President-elect Joe Biden said Monday that perhaps it was less of a concern that he was not getting top secret intelligence as part of the stalled presidential transition because his vice president-elect is still on the Intelligence Committee.
“The good news here is my colleague is still on the Intelligence Committee, so she gets the intelligence briefings I don’t any more,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del., after a meeting with business executives and labor leaders focused on the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic response. “I am hopeful that the president will be mildly more enlightened before we get to January 20.”
Biden’s penchant for Senate-speak aside, his remarks point to the curious reality of the moment: Vice president-elect Kamala Harris may know more about emerging threats to America than the next commander-in-chief.
Harris, like her fellow California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, serves on the Intelligence Committee, a generally bipartisan panel that gets regular briefings and access to material that goes well beyond what an average senator receives.
A prolonged delay in the General Services Administration making the ascertainment that Biden is in fact the president-elect could have well-documented complications for the transition, as could President Donald Trump’s apparent refusal to give Biden access to top-level intelligence.
It could also make the case for more members of Congress, including those on House or Senate Intelligence committees, becoming part of the Biden administration.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, has already been floated as a contender to be director of national intelligence, a sweeping role leading the intelligence apparatus. Politico reported King’s name on Friday, and CQ Roll Call confirmed the possibility over the weekend.
The Maine senator has been active not only as a member of the Intelligence Committee, but on intelligence issues more broadly.
While he does not have personal experience in the intelligence community, he is regarded as an ally of the independence of the spy agencies.
He delivered the keynote address to the 2019 Intelligence Community Inspector General conference , and a source close to the senator told CQ Roll Call that the speech came after a personal invite from then-intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson to deliver the address. Atkinson, who transmitted to Congress a whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to the House impeaching the current president, was fired by Trump in April 2020.
King’s March 2019 speech to the ICIG conference focused on the “importance of integrity, independence and speaking truth to power,” according to a release from the IG’s office.
New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said it was a good sign that the transition is considering seasoned policymakers like King.
“That’s all I want out of any of this. I want pros who know how to govern and will answer the phone and will do their jobs,” Heinrich said.
As for the access to intelligence briefings, he said Biden’s long experience with the issues should be particularly beneficial given the nature of this transition.
“I think to the extent, the sooner that they can be read in, the better. However, he’s got such good exposure to most of these issues, even though he doesn’t have the latest intelligence,” Heinrich said. “I think his team and the president-elect have a very solid understanding of what challenges we face.”
‘More people may die’
While Harris and other lawmakers who may join her in the Biden administration may have access to intelligence products that could prove useful, that will not address the problem of the transition team not having access to departments and agencies, or to key parts of the current administration’s coronavirus response.
“More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” Biden said.
Monday’s announcement that Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine was 94.5-percent effective in clinical trials was good news, but the president-elect echoed experts who pointed to the distribution challenges for vaccines developed by both Moderna and Pfizer.
“How do we get over 300 million Americans vaccinated? What’s the game plan? It’s a huge, huge, huge undertaking to get it done, prioritize those in greatest need, and working our way through it and also cooperate with the World Health Organization and the rest of the world in dealing with this,” Biden said Monday.
Regarding that, Biden warned that his administration could start off behind the curve if officials are not able to get access to the details of the Trump administration’s development and distribution plans.
Doug Sword contributed to this report.