Intelligence Nominee Urged to Stabilize Troubled Homeland Unit

  • Office criticized for failing to adequately warn about Jan. 6
  • Under secretary pick was Republican official, Trump critic

President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence arm pledged to refine the office’s work and keep politics out of the picture.

Senate Intelligence Committee members questioned nominee Kenneth Wainstein Wednesday about how he would strengthen the Office of Intelligence and Analysis after a series of Trump-era public missteps, including a failure to provide adequate warning of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

I&A plays a critical role in combating domestic extremism and other threats by identifying potential red flags via publicly available information and trading tips with state and local law enforcement. Wainstein, a former George W. Bush administration official, was the Justice Department’s first assistant attorney general for national security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I am clear-eyed, however, that those threats have multiplied in the years since and that the DHS of today faces an increasingly complex threat environment,” Wainstein told the Senate panel. He pledged to review I&A’s practices to avoid duplication with other parts of the intelligence community, bolster its workforce after years of poor morale, and focus on how I&A’s actions affect civil liberties and privacy.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Homeland security intelligence nominee Kenneth Wainstein, a former official in George W. Bush’s administration, testifies March 15, 2017, on Capitol Hill on threats to democracy that Russia and other countries pose.

Wainstein got a mostly positive reception from the committee, with signals of support from both sides of the aisle, but also fielded tough questions about surveillance, Chinese threats, and internal issues at DHS.

‘Backwater’ Intelligence Office Faces Test Under Biden Nominee

Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pressed Wainstein on one of I&A’s biggest scandals during the Trump administration: the distribution of intelligence reports on U.S. journalists writing about the 2020 protests in Portland, Ore.

Wainstein said he found those reports concerning and emphasized the importance of internal policies that limit DHS’s ability to collect and distribute information about U.S. citizens. He also committed to pushing for the release of more information from a general counsel review of the incident.

Wyden said he would have more written questions for Wainstein on the issue, as well as questions about the nominee’s views on U.S. surveillance practices.

China, Trump

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the top Republican on the panel, questioned Wainstein about legal work he once did for a Chinese oil company. Wainstein responded that the work was simply a few hours of white collar legal guidance done by one of his associates for a partner in his firm. But he added that he respected Rubio’s diligence on Chinese threats to national security and “should have thought more about it than I did that day.”

Wainstein later promised Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) that he wouldn’t do any work for China or state companies in future legal practice. Sasse said he was satisfied with Wainstein’s response and would support his nomination.

Wainstein is currently a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, and had previous stints in the FBI and the White House during the Bush administration. He was a vocal critic of President Donald Trump when he was in office but told Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that he spoke out because he believed the Justice Department was being politicized.

He pledged to resist any efforts to politicize I&A and said that commitment would also help address longstanding morale issues within the office.

“They want to know that they’re being valued for their work, for their contributions to national security, and not for whether their work butters the bread of one political party or the other,” he said.

Warner, the committee chair, said he aimed to move quickly on Wainstein’s nomination and expressed hope that Republican support would help streamline the process.

“The sooner you get into this job, the better for DHS, the better for I&A, the better for this country,” Warner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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