WASHINGTON (AP) — The rancorous standoff between Congress and the Trump administration over a whistleblower's complaint hinges on a 20-year-old law designed to protect those in the intelligence community who want to raise concerns about things they've seen or heard.
The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, won't turn a whistleblower's complaint over to Congress, and Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, says that's violating the law. The agency's inspector general, Michael Atkinson, notified Congress that the complaint existed but says he and Maguire have reached an "impasse" over whether to turn it over.
House Democrats say they believe the complaint involves President Donald Trump , and suggest Maguire may be withholding it to protect the president. Reports say the allegations appear to center on Ukraine and a private conversation with a foreign leader. Atkinson has said the complaint is credible and an "urgent concern."
A look at the law and the controversy surrounding it:
WHAT IS THE LAW?
The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 was designed to protect people who want to report wrongdoing. It empowers a person in the intelligence community "who intends to report to Congress a complaint or information with respect to an urgent concern" to go to an inspector general with the complaint.
The inspector general is required to report "credible" complaints to the head of their agency — in this case, Maguire, the director of national intelligence — within 14 days. The agency head is then, in turn, required to submit the complaint to Congress within a week.
"The whole point of the whistleblower statute is not only to encourage those to report problems, abuses, violations of laws, but also to have a legal mechanism to do so and not to disclose classified information, because there is no other remedy," Schiff said on Thursday after his panel received a briefing from Atkinson.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THIS CASE?
On Aug. 12, Atkinson received a complaint that he determined to be both credible and an "urgent concern." Two weeks later he forwarded it to Maguire, as the law required. Maguire's office took the unusual move of consulting the Department of Justice on the matter, and then determined it was not an "urgent concern" because it related to someone outside of the intelligence community and did not fall within "the responsibility and authority" of the director of national intelligence.
Atkinson then wrote the House and Senate intelligence committees on Sept. 9 to inform them of the situation — igniting a furor among House Democrats who suspected that the complaint might have something to do with Trump.
The inspector general told Schiff in a letter that he disagreed that the complaint was not an urgent concern. He said it not only falls under DNI's jurisdiction, "but relates to one of the most significant and important of DNI's responsibilities to the American people."
Atkinson briefed members of the House committee on Thursday, but did not give them details about the substance of the complaint.
Schiff subpoenaed Maguire for the complaint on Sept. 13. Maguire still hasn't provided it, but agreed to testify in public on Sept. 26.
WHY DO DEMOCRATS THINK THIS INVOLVES THE PRESIDENT?
Democrats noted two things about letters they received from a counsel to Maguire — that the Justice Department had been consulted, a highly unusual move, and that the information "involves confidential and potentially privileged communications by persons outside the intelligence community."
The word "privileged" seems to point to the president, who has the power to claim executive privilege over certain matters to protect the confidentiality of Oval Office decision making.
Reports then emerged — first in The Washington Post — that the complaint was related to a conversation between Trump and a foreign leader. Some of the whistleblower's allegations appear to center on Ukraine.
Democrats were already looking into into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president's reelection effort by investigating the activities of potential rival Joe Biden's son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump said Friday the complaint was "just another political hack job" and insisted any phone call he made with a head of state was "perfectly fine and respectful."
IS THIS UNUSUAL?
Democrats say they are in uncharted waters as they battle an administration that has constantly challenged institutional norms.
Atkinson said in his Sept. 9 letter to Schiff that in the past, intelligence directors have allowed such complaints to be forwarded to Congress even when they weren't determined to be an urgent concern.
"That past practice permitted complainants in the intelligence community to contact the congressional intelligence committees directly, in an authorized and protected manner," he wrote.
In addition to his House hearing, Maguire will also talk to the Senate intelligence committee next week, though the details of that session are unclear. It will likely be closed to the public.
Atkinson will also talk to the Senate panel, which is led by Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Schiff has threatened to sue the administration over the complaint. He said Friday that the matter "deserves a thorough investigation" and that "come hell or high water, that's what we're going to do."
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro and Alan Fram contributed to this report.