Chuck Grassley

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley recently placed a fresh hold on William Evanina, who has been nominated twice. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

cybersecurity

The dispute has kept William Evanina from officially assuming a counterintelligence post for more than a year.

Sen. Chuck Grassley is accusing the Trump administration of stonewalling him over a request for documents related to the Russia investigation, and he’s taking it out on the president’s nominee for a critical U.S. intelligence post.

The Iowa Republican’s demand for Justice Department documents on its probe of possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow has left William Evanina’s nomination to head the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in limbo for the past year, frustrating the nation’s top intelligence leaders and even some fellow Senate Republicans.

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Specifically, Grassley is asking for documents that he says House committees have received in their Russia probes, including those related to DOJ official Bruce Ohr, who became a conduit between former British spy Christopher Steele and the FBI. The senator recently placed a fresh hold on Evanina, who has been nominated twice and received overwhelming bipartisan support to head the agency that oversees government counterintelligence efforts.

“The administration’s continued, ongoing, and blatant lack of cooperation has forced my hand,” Grassley said in a statement in the Congressional Record, placing most of the blame on Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Coats, a former Senate Republican colleague, is “covering for the Justice Department, and there’s something embarrassing in it all they don’t want us to know about,” Grassley, who no longer chairs the Judiciary Committee, told POLITICO.

In a statement, Coats said he was “deeply troubled” by Grassley’s accusation that the intelligence community is trying to withhold information from Congress.

“That is simply not true,” he added, explaining that “consistent with longstanding practice” the clandestine community and DOJ have provided the information Grassley wants to Capitol Hill “through congressional leadership and the intelligence oversight committees.”

Grassley’s refusal to allow Evanina to be confirmed threatens to inflame tensions between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress at a time when national security leaders are warning that China and Russia are not only stepping up espionage efforts but likely preparing significant operations to influence the 2020 election. Evanina is a former FBI agent who was appointed to the NCSC directorship in 2014 and has been serving in an acting capacity.

“The difficulty with getting [Evanina] up doesn’t have anything to do with his ability or the importance of the job,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told POLITICO, noting that lawmakers emphasized the importance of the role by making it Senate confirmable.

Grassley “ought to stand down and let this nomination go through,” said the North Carolina Republican, adding that intelligence officials he’s spoken to are “very frustrated” over the block.

The latest hold has indeed heightened worries within the clandestine community and on Capitol Hill that Evanina — whose nomination was endorsed earlier this month by the GOP-friendly Chamber of Commerce — will eventually opt to leave for the private sector, where he could make several times his current government salary.

“I know, in the private sector, he could do much, much better,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Intelligence Committee’s vice chair.

He called Evanina a “career professional” who often participates in the panel’s ongoing “road show” to warn the American business community about the various threats posed by Beijing.

Outside of financial considerations, there’s growing concern over the message that a stalled confirmation will send to other potential intelligence nominees or career professionals in the national security apparatus. It could also signal to adversaries abroad that spy agencies aren’t fully equipped to counter foreign espionage operations, say experts.

“You simply don’t have the same throw weight, either internally or the interagency or otherwise, in an acting role as you do in a permanent role,” said David Kris, a former chief of DOJ’s National Security Division.

Meanwhile, foreign intelligence services aiming to carry out digital attacks and espionage or election interference “couldn’t be happier” to witness the tumult around the post, said Kris, who co-founded Culper Partners consulting firm after leaving the government.

“It is helpful to the adversary if our counterintelligence folks” are seen to be “hobbled or less effective,” he said. “This can only be good for undermining the effectiveness of American counterintelligence.”

Evanina’s office declined to comment for this story.

However, he has kept a busy public schedule the past few weeks, conducting briefings in Philadelphia, Miami and South Carolina for the private sector, as well as academia and research communities, about specific counterintelligence and security threats.

Burr said that if Grassley’s latest hold persists he hopes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will decide to challenge it by holding a roll-call vote to confirm Evanina, like he did near the end of the 115th Congress with Joseph Maguire, Trump’s pick to lead U.S. counterterrorism efforts, who had been prevented from receiving a floor vote by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

But with the focus on confirming the president’s judicial nominees, it’s unclear when that might be.

“We’re susceptible to somebody serving in an acting capacity that’s offered something else and decides to go chase that dream,” Burr admitted. “I hope that’s not going to happen in Bill Evanina’s future.”

For his part, Grassley showed no sign of letting up.

“If I’m going to do congressional oversight I’ve got to use every tool I can, because the public’s business ought to be public,” he told POLITICO.

“Ask Coats if he’s concerned about this guy moving on,” Grassley said. “If he is, then give me the information. If he’s not concerned about it, then we’ll continue the hold.”

In his statement, Coats retorted that Grassley “preventing the administration from filling a critical national security position with a nominee who has bipartisan support over a jurisdictional dispute in the Senate ill-serves our shared mission to keep the American people safe.”

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