligence community’s watchdog — not some disgruntled denizen of the “deep state,” but a man appointed by Mr. Trump — was alarmed enough that he thought it necessary to inform Congress.
Second, that the administration is doing whatever it can to keep the complaint from becoming known, even behind closed doors.
Mr. Trump mocked the whole episode on Twitter, asking, “Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!” That’s a curious claim from a president who has gone to great lengths to hide from his own administration the details of his many conversations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia; who has casually revealed Israeli classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office; and whose defense secretary decided to quit after learning that Mr. Trump had told the president of Turkey over the phone that he was breaking with longstanding policy and withdrawing American troops from Syria.
Three House committees are investigating whether Mr. Trump tried to get the Ukrainian government to investigate business dealings of the son of the former vice president and current presidential candidate Joseph Biden. They have asked for a transcript of a July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
It may be no coincidence that Mr. Maguire, the man at the center of this particular storm, is serving in an acting capacity, having temporarily taken over the job of director of national intelligence after Dan Coats stepped down last month. That’s how Mr. Trump likes it. “Acting gives you great flexibility that you don’t have with permanent,” he said last month, referring to the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one of the many executive branch positions that have gone for months or longer without a Senate-confirmed leader. In other words, if the president can’t command abject loyalty, he’ll take temp workers who will depend on him moment to moment for their jobs.
The No. 1 task of America’s intelligence and law-enforcement communities is to identify and deal with threats to national security. The problem, as explained by Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush, is that Mr. Trump’s behavior has repeatedly revealed “the extent to which our constitutional system assumes and relies on a president with a modicum of national fidelity, and decent judgment and reasonableness.”
In other words, the system isn’t designed to deal with a situation in which a hazard may come from the president himself.
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FROM OUR ARCHIVES What Should We Make of the Charge Linking the Bush Family Fortune to Nazism?
Bush Family Links to Nazi Germany: “A Famous American Family” Made its Fortune from the Nazis
Prescott Bush was one of seven directors of Union Banking Corp., a New York investment bank owned by a bank controlled by the Thyssen family, according to recently declassified National Archives documents reviewed by the Associated Press.
Union Banking was seized by the government in October 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
50 U.S. Code CHAPTER 53— TRADING WITH THE ENEMY