House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) is coming under fire — including from members of his own party — after sparking alarm with a cryptic call to declassify information about a “serious national security threat.”
The explosive request stirred a panic on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, where lawmakers raced to a secure area of the Capitol basement to learn the confidential details of the unnamed threat.
A day later, Turner’s actions are spurring backlash from some of those lawmakers, who say the threat was not imminent and his warnings were overstated. Others, though, are standing behind the Ohio Republican, defending his integrity and backing his call to release the information.
The episode has highlighted the eroding trust between different wings of the Republican Party, with some of Turner’s harshest critics leveling accusations that he made the comment to advance legislative priorities they opposed: Ukraine aid and reforms to the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“It was irresponsible,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “I think he was trying to motivate the Ukraine funding and a clean FISA reauthorization. I know he’s passionate about both of those things, but I feel like he might have been using that announcement to motivate both of those, and shouldn’t have done that.”
Some prominent Democrats also joined the chorus of critics, saying Turner’s actions risked exposing sensitive intelligence information to America’s enemies.
“This is stuff that should not be made public, and the reason for that is: We’re trying to protect sources and methods. We’re trying to make sure that adversaries don’t know what we know, unless we think it’s to our advantage. And then also we’re trying to make sure that we preserve [the identity of] the people who are giving that information, and how we’re getting it. And this places that at risk,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Thursday morning.
Smith emphasized that there are circumstances when it’s advantageous to America’s security interests that certain information be disclosed publicly.
“But that is a decision that is made at the highest levels of the executive branch. It’s not a decision that one individual member of Congress wakes up one day and decides he’s going to do on his own,” Smith said. “So this is a highly, highly risky move, and I don’t have an explanation for it.”
But claims Turner had ulterior motives in calling for the release of the information were roundly rejected by those that work with him on the Intelligence Committee.
“Anybody who’s familiar with what is the situation here, they should be thanking and hugging Mike Turner. Trust me,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said, adding that he supports the chair’s call to have the information released publicly.
Turner sent a letter to House colleagues Tuesday informing them that the full Intelligence Committee voted to make information available to members regarding “an urgent matter with regard to a destabilizing foreign military capability that should be known by all Congressional Policy Makers.”
On Wednesday, Turner took that message public, releasing a short statement disclosing the “serious national security threat” and calling on President Biden to declassify the information — a move that caught even other members of the Intelligence Committee by surprise.
Turner has thus far not addressed his reasons for Wednesday’s public release, instead focusing on the full committee’s decision to share the information with House lawmakers a day earlier.
“The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence worked in consultation with the Biden Administration to notify Congress of this national security threat,” Turner said in a statement on Thursday, noting the 23-1 committee vote to allow other members to see it.
“In addition, language in the bipartisan notification issued by the Chair and Ranking Member to all Members of the House was cleared by the Administration prior to its release.”
And after leaving a briefing with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, he also stressed the need to work with the Biden administration on the matter.
“We believe that it was important enough to notify other Members of Congress as this is unfolding. There will be, I think, times in which the Congress needs to be engaged and support the administration,” he said Thursday.
White House national security communications adviser John Kirby confirmed Thursday that the threat pertained to a Russian anti-satellite capability.
“While I am limited by how much I can share about the specific nature of the threat, I can confirm that it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia is developing,” Kirby said at the White House press briefing.
“I want to be clear about a couple of things right off the bat. First, this is not an active capability that’s been deployed. And though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety. We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth,” he added.
The GOP’s right wing saw Turner’s statement as a ploy to advance stalled aid to Ukraine and to sink a bill that would reauthorize the nation’s warrantless surveillance power — a fear that led one Republican to call for an inquiry into Turner.
“You had a chairman of the Intelligence Committee who used political agenda, his own political agenda, quite frankly Biden’s political agenda, to try to scare Congress into passing a piece of legislation,” said Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) after writing a letter to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to review Turner’s actions.
Ogles has yet to view the classified information himself, telling Politico he “chose not to look at the classified information” so that he “can discuss the classified information.” Massie echoed that sentiment, saying he did not go to view the intelligence because he thought it was “trying to motivate opposition to the FISA debate and or trying to motivate Ukraine money.”
The claims are coming only from those opposed to Ukraine aid or those who are eager to amend the warrantless surveillance bill to require court order before viewing any intelligence information incidentally collected on Americans.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) accused Turner of taking actions to spike a coming vote on the FISA bill by threatening to tank a rule vote on it, which sets parameters for debate on legislation.
“He brought down the bill by saying he’d vote against the rule. And he then offered all of us a briefing on highly classified material, calling for it to be declassified so we could all see how horrible the threat is,” Issa said. “That is a very, very easy-to-see attempt to change the outcome of the FISA vote.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), an Intelligence Committee member, agreed with Turner’s call to declassify. He said the timing was “a 100 percent coincidence” that was based on national security developments, not legislative priorities, and called accusations to the contrary “a little bit of a conspiracy theory.”
“Ogles needs to f***ing check himself,” Crenshaw said.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Like it’s absurd, it was a deeply absurd action. I’m tired of people making extremely passionate, opinionated actions based on no knowledge.”
And Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) also defended Turner’s judgment.
“He has a lot of integrity. So I would hope that’s not the case,” McCaul said.
He did, however, cite complications to Turner’s plans for release.
“As long as they are able to scrub it in terms of sources and methods, but a lot of it’s so highly technical, I think it’d be very difficult to do,” McCaul said.
Some Democrats also defended Turner’s integrity, even as they questioned the way he went about calling for declassification.
“I know it’s fashionable just to beat up the other side,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a former member of the Intelligence panel. “In my heart of hearts, my first gut reaction was: He did it because he thought we should know.”
Fitzpatrick, another Intel member, predicted the public can make its own judgments about Turner’s decision soon.
“I believe that the administration will be declassifying this,” he said, “and then you’ll all know, and you can make that decision for yourself.”