House Intel chair faces backlash over Russia intel warning

Other lawmakers on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as intelligence officials in the Biden administration, were caught off guard by Turner’s remarks, many of them angered that he so publicly and vaguely issued a warning that could worry the public.

John Kirby, President Joe Biden’s top national security spokesperson, confirmed on Thursday the threat related to an antisatellite capability that Russia is developing, but added it is “not an active capability that’s been deployed.”

“You’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth,” Kirby said.

The cryptic public statement has raised questions about Turner’s motivations, including whether he was trying to underscore the importance of Congress passing additional Ukraine aid or reauthorizing the controversial surveillance tool. It has also confused lawmakers and policymakers about the extent to which Russia’s attempts to develop new capabilities in space immediately threaten Americans and whether the U.S. is able to defend against any future offensive device launched into orbit by Moscow.

Turner on Thursday defended his warning, saying his committee had “worked in consultation with the Biden Administration to notify Congress of this national security threat.”

“In addition, language in the bipartisan notification issued by the chair and ranking member to all members of the House was cleared by the Administration prior to its release,” he added in a statement. “The House Intelligence Committee voted 23 to 1 to make this information available to members of Congress. White House officials confirmed that, in their view, the matter was ‘serious.’”

Still, such a public statement is extremely rare from the head of a congressional intelligence committee.

Kirby said Thursday that “the intelligence community has serious concerns about a broad declassification of this intelligence.”

“If there’s a presumption here, that somehow the administration gave a green light for this information to get public yesterday, that is false. That is not true. That did not happen. We were eventually going to get to a point where we were going to be able to share it with the American people, and we still will.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan also said Wednesday during a White House briefing he was “a bit surprised” by Turner’s statement, but added: “That’s his choice to do that.”

The new intelligence, which was shared with Congress over the last several months, indicates that Russia is moving closer to developing an antisatellite weapon involving nuclear technology for use in space — one that would have the ability to destroy American satellites, including those used by the military. But Moscow is still far from completing the project, according to two people familiar with the intelligence. Both were granted anonymity to discuss classified information.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) criticized Turner’s choice, calling it a “highly, highly risky move.”

A senior intelligence official echoed Ogles’ belief that Turner could have been trying to raise awareness about the importance of passing legislation on the foreign surveillance power, known as Section 702, which is up for reauthorization. One of the people familiar with the intelligence said at least some of the information was gathered using 702.

Section 702 has faced backlash because it also sweeps in data from Americans. Turner opposes proposed changes that would require extra legal hurdles for using the authority, arguing it would slow down vital national security work.

Other staff and lawmakers on Capitol Hill surmised that Turner was trying to underscore the need for Congress to pass the foreign aid supplemental bill, which includes $60 billion for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.

Whatever the intentions behind the statement, some lawmakers are angry about how the head of the House Intelligence Committee handled the disclosure, one of the people familiar said. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn), the top Democrat on the committee, had been made aware of the fact that Turner was going to publish the release and advised against it, a congressional aide said.

Sullivan was scheduled to brief the House Intelligence Committee before Turner’s statement. He is still expected to appear for the briefing on Thursday afternoon.