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WASHINGTON — The House impeachment hearings might be getting all the attention these days, but across the Capitol, the Senate has been quietly interviewing witnesses as part of its own inquiry.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has in recent weeks interviewed several people as it looks into the handling of the whistleblower complaint at the center of the first impeachment inquiry in more than two decades, committee leadership told BuzzFeed News.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, said Tuesday that the panel has been “interviewing people that might be tied to” the complaint. Burr declined to reveal exactly how many people the committee has already questioned behind closed doors, but a spokesperson for Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee vice chair, said it was “multiple individuals involved in the handling of the complaint.”
The August whistleblower complaint accused the president of abusing his power by pressuring the Ukrainians to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. The identity of the whistleblower — an employee within the intelligence community — is protected by law. Despite that, some Republicans have threatened to reveal the person’s identity.
Burr has expressed frustration that committee staff have been unable to interview the whistleblower, whose attorneys have conveyed concerns about their client’s safety. They have offered to have the whistleblower answer questions in writing, but Burr said “that was rejected.”
Burr also warned that the committee could force the whistleblower to be questioned in-person.
“We’ve got a track record of protecting whistleblowers, witnesses,” Burr said. “We’ve offered to meet him anywhere, anytime. Clearly, this is not somebody that wants to meet, and before this is over, they will be compelled in some way, shape, or form to meet with us.”
Asked if that meant by issuing a subpoena, Burr said: “I won’t list the things, but this is not going to drop.”
Lawyers for the whistleblower fired back at Burr on Wednesday, telling BuzzFeed News that there "is no legitimate reason why" they couldn't give written answers to the committee's questions. They also argued that the committee's inquiry, which is focused on the whistleblower process, is "by no means time sensitive," and that given the safety concerns, "it would be absolutely inappropriate" for them to allow their client to appear in-person.
"If Senator Burr was truly interested in protecting national security whistleblowers, he would stop with the rhetoric in threatening to take steps that could jeopardize our client's life," attorneys Andrew Bakaj and Mark Zaid said in a statement. "Pushing for any action that could possibly expose the identity of the whistleblower only raises questions as to the true intent of the Chairman's efforts.
"We have spent years protecting whistleblowers and working cooperatively with this specific Committee, but we are disappointed with Senator Burr's position, especially given his personal track record of doing the right thing in the past," the lawyers added.
A spokesperson for Warner said it “would be premature to speculate” about issuing a subpoena, and that "any path forward would have to be determined by the entire Committee, keeping in mind the safety concerns that have been raised."
In September, the committee spoke with two key figures surrounding the complaint — the watchdog for US spy agencies and the acting director of national intelligence — following questions about how it was handled. At the time, Burr pledged to seek more information about the complaint, while Warner emphasized the importance of protecting whistleblowers from reprisal.
“One of the most important things that came out of today though was maintaining the integrity of the whistleblower process,” Warner told reporters. “If there are current gaps in some of the legislation, we’ll look at that as well.”
Since then, Burr told ABC News that the committee was speaking with officials from the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as part of the inquiry.
The handling of the whistleblower’s concerns became the subject of intense scrutiny in early September, when Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson told Congress that the complaint was being withheld from the relevant committees. The hangup was due largely to a disagreement between Atkinson and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, about whether the complaint met the legal threshold for those that should be sent to Congress.
Eventually, the committees received the whistleblower complaint, and Atkinson and Maguire testified before lawmakers. In a public hearing, Maguire defended his handling of the complaint, which involved consulting with the White House — despite the complaint being about the president — by noting the “unprecedented” nature of the situation.
Afterward, Burr told reporters his committee would “be extremely busy” in the weeks ahead as it sought answers to questions raised by the testimony.
This story has been updated with comment from the whistleblower's lawyers.