Report

Trump Ally Nunes Seeks to Derail Key Bill Funding Intelligence Community

The spy agencies will still get money, but Trump’s House allies are trying to hobble much-needed reforms.

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes during the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on Dec. 9, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are running out of time to pass the annual intelligence bill authorizing billions of dollars for the country’s spy agencies thanks to objections by Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the president’s most loyal allies in Congress.

The Intelligence Authorization Act outlines how the country’s 17 intelligence agencies can spend federal funds, helps shape the priorities for the coming year, and gives lawmakers the opportunity to make certain oversight requests of the country’s spy chiefs. This bill also would provide additional protections for inspectors general and whistleblowers—the source, ultimately, of outgoing President Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation.

Intelligence agencies will still receive funding through the appropriations process even if the bill doesn’t pass. But without an authorization bill, the intelligence community is limited in its ability to stand up new programs and make significant changes in direction.

“It prohibits the agency from being nimble, from being adaptable, because they can’t start doing something new and they can’t stop doing something pointless,” said Kel McClanahan, the executive director of the law firm National Security Counselors.

If the bill isn’t passed, it also deprives lawmakers of the opportunity to tweak oversight of the intelligence community. “It’s the best vehicle Congress has to amend the laws dealing with intelligence community or intelligence community oversight,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project.

Public portions of the bill—some bits are classified—include requirements for the intelligence community to report annually on the national security threats posed by emerging infectious diseases, and it calls for lawmakers to be notified before any parts of the intelligence community are deployed to support responses to civil unrest within the United States. 

If passed, the legislation would also withhold funding for the U.S. intelligence agencies to engage with their Saudi counterparts until the community produces an unclassified report into the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hand of Saudi operatives. 

The bill was passed along partisan lines by the House Intelligence Committee in July and was approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by a resounding 14-1 bipartisan vote. As in previous years, lawmakers hoped to attach the legislation to the annual defense spending bill. 

But to include an already chunky bill like the Intelligence Authorization Act in the blockbuster 4,500-page defense budget, congressional leaders look for unanimous support from top Democrats and Republicans on both committees. As the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes has been able to single-handedly stall the bill.

Nunes’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

The National Defense Authorization Act was passed by the House on Tuesday. Trump has threatened to veto the 2021 spending bill over unrelated issues such as a provision calling for military bases honoring Confederate generals to be renamed.

In the minority views section of the report that accompanied the House Intelligence Committee bill, Nunes offered a caustic rebuke of parts of the bill, describing the legislation as “geared toward achieving purely political outcomes,” and suggested certain provisions were “only included in this bill as a continuation of the Majority’s hyper-partisan impeachment of President Trump.” 

Among the provisions of the bill that Nunes objected to were ones that sought to strengthen oversight mechanisms that have been strained during the Trump administration by ensuring that the president is only able to fire the inspector general of the intelligence community for cause, and by adding further protections for whistleblowers. 

“They were very good reforms that would have corrected a lot of the problems shown in the Ukraine whistleblower case,” said McCullough, referring to the whistleblower complaint filed by a CIA analyst that triggered Trump’s impeachment.

Congressional aides said they were hopeful that the bill could be passed by the end of the session, saying there was broad, bipartisan agreement.

“We shouldn’t punt this to next year when an agreement is within reach and potential vehicles are available,” said a Democratic aide speaking on background.

Asked about the status of the bill on Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was “unfortunate” the bill was not attached to the National Defense Authorization Act. “We’re still trying to see if we get it as part of the omni[bus] at the end of year … there’s nothing I can do to mediate those disputes on the other side.”

Nunes’s current obstruction could have consequences. If the bill is not passed by the end of this Congress on Jan. 3, 2021, it may well fall by the wayside as a new Congress tries to grapple with unaddressed emergencies.

“They’re going to have more pressing things, they’re going to want to do things like confirmations, hearings about COVID, they’re going to want to do everything under the sun except go and reargue something that they already argued about before,” McClanahan said.

If the bill fails, it wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have been unable to pass an intelligence authorization act. Years went by in the 2000s without one, and authorization for the past three years were passed in a bundle as part of the 2020 defense spending bill. Now, though, the delay comes as the intelligence community faces a rapidly changing security landscape. 

“So something has to either light a fire under [lawmakers] or blow up, sometimes literally, in order to break that cycle,” McClanahan said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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