It’s not every day that the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Intelligence Agency, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence all testify to Congress in an open setting.
An Oct. 27 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing was one of those rare occasions. But instead of focusing on any of the myriad national security issues facing the United States, the hearing was meant to discuss “diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the Intelligence Community.”
This didn’t sit well with some legislators, including Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who accused the government agencies of being “increasingly focused on issues that distract it from [its] mission.”
“The indications ranging from trivial recruitment videos to major intelligence estimates show an infatuation with left-wing dogma and politized actions that have nothing to do with deterring our enemies and winning wars,” Nunes said. “Unfortunately, we can’t counter hypersonic missile launches with better pronoun usage. A deeper understanding of white rage won’t rescue Americans stranded in Afghanistan.”
Other lawmakers disagreed. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said having intelligence officers with a diversity of backgrounds is crucial for national security.
“Our diversity is our greatest national strength. And it is a strength we need to leverage in support of the mission of the Intelligence Community [IC],” Schiff said.
“[I] can’t help but notice that the large majority of IC briefers—though excellent—to appear before the committee are often white and male.”
The intelligence officials at the hearing agreed with Schiff.
“We can’t be effective and we are not being true to our nation’s ideals if everyone looks like me, talks like me, or thinks like me,” CIA Director William Burns said.
Though the hearing was ostensibly about diversity, some Democrats and most Republicans strayed into other topics.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) called for the committee to investigate the origins of COVID-19—to which Schiff said he’d consider it—while Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) questioned the intelligence officials about the botched Aug. 29 drone strike that killed innocent Afghan civilians.
Turner asked the officials whether any of them were involved in reviewing the intelligence or advising the Defense Department on protocols during the time that the military was planning or conducting the drone strike. All of the agency directors—as well as Ronald Moultrie, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security—said they weren’t involved with the drone strike, nor were their direct subordinates.
Nunes directed most of his questions toward NSA Director Paul Nakasone about the ousting of the agency’s former top lawyer, Michael Ellis, who was appointed during the final days of the Trump administration.
Ellis’s appointment prompted an outcry from Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Nakasone placed Ellis on administrative leave on the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration—a day after Ellis had received his security clearance. This, in turn, led to allegations that Nakasone’s decision was politically motivated.
A Defense Department inspector general (IG) released a report last week about the incident, concluding that neither the appointment of Ellis nor his placement on administrative leave was politically motivated.
The IG’s conclusions didn’t stop Nunes from questioning Nakasone about whether he spoke to anyone in the Biden administration about Ellis. Nakasone said he hadn’t done so.
Nunes also cited emails within the IG report in which other officials questioned Nakasone’s motives for opposing Ellis becoming the new NSA general counsel.
The emails included a series of exchanges between Nakasone and then-Defense Department General Counsel Paul Ney on Jan. 15. Ney told Nakasone that his concerns about Ellis have “no basis in fact” while some of his concern “appears to be inappropriately injecting partisan politics into this merit system process.”
Nunes asked Nakasone whether he’d make this complete email exchange public, and Nakasone said he would do so.