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U.S. Intelligence Chief Maguire To Face Congress On Ukraine Affair

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here is a quick sum up of the week in Washington so far. On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into the president. It concerns a phone call he made to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Yesterday, the White House released a reconstructed transcript of that call. In it, President Trump asks Zelenskiy to do him a favor - investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

President Trump said yesterday that that phone call was no big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: We had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things. And I - so I think - and you read it - that nobody push it - pushed me. Yes.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In other words, no pressure.

KING: The public has not seen the whistleblower complaint that set all of this off, but some members of Congress have. And today, the director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, will appear before a congressional panel. Now, Democrats have criticized Maguire for blocking the whistleblower's complaint from Congress in the first place.

With me now is Larry Pfeiffer. He's a former senior director of the White House situation room. And he's also held positions in the CIA, NSA and in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Good morning, sir.

LARRY PFEIFFER: Good morning. How are you doing?

KING: Good. Thanks. So what should we expect to learn from Mr. Maguire's testimony today?

PFEIFFER: Well, I guess I would caution the American people to prepare to be a bit underwhelmed. I think we're going to hear a lot about process. We're going to hear a lot about law. We're going to hear a lot about decision-making, about how they handled the complaint. I don't think we'll hear a lot about the complaint itself today. You may also hear the DNI refer questions to a closed session...

KING: Oh.

PFEIFFER: ...Out of caution of classified material. And I think it'll be a bad day if we hear a lot about executive privilege or unable to discuss, you know, privileged communications with the White House, for example.

KING: What could Maguire say in a closed committee hearing that he wouldn't be able to say in the open session?

PFEIFFER: Well, if there's references to classified information surrounding this Ukraine activity, he might be able to address those in a closed session that he couldn't discuss in open.

KING: OK. So there are some things that we members of the public just won't know about.

PFEIFFER: At least not at this point. Once the Congress hears about it, there may then be requests by Congress to declassify the material if they feel it's of greater public interest than protecting it.

KING: OK. What could Mr. Maguire say that would either help or hurt the Trump administration as this impeachment inquiry moves forward?

PFEIFFER: My guess is that Admiral Maguire is going to do everything he can to avoid appearing to help (laughter) or hurt them.

KING: OK. OK.

PFEIFFER: He's going to try to navigate a path between the two. I have a great sympathy for the gentleman. He's found himself, you know, really stuck between a rock and a hard place. He's a patriotic American. And he clearly - through some of the statements he's made in the last 24 to 36 hours - he's determined to show that his goal is to protect and defend the Constitution and I think protect and defend the people of the intel community. So I think we're more likely to see that kind of discussion.

KING: Members of Congress are certainly going to ask Maguire why he didn't send that whistleblower complaint to the relevant congressional committees. Based on your understanding, was he required to do that?

PFEIFFER: So that's a very interesting question. I'm a little bit - again, a little bit sympathetic to the position he was in. I served as chief of staff at the CIA under General Hayden. And one of the quandaries we found ourselves in was that we had - the director has a statutory general counsel - you know, nominated by the president, approved by the Senate - who is to serve as that central legal authority at CIA. And almost all the lawyers at CIA work for that general counsel with one exception.

The IG is also authorized by law to have his own lawyer who is independent of that general counsel's office. There are times, as we know here in Washington - you know, you could - how many lawyers can dance on the end of a pin, we end up with - we end up too frequently with the statutory general counsel of the agency having one interpretation of the law and the inspector general's lawyer having another. And I think that Maguire found himself in that situation as well.

And his recourse was to have his lawyer go to the great oracle of all things law in any administration, which is the Office of Legal Counsel, the Department of Justice, who then came up with the opinion that he was not required to pass it to Congress because it was either not of urgent concern or not regarding intelligence activity.

Then we now have a whole other set of lawyers who are arguing that the law does not call for the Department of Justice to play a role in this. I guess I would offer that the law doesn't rule them out, either. So I think that's where the DNI finds himself in a tough spot again.

KING: Larry Pfeiffer is a former senior director of the White House situation room, also held positions in the CIA, NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Thanks so much for your time.

PFEIFFER: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.