WATCH | Acting US spy chief defends handling whistle-blower complaint

Acting US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire on Thursday defended his handling of a whistle-blower complaint against President Donald Trump.

In a rare public airing of internal deliberations, Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee that he delayed releasing the whistle-blower complaint to Congress due to executive privilege concerns because it involved a phone call between Trump and the newly elected president of Ukraine.

"We consulted with the White House counsel's office and we were advised much of the information the complaint was in fact subject to executive privilege - a privilege that I do not have the authority to wave. Because of that, we were unable to immediately share the details of the complaint with this committee," Maguire said.

The facts of the case are "unprecedented" and the matter was "handled in full compliance with the law," Maguire asserted.

Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence panel, said the whistle-blower complaint "lays out a scheme to use the leverage of the presidency, use the leverage of vital military assistance to a foreign nation to provide or obtain dirt on a political opponent."

The committee is beginning a full investigation of the complaint. "This whistle-blower has given us a road-map," Schiff said.

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics. 

190924224434789 "I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the president," Representative Devin Nunes said, warning Maguire in the hearing Democrats would seek to twist his words.

Maguire told Congress he consulted with the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel which advised that he was not legally required to forward the whistle-blower complaint to Congress because it was not an intelligence matter under the DNI's authority.

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is sworn in before testifying before the House Intelligence Committee [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

Maguire said he believed the whistle-blower acted in good faith and appropriately followed US law governing complaints of wrongdoing that involve classified, secret matters. He sought to assure Democrats he endeavoured to obtain release of the report amid competing legal interpretations. 

The intelligence whistle-blower complaint, filed internally on August 12, was released to Congress on Wednesday. A redacted version was released to the public just before Thursday's hearing.  190926161904801

"I have received information from multiple US government officials that the president of the United States issuing the power of his office to solicit interference from a foriegn country in the 2020 US election," the whistle-blower, whose idenity is unknown, said in the complaint.

"This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president's main domestic political rivals," the whistle-blower added in the nine-page complaint.

Among the actions outlined in the complaint was a summer phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked for help investigating Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner. The White House released a summary of the call on Wednesday.

'A cover-up'

The complaint shows Trump undermined US national security and tried to cover it up, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a news conference on Thursday.

"This is a cover-up," Pelosi said. 

190926161904801 Trump "betrayed his oath of office, our national security and the integrity" of US elections, Pelosi said.

The top Democrat announced on Tuesday the House was moving forward with a formal impeachment inquiry of Trump based on the allegations in the complaint.

Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, has attempted to assert sweeping claims of "executive privilege" to delay or block House investigations of his businesses, conduct in office and role in the DOJ Special Counsel probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The whistle-blower complaint had been referred to the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, a watchdog official who investigated the complaint by interviewing White House officials. Atkinson determined that the whistle-blower complaint was both credible and urgent.

At that point, Democrats say, US law governing whistle-blower complaints required Maguire to forward the IG's report within seven days to House and Senate intelligence committees. Instead it was delayed for weeks as Schiff battled with Maguire and the White House for its release.

Representative Mike Turner, a Republican, expressed disappointment in the president's conduct.

"I want to say to the president, `This is not okay,'" Turner said of Trump's call with Zelensky. "That conversation is not okay. And I think it is disappointing to the American public when they read this transcript." 

190510153644885 Maguire said the whistle-blower will be able to appear before congressional intelligence committees once the individual's lawyers have been given security clearances to handle the case. Schiff said the committee also plans a hearing with the Inspector General.

"I think the whistle-blower did the right thing. I think he followed the law every step of the way," Maguire said.

The whistle-blower complaint was also referred to the FBI for criminal investigation, Maguire said, although the agency did not open an inquiry, according to Schiff.

Maguire replaced former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on August 16 who left office after clashing with Trump in a series of policy disputes.

In the DNI role, Maguire regularly briefs the president on US intelligence and national security risks worldwide. His office oversees the vast US intelligence community including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other US spy agencies.

Maguire said had he known in advance this whistle-blower controversy would explode in his first six weeks in office, "I wouldn't have taken the job."

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