GOP congressman warned of Russian threat as he advocates for Ukraine aid

WASHINGTON — House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner and House Speaker Mike Johnson have been concerned “for weeks” about the national security threat posed by the possibility of a Russian nuclear-powered space asset designed to target American satellites, several sources told NBC News.

The two had written a letter to the White House requesting a meeting with President Joe Biden on the matter, Johnson revealed Wednesday.

But Turner, R-Ohio, surprised Johnson, R-La., much of Capitol Hill and even his counterparts on the Senate Intelligence Committee by making his concerns public in a cryptic statement Wednesday morning.

The decision to warn Americans of “a serious national security threat” without further details, while allowing all members of the House to review material related to the matter, was highly unusual and it left many in Washington wondering why he’d take such an unconventional step. On Thursday, Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., asked Johnson to order an “inquiry” into Turner’s statement, saying it was done “with a reckless disregard of the implications and consequences said information would have on geopolitics, domestic and foreign markets, or the well-being and psyche of the American people.”

Multiple sources told NBC News that Turner put out that statement to light a fire under colleagues in Congress and the White House to pass additional aid for Ukraine and renew a key foreign surveillance program, two major issues for the Intelligence Committee chairman that are currently facing significant obstacles in the House.

A Republican congressional aide said Turner is concerned and angry at the uncertainty over the fate of proposed aid to Ukraine, as well as delays to the planned renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a critical U.S. spying power that Turner has advocated aggressively for.

Although he has long had a keen interest in how adversaries are pursuing space weapons, Turner issued the statement on Wednesday to try to remind his fellow Republicans about the serious threat that Russia poses, the aide said.

“He is really frustrated with the speaker over Ukraine, and this was a way to shift attention to the threat posed by Russia,” the aide said.

Johnson has yet to say how he will handle a $95 billion national security bill that passed the Senate and includes funding for Ukraine, amid growing GOP opposition to passing aid for the country as it fights to counter Russian aggression almost two years after the war started. And late Wednesday, Johnson pulled legislation that would have reauthorized Section 702, which faces opposition from some conservatives and progressive Democrats alike, who say the bill does not address their concerns about Americans’ privacy.

In a new statement, Turner said his rationale for raising the issue publicly was to pressure the administration to declassify the material to benefit American allies. He said he “worked in consultation with the Biden Administration to notify Congress” of the threat, adding that the language in the notification he put out on Wednesday had been cleared by the administration. The House Intelligence Committee voted 23-1 to make the information available to members, he said.

Turner’s move was likely related to putting pressure on the administration to pay greater attention to the national security threat, an issue he was spun up about, according to one congressional source directly involved in the matter. Two additional sources believe that Turner’s efforts could also play into a lack of consensus and urgency in Congress about sending money to Ukraine, telling NBC News that the issues addressed by the Ukraine aid bill were “not unrelated but not directly tied” to the national security threat posed by a Russian military capability in space.

Turner’s Democratic counterpart on the House Intelligence panel, Rep. Jim Himes, of Connecticut, told NBC News that he had told Turner he believed the threat should not be made public, advice that Turner did not heed in releasing his public statement Wednesday.

Unlike Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, D-Va., and Vice Chair Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who were caught off guard by Turner’s statement, Himes was generally aware that the statement was coming, a source added.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, was on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon to brief the so-called Gang of Four — Johnson, Turner, Himes and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. — on the national security threat in a previously planned meeting. The threat is related to a Russian nuclear-powered space asset that could be weaponized, as opposed to a nuclear bomb that Russia is trying to send up in space, according to a U.S. official and congressional official familiar with the intelligence.

Russia has not fielded such an asset, but officials said the country is making strides that are worrisome.

Following the meeting, Turner referred to it as “a Russian anti-satellite weapon” and said that “we all came away with a very strong impression that the administration is taking this very seriously and that the administration has a plan in place. … I’ve got great faith in what the administration is currently doing to address this matter.”

Johnson and Himes echoed Turner’s praise for the meeting. “There are steady hands at the wheel,” Johnson said.

Senate leaders are likely to receive their own briefing, but the chamber is away from Washington on recess.

Sullivan also met with members of Congress on Wednesday as part of a previously scheduled briefing on the need to reauthorize Section 702.

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