Senate Questions C.I.A. Watchdog Nominee Over Independence

WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday sharply questioned the Trump administration’s nominee to be the C.I.A.’s inspector general, amid concern that the White House’s purge of government watchdogs has threatened their ability to function independently.

In normal times, the nomination of a conservative white shoe lawyer to be the government watchdog for the nation’s top spy agency would be a dull, pro forma affair. But both the administration’s moves to oust various inspectors general and the partisan division over a C.I.A. officer’s whistle-blower complaint that led to President Trump’s impeachment loomed over the nomination of Peter M. Thomson to become the spy agency’s government watchdog.

The job has been open for more than five years, since David Buckley stepped down from the position near the end of the Obama administration. Mr. Trump’s first pick for the post languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In April, the Trump administration nominated Mr. Thomson, a lawyer from New Orleans who told lawmakers on Wednesday that he would not be bullied or succumb to any pressure, real or perceived.

“Independence, in my view, means the work of the inspector general must be performed in an unbiased or impartial manner, free of undue or inappropriate influences,” he said.

But his attempt to dodge questions about Mr. Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and his assertion that he did not have all the facts about the handling of the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine drew a sharp rebuke by Senator Angus King, independent of Maine.

“You are not helping yourself by obfuscating and avoiding these questions,” Mr. King said.

The whistle-blower could have gone to the C.I.A. inspector general’s office, even though the post was vacant, but chose instead to go to Michael K. Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general at the time. Mr. Atkinson, against the advice of the Justice Department, informed Congress about the complaint, touching off a fight between the House Intelligence Committee and the White House. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Atkinson in April.

Mr. King, who usually votes with the Democrats, chastised Mr. Thomson for not directly answering a question from Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, about whether the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint should have gone to Congress.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know all the facts,” Mr. King said. “We know the essential facts, you know what the complaint was. Should that have been forwarded to Congress? Yes or no?”

While Mr. Thomson again sidestepped the question, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, stepped in to say the complaint should not have been sent to Capitol Hill.

While Mr. Cotton took a strong stand against informing Congress, most committee members of both parties used their questions to get Mr. Thomson to pledge to inform Congress about intelligence investigations he was conducting.

Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who leads the committee, made Mr. Thomson promise he would inform the Senate of any “significant complaints” his office received.

“We will ask difficult and probing questions of you and your staff, and we will expect honest, complete and timely answers,” Mr. Rubio said.

Mr. Thomson’s confirmation, for now, appears likely. The Republicans who control the committee were supportive of his candidacy, and Mr. Rubio said he wanted to move quickly to a vote.

But the questions over the Trump administration’s treatment of government watchdogs remain.

In addition to firing Mr. Atkinson, the administration has removed the State Department inspector general and ousted the acting Pentagon inspector general who was overseeing coronavirus relief funds, leading to broad concerns about oversight of the executive branch. The administration has also over the past year fired a string of senior intelligence officials, adding to the concerns in the Senate, particularly among Democrats.

The independence of the Trump administration’s inspectors general “is under grave threat,” said Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who serves as the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

“We have seen the president attack without justification the brave women and men of the intelligence community, simply because they were doing what all Americans expected of them: telling truth to power,” Mr. Warner said. “This is because for this president, the truth is very often unwelcome.”

Mr. Thomson is a defense lawyer at the New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann. He spent much of his career as a federal prosecutor. While a serving as an assistant United States attorney, he was detailed, for a time, to the National Security Agency, where he provided legal advice related to signals intelligence.

Mr. Trump’s first choice for the post, Christopher R. Sharpley, quit as acting inspector general in 2018 after he did not get a vote in the Senate over his handling of whistle-blower complaints from former C.I.A. employees.

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