WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate intelligence committee said Wednesday that they should have access to classified documents that were discovered in the homes of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, arguing that Biden’s administration is stonewalling them over the matter.
Senators reacted with swift, bipartisan anger after a classified meeting with National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, insisting they need to see for themselves what documents the three men were holding.
“It is our responsibility to make sure that we, in the role of the intelligence oversight, know if there’s been any intelligence compromised,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. Warner and the panel’s vice chairman, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, held a joint news conference after they walked out of the meeting.
Members of Congress have sought access to the materials, or at least a risk assessment detailing what was within them, 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 provide that access as two special counsels at the Justice Department are investigating Trump and Biden’s mishandlings of the documents.
Senators argued that this doesn’t follow precedent. In the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, for example, committees had access to classified materials that were also part of then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
The administration’s position is “untenable,” Rubio said. “The information we’re asking for has no bearing whatsoever or would interfere in no way with a criminal investigation.”
The senators didn’t say how they might retaliate if the administration isn’t more forthcoming. But Rubio hinted earlier this week that they could withhold dollars from the intelligence community if Congress isn’t given special access to the materials.
“I’m not in the business of threats right now,” Rubio said. “But I’m just saying every year this committee has to authorize how money is spent in (Biden’s) agencies.”
Rubio noted that he and Warner also have responsibilities to authorize and move money around within the intelligence community. “I think there’ll be a keen interest in looking at that if in fact we can’t get the answers that we need,” he said.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican member of the committee, said he and others may move to block quick consideration of some of Biden’s nominees in the meantime.
“Congress will impose pain on the administration 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 at Trump’s estate. According to the government, those documents seized at Mar-a-Lago and papers the Republican former president had turned over previously included highly sensitive “Special Access Program” designations as well as markings for intelligence derived from secret human sources and electronic signals 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.
A review by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was meant to determine the possible damage if the secrets in those documents were exposed. In a letter last year to Congress, Haines said the ODNI would lead a “classification review of relevant materials, including those recovered during the search.”
But lawmakers are still waiting on the details from that assessment, and they say they want access to the documents themselves as well.
Lawyers for Pence said this week that an apparently small number of papers were inadvertently boxed and transported to his Indiana home at the end of the Trump administration. That revelation came after Biden’s lawyers said they had discovered documents from his time as vice president in his Delaware home and his pre-presidential think-tank offices.
Special counsels are investigating the Trump and Biden episodes. In all three matters, the significance of the classified material and whether its mishandling breaches national security are not publicly known.
Warner said the Senate may try to find a way to put 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 putting new parameters about what is classified, reacting to concerns that some documents are kept secret when they don’t need to be.
“We’ve got a broken system,” Warner said. “And we got to fix this for all folks leaving government.”