Struggle Between N.S.A. and Congress Over Ukraine Records Breaks Into Open

Struggle Between N.S.A. and Congress Over Ukraine Records Breaks Into Open

A long-simmering conflict between the National Security Agency and the House Intelligence Committee broke into the open on Sunday when the committee’s chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff, accused the agency of withholding critical intelligence from his panel, including some that might be useful in the impeachment trial of President Trump.

Since last fall, the committee has been quietly seeking documents and intercepts that the National Security Agency gathered in Ukraine. But Mr. Schiff, a California Democrat and former prosecutor who is one of the managers of the impeachment trial, took the fight public, saying that “the intelligence community is beginning to withhold documents from Congress on the issue of Ukraine.”

“The N.S.A. in particular is withholding what are potentially relevant documents to our oversight responsibilities on Ukraine, but also withholding documents potentially relevant that the senators might want to see during the trial,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “That is deeply concerning. And there are signs that the C.I.A. may be on the same tragic course.”

Administration officials disputed Mr. Schiff’s accusations, saying the intelligence agencies were nonpartisan and were providing information to their congressional overseers. But a statement they issued avoided mentioning specifics.

“The intelligence community is committed to providing Congress with the information and intelligence it needs to carry out its critical oversight role,” Amanda J. Schoch, the assistant director of national intelligence for strategic communications, said in the statement. It “is working in good faith” with the committee, she continued, to respond “to requests on a broad range of topics and will continue to do so.”

A committee official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Schiff was angered because the National Security Agency was reneging on an earlier agreement on what documents would be produced. But administration officials said the document production was simply going slowly, and had not been blocked.

Disputes between intelligence agencies and oversight committees are not unusual. The agencies are frequently reluctant to share direct intercepts of conversations or to allow their individual officers or analysts to provide information directly to the committees. Instead, they prefer to turn over analytical reports that have been reviewed by agency leadership. The committees often press for more raw forms of intelligence.

Mr. Schiff and the agency had appeared to reach an accord several months ago about what kind of intelligence about Ukraine it was prepared to share with the committee. Since then, the committee had kept its struggle to obtain American intelligence on Ukraine largely behind closed doors under the secrecy rules that guide its oversight of what, by some measures, is the largest and most powerful of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.

Mr. Schiff did not specify what documents were in dispute. But even before Ukraine became a central battleground with its ground war and cyberwar with Russia, the agency had made Ukraine “one of the central points of focus in superpower competition,” a senior intelligence official said several months ago.

By law, the agency could not intercept Mr. Trump’s conversations with President Volodymyr Zelensky, or his predecessor Petro O. Poroshenko. And it would require special court approval to intercept conversations involving Americans communicating with Ukraine, including the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his key aides.

But the National Security Agency would be free to record Ukrainian officials, including Mr. Zelensky, talking among themselves about those conversations, and those intercepts could reveal how much they knew, and when, about Mr. Trump’s demand to withhold aid from Ukraine in its fight against Russian incursions, and the conditions it would have to meet to get it turned back on.

For intelligence officials who have often found themselves on the receiving end of Mr. Trump’s wrath, charged with disloyalty or told by Mr. Trump they had to “go back to school” because he did not like their assessments of North Korea and Iran, there is nothing more politically delicate than what they collected in Ukraine.

The director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, was appointed to his post two years ago by Mr. Trump after a long and storied military career at the forefront of American cyberoperations. Until now, he has largely stayed out of the line of fire — and has never been mentioned on the president’s Twitter feed — while he has built an aggressive cyberability, much of it directed at President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Trump did not interfere as Mr. Nakasone, during the 2018 midterm elections, ordered a shutdown of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll factory that conducted much of the social media campaign that aided Mr. Trump in the last presidential election. Nor did the president get in the way of the implanting of software in the Russian electric power grid.

But the dispute with the committee over Ukraine, and the impeachment proceedings, places General Nakasone, 56, directly in the cross-hairs of the White House.

No matter what his agency’s intelligence assessments or raw intercepts may or may not reveal about how Ukrainian officials reacted to Mr. Trump’s demands for an investigation into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., or into a discredited theory that Ukraine was responsible for a cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, the president could consider any cooperation with Mr. Schiff highly suspect.

The degree of sensitivity was evident this week in reports, first broadcast on CNN, that all of the nation’s intelligence chiefs were trying to avoid public testimony about the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” Last year the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, angered Mr. Trump by contradicting his public statements on Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State. He and other intelligence chiefs were summoned to the White House the next day for a public dressing-down.

Intelligence officials say they fear a public hearing this year could be worse: General Nakasone and the director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel, would undoubtedly be asked for their assessment of whether the cutoff of aid to Ukraine would have benefited Mr. Putin and advantaged Russia as it seeks to undermine the Ukrainian government. (They would most likely also be asked about evidence that North Korea has sped forward with its nuclear and missile programs in the 19 months since Mr. Trump first met Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Singapore.)

Mr. Schiff confirmed on Sunday that intelligence agencies had sought to avoid a public hearing, preferring instead to simply offer their written assessment of global threats. “The intelligence community is reluctant to have an open hearing,” he said, “something that we had done every year prior to the Trump administration, because they’re worried about angering the president.”

“We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power, but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress,” Mr. Schiff continued, “because the administration fears that they incriminate them.”


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