White House advised DNI not to share whistleblower complaint

They said it's 'outside intelligence activities'

By Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Kevin Liptak and Manu Raju, CNN
Al Drago/Getty Images

(CNN) - The White House and the Justice Department have advised the nation's top intelligence agency that a controversial complaint involving President Donald Trump isn't governed by laws covering intelligence whistleblowers, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

The revelation is the first known evidence of the White House's involvement in the standoff between Congress and the intelligence agency. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said he didn't know whether the White House was involved.

So far, the director of national intelligence has not allowed lawmakers access to the complaint, which earlier a source familiar with the case said was prompted by communication Trump had with a foreign leader. Trump responded to the reports Thursday, tweeting he would never "say something inappropriate" on a phone call with a foreign counterpart.

The episode -- with its potential for explosive information about the President -- has created new resentments between the administration and Capitol Hill, and cast a sense of mystery about the precise nature of the complaint across Washington.

In a closed-door briefing Thursday, the intelligence inspector general suggested that the whistleblower had concerns about multiple actions, sources familiar with the briefing told CNN. The watchdog did not say specifically all the acts of concern involved the President, the sources indicated, with one saying the IG referenced "a sequence of events" and "alleged actions" that took place.

The White House Counsel's office and Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel have both been involved in discussing the complaint with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which has refused to reveal the nature of it to Congress.

In explaining their position, ODNI has suggested there is a question of privilege. The agency wrote in a letter to lawmakers on September 13 the complaint "involves confidential and potentially privileged communications by persons outside the Intelligence Community." The letter ends by noting the agency would work toward "protecting Executive Branch confidentiality interests."

The refusal to provide the information to lawmakers has enraged Democrats, who emerged from a closed-door briefing with the agency's watchdog on Thursday accusing the administration of suppressing potentially damaging information.

"There is an effort to prevent this information from getting to Congress," Schiff said.

The California Democrat and other lawmakers said neither the nature nor the specific details of the complaint were revealed during the closed session.

Previously, the White House has cited longstanding precedent in refusing congressional requests for documents related to Trump's meetings with foreign leaders, including his Russian counterpart.

"It is settled law that the Constitution entrusts the conduct of foreign relations exclusively to the Executive Branch, as it makes the President 'the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,' " White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to Democrats in May.

The complaint had spurred a standoff between Congress and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.

On Tuesday, the ODNI sent letters to Schiff and the House Intelligence Committee's top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California. The letters said not only that Maguire was refusing to provide the requested information -- as the complaint "does not meet the definition of 'urgent concern' " -- but also that he would not appear before the committee as scheduled because he "is not available on such short notice."

By Wednesday, Maguire had agreed to a public hearing next week and the agency's watchdog was answering lawmakers' questions behind closed doors on Thursday. But he was unwilling to share details of the controversial whistleblower complaint.

Instead, Inspector General Michael Atkinson told the committee that he is not allowed to provide details of the substance of the complaint because he was not authorized to do so, the sources said.

He discussed the process for his handling of the whistleblower's concerns.

In letters released by Schiff on Thursday, Atkinson wrote he had reached an "impasse" with Maguire over his decision to keep the information from Congress.

"I have requested authorization from the Acting DNI to disclose, at the very least, the general subject matter of the Complainant's allegations to the congressional intelligence committees," he wrote. "To date, however, I have not been authorized to disclose even that basic information to you."

But the inspector general insisted the matter was very relevant to those who have oversight of intelligence.

"The Complainant's disclosure not only falls within the DNI's jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI's responsibilities to the American people," Atkinson wrote.

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