Warner's agenda for Senate Intel: Rebuilding agencies, not probing Trump

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Some Democrats may be eager to use their newfound power in Washington to investigate the misdeeds of the Trump era. But Mark Warner isn’t interested in performing an autopsy of the last four years in the U.S. intelligence community.

The Virginia Democrat and newly installed chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee doesn’t believe he would best serve the country by launching probes into the political pressure spy agencies faced under former President Donald Trump, who labeled elements within the intelligence community part of the “deep state” and clashed with them over issues like Russian election interference. Instead, Warner would rather focus on depoliticizing and rebuilding the clandestine organizations.

“I’ve thought about it, obviously,” Warner said when asked about the possible investigations during a nearly hour-long interview in his Senate office this week. But, he added, “I don’t know if that’s really the best use of the committee’s time.”

In particular, the government’s top spy agency — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — emerged “decimated” and “in shambles” from the last four years, he said. Trump frequently targeted the office, whose last two chiefs, Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe, had little experience in intelligence but were close allies of the former president.

Weeks before last year’s election, Ratcliffe declassified unverified Russian intelligence over the concerns of the CIA and National Security Agency in order to boost Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about the federal government’s efforts to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But Warner thinks this tense political moment provides an opportunity to realign the office — established after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and responsible for coordinating the 18 agencies that make up the nation’s spy community.

“It would be a good time to, to quote a common phrase, ‘Build Back Better,’” said Warner, noting bipartisan concerns that ODNI was becoming a bloated bureaucracy, with its analysts duplicating the work of other intelligence agencies like the CIA.

“Maybe [ODNI] shouldn’t be built back exactly the way it was three or four years ago, when it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger,” he mused.

Some Democrats, however, say it’s too soon to just look forward, arguing that it’s essential to hold Trump and his appointees accountable for abuses they committed during their years in power.

But members of the clandestine community are not in an uproar for a probe of the former president’s use of intelligence for his own political objectives, said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former national security lawyer with the Justice Department.

“People in my network are clamoring for ‘what the hell is going on with SolarWinds?’” she said, referring to the massive cyber campaign by suspected Russian hackers that may have compromised as many as 18,000 corporations, nonprofits and government agencies (although the actual number of entities targeted is believed to be far lower).

Cordero said a probe of that cyberattack would be “substantive,” while a probe of the Trump administration would damage the committee’s bipartisan reputation “right off the bat.”

Former Obama-era DHS cyber official Suzanne Spaulding said it made sense that the committee would shy away from a Trump-focused investigation given the amount of time and resources it devoted to studying Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race, which “inevitably” sapped oversight of the intelligence community. But, she suggested, someone may need to pursue such a probe — perhaps the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board or the ODNI’s inspector general.

“Assessing how intelligence may have been politicized, both in the executive branch and in Congress, will be important to developing ways to prevent it in the future,” she said.

Former Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats, who survived two and a half stormy years as Trump’s ODNI chief, has spoken with Warner about avoiding digging into the last four years.

“It’s moving forward. It’s not retribution … how do we pull it together in the interest of the nation?” said Coats, who had served alongside Warner on the Intelligence Committee. “We have to make sure that whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal, whatever, this has to rise above that, and be looked at in securing the nation’s national security.”

Recovering after the ‘constant assault’ on intelligence

Rebuilding ODNI is one of several issues that Warner, 66, plans to dive into in his new role leading oversight of the country’s national security apparatus. He said he has already discussed the issue with Avril Haines, President Joe Biden’s recently-confirmed spy chief.

His appointment comes at a time when the U.S. faces a growing number of threats, foreign and domestic, including the SolarWinds hack, global competition with China and a worrisome rise in domestic terrorism.

Warner, who served as the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat throughout Trump’s presidency, will also take on the added responsibility of helping the intelligence agencies recover from a period of intense politicization — what he called the “constant assault” from the White House and “political flunkies” like Grenell and Ratcliffe.

Warner credited the panel’s two most recent GOP chairs — Richard Burr of North Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — who “had to go to bat many times to protect the intel community from really some of the most outrageous stuff that hopefully will never come to light.” He did not elaborate.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said Warner, who joined the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2011, is well-suited to wield the panel’s gavel due to his experience on it. That includes bruising fights during the Trump administration to reauthorize powerful electronic surveillance tools and extend domestic spying programs, debates that were often upended via presidential tweets.

Republican members voiced confidence that Warner, a former telecommunications executive, would be able to maintain the committee’s conspicuous bipartisan nature during one of the most politically toxic periods in Washington’s history.

“In terms of the intel community and things of that nature, we share almost all the same priorities, for the most part,” said Rubio, the committee’s top Republican.

Rubio noted that he and Warner participated together in the committee’s 12-stop “roadshow” that aimed to warn the American business community about threats posed by China.

Rubio said he expected their working relationship to remain as it had been since May 2020, when he was tapped to be the committee’s acting chair. “The rules make it impossible to sort of take it in one direction without the cooperation of the other side,” said Rubio. “My personal view is that it’s the highest functioning committee in the Senate, maybe all of Congress.”

The Virginia Democrat jumped into his role this week, holding the first closed-door session of what will be a 30- to 45-day effort he’s dubbed “Intel 101” for all panel members.

The sessions, which may range from full hearings to voluntary discussions, will feature current and former intel leaders as well as outside experts, and examine critical issues like cybersecurity, signal intelligence and traditional espionage — including how to maintain undercover assets when it’s nearly impossible for people today not to leave digital footprints or “dust.”

“I remember being on this committee; it’s a little intimidating for a couple years,” Warner acknowledged. “I didn’t understand how all the pieces fit together.”

A focus on cyber and extremism

Now that he has the Intelligence gavel, Warner said, he plans to place special emphasis on issues such as cybersecurity, which has only gained immediacy after the SolarWinds hack.

Several Senate committees — including Finance, Judiciary, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs — have petitioned for more information about how the sweeping SolarWinds espionage campaign affected their jurisdictions.

While Homeland Security would seem the natural fit to lead an inquiry — the panel’s leaders have vowed to craft “comprehensive” cybersecurity legislation in the aftermath of the incursion — Warner suggested Intel could ultimately helm a probe.

Homeland Security “is not going to have visibility into what the Russians are doing,” Warner said, making his case for why Intelligence would likely take the lead investigatory role. “On cyber we’ve got as much claim” as other panels, especially because the attack was launched by a foreign intelligence enterprise.

He said that in addition to a briefing about the incident from representatives from the NSA, the FBI, CISA and ODNI, the panel held an informal session with FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia, whose company originally discovered the compromise.

“This was not just an American attack, there were so many other countries that were attacked,” Warner said.

Another priority is an examination of the growth of “anti-government extremists,” not only in the U.S. but around the globe in places like Poland, France and Hungary and how Moscow is amplifying their views. Stateside, Warner specifically cited the “conspiracy theorists” at QAnon, a fringe movement that pushes the idea that Democrats are a satanic cult of child traffickers.

“That’s not normal behavior when you’ve got something that seems so disconnected from reality and has suddenly morphed into an organization that, not single-digit millions, but potentially double-digit millions, believe it?” he said. “Well, that’s a threat to democracy.”

In her confirmation hearing last month, Haines committed to working with the FBI and DHS to produce a public threat assessment on the dangers of QAnon.

Warner speculated that the Intelligence panel would play a supporting role in whatever joint investigation will be launched into last month’s deadly attack on the Capitol, which could eventually feature the Homeland Security, Rules, and Judiciary committees.

Warner said he wants to continue the Intel panel’s work on misinformation and disinformation, especially on social media platforms, as well as its ongoing efforts to better assess Beijing’s capabilities in emerging tech areas like artificial intelligence and 5G.

He also expressed interest in providing better protections for whistleblowers and ways of boosting morale among intelligence workers.

Warner vowed to “do much more than just a normal Intel authorization bill” to put “better guardrails in place, so that we can prevent this administration or future administrations from politicizing intel products.”

In preparation for being named chair, Warner reached out current and former officials, like Coats, as well his former No. 2, Sue Gordon, to drum up ideas about how to bolster an intelligence community wearied from Trump’s attacks.

One initial proposal is for bipartisan delegations to visit the clandestine agencies once the Covid-19 pandemic has reached manageable levels to “show the flag” and participate in town hall events with career analysts and officials.

Warner said the appearances would the message: “‘Hey, we got your back. You should never feel the kind of pressure you felt under the last crowd.’”

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