The Republican chairs of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday asking for information related to the crafting of a public letter signed weeks before the 2020 presidential election by dozens of former intelligence officials, who said they saw signs the Hunter Biden laptop story could be Russian disinformation.
In October 2020, 51 former intelligence officials signed on to a public letter that stated that the appearance of the Hunter Biden laptop story on the political scene had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” Though the former officials acknowledged in their public letter that they did “not have evidence of Russian involvement,” Republicans have argued that the letter helped discredit the laptop story just before the election. s
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner wrote to Blinken, who was out of government and an adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign at the time the intelligence letter was written, that their panels had “recently conducted a transcribed interview with Michael Morell,” a former deputy director for the CIA and one of the former intelligence officials who signed the public letter.
The committee chairs write: “Morell testified that on or around October 17, 2020, you [Blinken] reached out to him to discuss the Hunter Biden laptop story. At the time you served as a senior advisor to the Biden campaign. According to Morell, although your outreach was couched as simply gathering Morell’s reaction to the [New York] Post story, it set in motion the events that led to the issuance of the public statement.”
Morell testified before the committees that he had a phone call with Blinken about the Hunter Biden laptop story in the New York Post, and they discussed possible Russian involvement in the spreading of information related to Hunter Biden, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Jordan and Turner wrote that Blinken’s call with Morell “set in motion” events that led to the letter, but Blinken never tasked Morell with writing such a letter, he told the committee, the source said.
Democrats on the committee also pushed back on Republicans’ statements about Morell’s interview.
“Jim Jordan has released cherry-picked excerpts of a transcribed interview,” a Democratic Judiciary committee spokesman said in a statement. “To be clear, no part of that interview demonstrates that Tony Blinken or any other Biden campaign official asked Mike Morell to write a letter about Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
Democrats on the panel released a different portion of Morell’s transcript in an attempt to discredit House Judiciary Republicans’ claims.
Asked if Blinken directed him to write a letter or statement on this topic, the transcript reads that Morell responded, “my memory is that he did not, right. My memory is that he asked what I thought.”
Following the conversation with Blinken, Morell had conversations with other former intelligence community officials, which is what led to the letter, the source said. He then circled back to the Biden campaign to let them know that the letter efforts were underway, the source said.
Before the letter was even published, social media companies were already moving to limit sharing of the story and Trump administration officials had said – in multiple places – that Russia was interfering in the election to denigrate Biden, the source pointed out.
Jordan and Turner are requesting that Blinken hand over documents and communications regarding the drafting of the public letter from the former intelligence officials by May 4.
Morell declined to comment on the matter.
Asked about the letter from the GOP lawmakers, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said, “It is not a State Department issue.”
“I don’t really have a comment on this from the State Department,” he said at a daily press briefing Friday.
In a tweet responding to the GOP letter, White House spokesman for oversight and investigations Ian Sams said, “Think about this: instead of working with President Biden on solutions to real problems Americans care about – like lowering costs or tackling gun violence – House Republicans keep weaponizing their power to re-litigate the 2020 election in a wacky strategy to get on Fox News.”
The letter to Blinken states that “Morell also explained that the Biden campaign helped to strategize about the public release of the statement” and that “Morell further explained that one of his two goals in releasing the statement was to help then-Vice President Biden in the debate and to assist him in winning the election.”
Once the letter was in motion, the campaign did ask for it to be shared with The Washington Post first, Morell explained to the committee, according to the source.
Another signatory of the letter who testified before the committees told CNN that they did not know about any role that Blinken had played with regard to the letter. The person described the letter drafting effort as one conducted by private citizens in support of the former vice president.
Other signatories made similar remarks in their testimony to the committees.
“The only person who signed the letter and was known to be in contact with the Biden campaign was Michael Morell. It is true that when the draft was sent out to people to sign, the cover email made clear that it was an effort to help the Biden campaign. The overwhelming majority of people who signed the letter were apolitical career intelligence officials whose intent was to make it known that the Russians appeared to be using this issue, among many others, to influence the 2020 US election,” said attorney Mark Zaid, who is representing more than half a dozen signatories of the letter.
During questioning, the committees asked if the signatories had violated any secrecy agreement or contacted current members of the intelligence community. The person who testified, and spoke with CNN, explained that there was no connection to the current intelligence community and that the letter was based on professional experience designed to warn the American people about what the Russians might be up to. The letter was reviewed by the CIA publication review board, which is required for the public writings of all former intelligence officials.
Jordan and Turner acknowledged in their letter to Blinken that the signatories on the letter “have an unquestioned right to free speech and free association – which we do not dispute” but added that “their reference to their national security credentials lent weight to the story and suggested access to specialized information unavailable to other Americans.”
“None of the content was based on classified information and it was submitted for CIA prepublication review, as required by their authors’ secrecy agreements, to ensure the document did not contain classified information. They don’t weigh in on the accuracy or content of the letter,” Zaid said, which he emphasized was made clear to the committees.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Arlette Saenz and Mary Kay Mallonee contributed to this report.