Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee used the panel’s first public hearing in five years on the United States' most dire global threats to air a range of domestic grievances to intelligence and law enforcement leaders Thursday — from the prosecution of former Trump administration official Michael Flynn to the Steele dossier to antifa.
The session came a day after the same agency chiefs appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss issues including China’s push for global influence, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and two recent hacks that have impacted the country.
But the House panel's top Republican, California Rep. Devin Nunes, set the tone for Thursday's session in his opening statement, when he offered an alternative explanation for the intelligence officials' reluctance to hold these threats hearings in public during Donald Trump's presidency. (They were afraid of running afoul of Trump by disagreeing with him, as POLITICO first reported.)
“The real reason Trump officials didn't want to participate is that for years the committee's Democrats hijacked our open hearings to advance conspiracy theories on the Trump administration being filled with Russian agents who colluded with Putin, and the 2016 election, among many other issues,” said Nunes, whom Trump had awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom award for his defense of the administration.
He then used his time to ask questions about Steele and the surveillance warrant of former Trump associate Carter Page during the early Russia investigation, saying the FBI committed “outright lies” when the GOP was in the majority and investigated the matter. He accused the FBI of spying on Republicans, a “hallmark of banana republics."
Nunes also pressed NSA chief Paul Nakasone about Michael Ellis — who worked as a lawyer for the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and was tapped to be the intelligence agency’s top lawyer in the final days of the Trump administration, only to be put on leave two days into his tenure.
Nunes asked if the four-star general, or anyone on his team, had discussed Ellis’ appointment with “reporters or elected Democrats.” Nakasone replied he hadn’t.
The panel's No. 2 Republican, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, grilled FBI Director Christopher Wray on his testimony last fall that described antifa as "more of an ideology or a movement than an organization." Wray's remarks, made in September to the House Homeland Security Committee, drew the ire of then-President Trump, though Wray noted that antifa "is a real thing."
Turner pressed the FBI head on whether antifa has organized training, funding and logistics. Wray declined to discuss the issue of funding in detail, saying the bureau is continuing to investigate the issue. Wray told Turner that antifa has displayed "organized activity" at a local or regional level.
"People have seen with their own eyes the reports across the country, and your testimony does not comport to what the American public are actually seeing, and it weakens their confidence," Turner chided.
Wray defended his previous testimony, arguing, "Antifa is a real thing. It's not a fiction."
"The distinction I'm trying to draw — maybe that's why we're sort of talking past each other is that there's not some big national structure that is responsible for the violence," Wray told Turner.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) recalled the 2017 shooting at a congressional softball practice, labeling it an “insurrection" by an attacker who believed he could "change the balance of power" in Congress by assassinating Republicans.
Wenstrup, a doctor who is credited with saving the life of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), said the FBI has not classified the shooting as an act of "domestic terrorism," but "suicide by cop."
“Director, you want suicide by cop, you just pull a gun on a cop. It doesn't take 136 rounds. It takes one bullet,” he told Wray, who was often the prime target for the GOP’s ire.
An FBI spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment confirming that conclusion.
Utah Republican Chris Stewart pressed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines over the spy community's involvement in drafting a March report on domestic violent extremism. The report was drafted by the National Counterterrorism Center, which is under ODNI, as well as the FBI and Homeland Security Department with contributions from the CIA and DIA.
Stewart slammed the involvement of an arm of the intelligence agency in the report, likening it to the intelligence community spying domestically on Americans.
"I think the American people should be scared to death of this, that we have now crossed what I believe is the Rubicon where you're saying to the CIA, ‘Help us look at domestic terrorism,'" Stewart said.
Haines defended the report, noting that the NCTC is permitted by statute to analyze both domestic and international intelligence collected by other agencies to "help analyze and produce a comprehensive picture" of complex issues. The fusion, she said, will be crucial for assessing issues such as cyber threats and violent extremism.
"I would welcome a conversation on this, because I really do think that what we are trying to do is, I believe, within the law," Haines said. "But secondly, I think it's a challenging issue that we're going to face across a range of spaces where … bringing together domestic intelligence and international intelligence in order to provide a comprehensive picture is critical."
Thursday’s session was the first public test of whether the Intelligence panel, which was at the vanguard of partisanship battles during the Trump administration and was recently infused with six new members, could move beyond political trench warfare.
And while many members of the GOP seemed frozen in 2017 and 2018, questions about the origins of Covid-19 by two new Republican members, including Rep. Darin LaHood (Ill.), suggested the committee might at least be capable of working in a functional way.
“I appreciate the gentlemen’s questions,” Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said after LaHood’s time had expired.
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