Officials Who Cast Doubt on Hunter Biden Laptop Face Questions
When James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, testifies on Wednesday behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, he will be the sixth former intelligence official to be hauled before Congress as part of what has become an intense focus of House Republicans: a public letter sent during the height of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Republicans have seized on the document, signed by 51 former intelligence officials whom the G.O.P. has taken to calling the “spies who lie,” as a prime piece of evidence for their claims that officials inside the federal government have tried to smear and damage conservatives. They argue that the missive was written at the behest of President Biden’s allies to distract from salacious material found on the abandoned laptop of his son Hunter Biden, and that it ultimately helped the elder Mr. Biden defeat former President Donald J. Trump.
In the letter, reported at the time by Politico, former intelligence officials holding impressive national security credentials wrote that they believed that the contents of the laptop — full of evidence of drug use, prostitution and foreign business deals — could be part of a Russian campaign aimed at influencing the election, though they emphasized that they had no knowledge that was true.
Three days later, Mr. Biden cited the letter during a presidential debate to rebut Mr. Trump’s criticisms, asserting that “there are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan.”
Three years later, no concrete evidence has emerged to confirm the assertion that the laptop contained Russian disinformation, and portions of its contents have been verified as authentic.
Republicans now say they have uncovered evidence that the letter was part of a Biden campaign operation. According to closed-door testimony and emails, Biden campaign officials, including Antony J. Blinken, now the secretary of state, played a role in the creation of the letter. They also said a C.I.A. employee “may have” been involved in soliciting at least one signature for it.
“The public statement by 51 former intelligence officials was a political operation to help elect Vice President Biden in the 2020 presidential election,” an interim report released last week by the Republican-led House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees concluded. The report cited an email that said the letter was intended to create a “talking point to use.”
The report concluded: “The American people deserve to know that Hunter Biden’s laptop and emails were real. They always were real. The allegations that they were the product of Russian disinformation were false.”
The investigation into the signers of the letter comes as Republicans are digging into multiple aspects of the Hunter Biden story: Why social media companies suppressed it; whether his father was involved in any of his business deals; and whether anyone in government interfered with any inquiries into the younger Mr. Biden, who is currently under federal investigation.
As Justice Department officials weigh the matter, the investigator overseeing the Internal Revenue Service’s portion of the case has also come forward with allegations of political favoritism in the inquiry. On Monday, a lawyer for that investigator sent a short letter to Congress that said the investigator and the rest of his team were being removed from the inquiry, which is reaching its end as officials weigh whether to pursue charges. A spokesman for the president said he was committed to the Justice Department’s independence “free from any political interference by the White House.”
Democrats argue that the Republicans are wasting time and resources investigating the 51 former intelligence officials, who were private citizens at the time of the letter and wanted Mr. Biden to be victorious in the campaign. The former intelligence officials stress that their letter stated that they had no evidence of a Russian disinformation campaign, and that they were merely stating an opinion.
Several said they did not regret their actions.
“The Congress is wasting its time and our money by investigating the First Amendment rights of private citizens,” Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents seven signers of the letter, said in an interview.
Democrats also argue that the letter must be understood in its proper context. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani — whose credibility had become shaky — had been shopping around the contents of the laptop to different news media outlets, not long after a top Trump intelligence official warned that Russia was seeking to “primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden” and that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy.”
The Democrats also note that Facebook and Twitter decided to censor or limit the sharing of a New York Post article about the laptop’s contents five days before the letter’s publication in Politico.
In a statement submitted to Congress on behalf of Michael J. Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., Mr. Morell said he “organized and helped draft” the statement “because of his honest and well-founded belief that Russia was involved in some way in the emergence of the Hunter Biden emails for the purpose of interfering in the 2020 presidential election.”
“The public statement was careful not to claim that the New York Post story was disinformation or that the information it reported was untrue, and Mr. Morell was careful to confirm his suspicions with public source information and the views of multiple experts in the field,” the statement said.
But Republicans are hoping to escalate the inquiry and have scheduled at least two more transcribed interviews. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also suggested in an interview that he would be investigating whether any of the signers had retained their security clearances and whether Congress could pass legislation to revoke them.
“The 51 people who signed that now-famous letter, my guess is they probably all had their security clearances?” he said. “Does that make sense?”