WASHINGTON (TSTIME) — Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Wednesday they need access to classified documents discovered in the homes of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, arguing that the Biden administration stops them on the matter.
Senators reacted with quick, bipartisan anger after a secret meeting with Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, insisting that they should see for themselves what documents the three men were carrying.
“It is our responsibility to make sure that we, in our role of oversight of the intelligence community, know if any intelligence has been compromised,” said Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a Virginia Democrat. Warner and the panel’s vice chairman, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, held a joint press conference after they left the meeting.
Members of Congress have been seeking access to the material, or at least a risk assessment detailing what was in it, since the discovery of documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last summer. But they say the administration has objected, arguing they can’t grant that access as two Justice Department special counsel investigate Trump and Biden’s mishandling of the documents.
Senators argued that this follows no precedent. For example, in the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, committees had access to classified material that was also part of the investigation of then-special counsel Robert Mueller.
The government’s position is “untenable,” Rubio said. “The information we are requesting is in no way related to or would in any way interfere with a criminal investigation.”
The senators have not said how they might retaliate if the government is not more forthcoming. But Rubio hinted earlier this week that they could withhold dollars from the intelligence community if Congress doesn’t get special access to the material.
“I’m not making threats right now,” Rubio said. “But I’m just saying that every year this committee has to approve how money is spent in (Biden’s) agencies.”
Rubio noted that he and Warner also have responsibilities to authorize and move money within the intelligence community. “I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in looking at that if we can’t actually get the answers we need,” he said.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican member of the committee, said he and others may take steps in the meantime to block the rapid consideration of some of Biden’s nominees.
“Congress will hurt the government until they provide these documents,” Cotton said after Wednesday’s meeting.
The frustration in Congress comes after months of waiting for a briefing on the documents seized from Trump’s estate. According to the government, documents seized at Mar-a-Lago and papers previously handed over by the Republican former president contained highly sensitive “Special Access Program” designations, as well as markers for intelligence coming from classified human sources and electronic signal programs. Those forms of intelligence are often produced by the CIA or the National Security Agency, and the underlying sources can take years to develop.
An assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was designed to determine the potential harm if the secrets contained in those documents were revealed. In a letter to Congress last year, Haines said the ODNI would lead a “classification review of relevant materials, including those recovered during the search.”
But lawmakers are still awaiting the details of that review and say they want access to the documents themselves.
Lawyers for Pence said this week that a seemingly small number of papers were inadvertently boxed and shipped to his Indiana home at the end of the Trump administration. That revelation came after Biden’s lawyers said they discovered documents from his time as vice president at his Delaware home and his pre-presidential think tank offices.
Special Counsels Are Investigating Trump and Biden Episodes. In all three cases, the significance of the classified material and whether its misuse constitutes a breach of national security is not publicly known.
Warner said the Senate could try to find a way to provide more safeguards around presidential transitions and the handling of documents. It’s unclear how they would do that, and those talks have just begun amid the Biden and Pence revelations.
Some members have long talked about setting new parameters for what is secret in response to concerns that some documents are being kept secret when they shouldn’t be.
“We have a broken system,” Warner said. “And we need to fix this for all the people who leave the government.”