AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A normally obscure government position - the intelligence community inspector general - is in the middle of an intensifying standoff between the administration and Congress. The battle centers on a whistleblower complaint that details multiple actions, including a promise President Trump made to a foreign leader. That's according to reporting from The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Now, the president took to Twitter today to deny any impropriety. Now Congress wants to know more about the complaint, but the acting director of national intelligence has refused to share it. To talk more about this, we're joined by a former inspector general for the NSA. Joel Brenner served in that post during the George W. Bush administration.
Welcome to the program.
JOEL BRENNER: Glad to be here.
CORNISH: So to set the stage for this, the Democrat at the head of the House Intelligence Committee says that Joseph Maguire - now, he's the acting director of national intelligence - says that he's been instructed by a higher authority to not turn over the complaint. In your view, is that valid?
BRENNER: Well, under the statute, it is not. But the question then becomes, what is the proper role of the IG? And is the IG simply a free agent within the executive branch of the government, responsible to no one? - which would be a strange situation.
So what I'm telling you, Audie, is that this issue, if pushed to the limit - which it looks like it's going to be - raises the question of whether the - there's a separation of powers issue here. The IG has to be something other than a free agent. He was put in place under a statute designed to assist the Congress in its oversight role, but he's not a congressional employee. He's not a congressional - he's not a legislative employee.
CORNISH: But he is a watchdog, no? And should that...
BRENNER: He's a watchdog.
CORNISH: ...Come into play here?
BRENNER: Yeah, but - of course it comes into play. That's what the IG is supposed to do. And under this statute, the acting director of national intelligence has an absolute duty not to exercise discretion, but simply to pass this information on to the intelligence committees. And he's not doing it.
So if - under the statute, there's a clear violation. What the Justice Department is presumably saying when they tell him not to do it could be one of - one or both of two things. One is, this is privileged information. I - when we don't - can't evaluate that without knowing what it is. And the other is, well, the IG is just way out of his remit. He's beyond - he's acting beyond his powers. And they'd get...
CORNISH: So how would you advise Congress to act next?
BRENNER: Oh, with Congress - if it wants to do that, there's a couple of options. You can try to litigate this, which I think will - the courts will not want to get involved in it - whether Congress can impeach the acting director. The president's not the only person subject to impeachment. Any federal officer can be impeached. What the Congress is saying is, we don't like the way this man's behaving. He's not doing what the statute says. And their remedy is quite limited, but the Constitution tell you - you don't - tells the Congress, you don't like it? Impeach the man.
CORNISH: Now, there's another question here, which is that this is a president who's repeatedly mischaracterized or even rebuked the work of the intelligence community. What do you think this situation does to that relationship?
BRENNER: Oh, it's already, you know, in the gutter. And this began before the president was even elected. The - it's very difficult for people whose integrity and mission are undercut, under frequent attack from the White House to continue to do their work. This is a degradation of an important relationship. There's no question about that.
What we've got here in this episode is as political as you can get. And I don't know that the courts are going to resolve it, Audie, because it really involves the limit of the executive power and the function of the IG. You - remember, IGs are something new in the civilian part of the government after Watergate. And they were - they are independent - substantially independent watchdogs, but they're not complete free agents because we have, you know, separation of powers in our government. And so this issue brings up this quite arcane and difficult structural issue.
CORNISH: This is Joel Brenner. He served as inspector general for the National Security Agency.
Thanks so much.
BRENNER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.