GOP chairman admonishes intel chiefs

The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday delivered an unsparing scolding to four senior intelligence and law enforcement officials who repeatedly refused to answer lawmakers' questions.

“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump: Why isn't Senate looking into 'Fake News Networks'? Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Special counsel looking into dossier as part of Russia probe: report MORE (R-N.C.) told the officials before gaveling out the nearly three-hour hearing.

“It may be in a different format but the requirements of our oversight duties and your agencies demand it," he added.

National Security Agency head Adm. Mike Rogers, National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsDon’t throw the baby out with the BATwater Overnight Cybersecurity: DHS bans agencies from using Kaspersky software | Panel calls Equifax CEO to testify | Facebook pulling ads from fake news Mueller investigation focusing on social media's role in 2016 election: report MORE, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe had declined extensive questioning from Democrats — and some Republicans — about reports that President Trump asked officials to intervene in or counter the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.

ADVERTISEMENT

Both Coats and Rogers denied feeling pressured by Trump to intervene in the handling of intelligence in any inappropriate way — but refused to answer specific questions about their interactions with the president.

None of the Trump administration officials were able to satisfy Democrats on the legal justification for their silence.

“Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation of executive privilege?” demanded Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy Mattis: Staying in Iran deal is of US national security interest MORE (Maine), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “I’m not satisfied with, ‘I do not believe it’s appropriate’ or ‘I do not believe I should answer.’”

“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” Coats said. He added that he would provide as much information as he was able behind closed doors.

Rogers indicated that while he and Coats have had conversations with the White House about a potential claim of executive privilege, he said that they had not gotten a definitive answer.

McCabe and Rosenstein both cited the ongoing federal investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow in arguing that it is longstanding Justice Department procedure not to discuss anything that might be under active investigation.

Burr had previously intervened on behalf of the witnesses after a series of tense exchanges during which Democrats cut off or talked over their answers. He snapped that the “committee is on notice” to allow witnesses a chance to respond.

But as he closed the hearing, which was ostensibly about the sunset of a commonly used surveillance law that turned into a grilling on Trump and the federal investigation, he put the witnesses themselves on notice.

“I would ask each of you to take a message back to the administration,” he started.

Citing a notification mechanism by which officials can communicate with the top eight members of Congress — the so-called “gang of eight” — Burr argued pointedly that the officials “are required to keep this committee fully informed.”

“Congressional oversight of the intelligence activities of our government is necessary and it must be robust," he said.