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Schiff, Nadler call on DOJ watchdog to investigate Barr's remarks about firing of intelligence community IG

Schiff, Nadler call on DOJ watchdog to investigate Barr's remarks about firing of intelligence community IG
© Greg Nash

A pair of top House Democrats are calling on Justice Department oversight officials to investigate Attorney General William BarrBill BarrNew DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Five federal inmates scheduled for execution before Inauguration Day MORE's remarks about the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, claiming Barr intentionally mischaracterized Atkinson's conduct. 

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-N.Y.) in a letter Monday urged Justice Department (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz and acting Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility Jeffrey Ragsdale to review Barr's claim that Atkinson ignored a DOJ opinion and therefore deserved to be removed.

"In a televised interview on April 9, 2020, Mr. Barr blatantly mischaracterized Mr. Atkinson's conduct and the DOJ's own actions relating to the complaint filed last summer by an Intelligence Community whistleblower," the two wrote in the letter. 

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"Mr. Barr’s misleading remarks appear to have been aimed at justifying the President’s retaliatory decision to fire Mr. Atkinson."

Atkinson, who had served as the intelligence community inspector general since May 2018, was terminated from his position earlier this month in what was widely seen as retaliation for his handling of the whistleblower complaint about President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE's conduct with Ukraine.

Atkinson deemed the whistleblower's allegations both urgent and credible  — a conclusion that triggered a process for Congress to be alerted to the complaint and ultimately launched an impeachment inquiry, which culminated with Trump’s acquittal in a Senate impeachment trial.

 

Democrats, oversight watchdogs, and some Republicans have defended Atkinson, saying he correctly followed processes in place to deal with whistleblower complaints. Their defense of the official contrasts with remarks Barr made in an interview with Fox News's Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Fox's Laura Ingraham says Biden will be inaugurated: 'This constitutes living in reality' The evolution of cable TV news — after Donald Trump MORE earlier this month.

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"[Atkinson] was obliged to follow the interpretation of the Department of Justice and he ignored it," Barr said, referring to an opinion issued by DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). "I think the president was correct in firing him."

The OLC argued that acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireRetired Navy admiral behind bin Laden raid says he voted for Biden Congressional Democrats request FBI briefing on foreign election interference efforts Wells Fargo told employees to delete TikTok from work phones MORE was not required to send the whistleblower complaint to Congress under the statute, contesting whether there was "urgent concern" and arguing that there was information that was subject to executive privilege — despite such an authority not being formally invoked.

In September, Atkinson wrote the DOJ to say that he stood by his determination that the whistleblower complaint was an "urgent concern." He also voiced concern that the OLC's reasoning "not only appears contrary to settled understandings of the DNI's responsibilities and authorities, but is gravely troubling."

Democrats and other inspectors general have defended Atkinson against claims that he disregarded the DOJ legal opinion concerning the complaint.

"Contrary to Mr. Barr’s false assertion that Mr. Atkinson 'ignored' DOJ’s legal guidance, Mr. Atkinson explicitly acknowledged being bound by OLC’s opinion, while strongly disagreeing with it," they wrote.

Schiff and Nadler pointed to a letter sent Friday by Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein (Calif.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHarris shares Thanksgiving recipe: 'During difficult times I have always turned to cooking' Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin MORE (Va.), who argued that Atkinson faithfully carried out his responsibilities as a watchdog, operating within the law.

They also cited testimony in September from Maguire, who told the House Intelligence Committee that Atkinson handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint “by the book” and in accordance with statutory requirements.  

The two House chairmen noted that only "after immense public pressure and a subpoena issued by the House Intelligence Committee did acting DNI Maguire produce the complaint to the congressional intelligence committees in late September 2019."

Their letter and Barr's remarks come after Atkinson was suddenly fired earlier this month. Trump made no effort to disguise why he wanted the official gone, saying it was Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint that led him to lose confidence in the watchdog. The president called Atkinson a “disgrace" and argued that he “did a terrible job.”

“He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong,” Trump said about the readout of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency.”

While Trump has repeatedly dismissed the allegations of the complaint and characterized his call with Zelensky as “perfect,” witness testimony and other evidence presented by House investigators supported much of the whistleblower’s allegations.

Atkinson, in response, has continued to defend his handling of the complaint and in a letter sent to lawmakers and reporters after his ousting, he urged other government workers to speak out if they see wrongdoing.

In their letter, the Democrats sought to claim that Barr and the White House were in the wrong.

"In maligning Mr. Atkinson and falsely portraying him as insubordinate, Mr. Barr misrepresented DOJ’s legal opinion concerning the whistleblower complaint," they said.

"Mr. Barr’s remarks also ignored the impropriety of DOJ’s coordination with the White House to prevent a whistleblower complaint concerning presidential misconduct from reaching Congress," they continued, arguing that the administration sought to keep Congress in the dark about the existence of the complaint.