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Special counsels

Washington — The Department of Justice is working to brief lawmakers on potential risks to national security after the discovery of classified documents at the homes of both former President Donald Trump and President Biden, a department official told senators in a letter Saturday.

The letter by Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte, which CBS News obtained from a Capitol Hill source, was transmitted to the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Saturday night and came in response to previous requests from the panel’s top two members for information about the documents.

“We are working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to support the provision of information that will satisfy the Committee’s responsibilities without harming the ongoing Special Counsel investigations,” Uriarte wrote in a letter to Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the committee.

The letter revealed that the Justice Department attempted to brief lawmakers last September. It also acknowledged “significant developments” since then, including the appointment of two special counsels to oversee separate investigations into the documents found at Trump’s Florida estate and Mr. Biden’s Delaware home.

“Although one of the Special Counsels was appointed only on January 12, prosecutors on both matters are actively working to enable sharing information with the Committee,” Uriarte wrote.

It remains unclear why department officials did not brief lawmakers last fall. 

In a separate comment to CBS News, a Justice Department spokesperson said: “The Department is committed to sharing as much information as we can with Congress without endangering the integrity of our ongoing investigations. That has been the Department’s longstanding policy, and we will continue to apply that policy equally.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland in November appointed special counsel Jack Smith to take over the probe into Trump’s handling of documents bearing classification markings discovered at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

In response to inquiries from CBS News, the White House confirmed earlier this month that documents marked classified dating back to Mr. Biden’s vice presidency were discovered at his former office at a think tank in Washington on Nov. 2. Additional records with classification markings have since been found at the president’s Wilmington, Delaware, home. Garland earlier this month named a second special counsel, Robert Hur, to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the documents found in Mr. Biden’s possession.

Saturday’s letter was also sent to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and ranking member Lindsey Graham, a Republican. Uriarte leads the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs.

In the wake of the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago, there have been bicameral requests for information about the potential national security risks posed by the documents retrieved by federal investigators. The government has recovered more than 300 documents bearing classification markings from Trump since the end of his presidency.

Lawmakers have sought similar information regarding the roughly 25 to 30 records found at Mr. Biden’s former office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and his Wilmington house. Some of the documents date back to his time in the Senate and others to his vice presidency.

The Senate Intelligence Committee met last week with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, but Warner and Rubio said the meeting left them unsatisfied as they have been unable to see the records found in Mr. Biden’s and Trump’s homes.

“Our job is not to figure out if somebody mishandled those. Our job is to make sure there’s not an intelligence compromise,” Warner told “Face the Nation” in an interview taped last Thursday. “And while the director of national intelligence had been willing to brief us earlier, now that you’ve got the special counsel, the notion that we’re going to be left in limbo and we can’t do our job — that just cannot stand.”

Rubio told “Face the Nation” it’s an “untenable situation” for the Intelligence Committee to be denied access to the records because of the special counsels’ investigations.

Uriarte wrote in the letter to Warner and Rubio that the department “looks forward to continuing to engage with the Committee to meet its needs while protecting the Department’s interests.”

“The Department’s longstanding policy is to maintain the confidentiality of information regarding open matters,” he wrote. “The Committee’s interest in overseeing the nation’s intelligence activities must be carefully balanced to protect the conduct and integrity of law enforcement investigations.”

Uriarte added that the Justice Department’s policy protects the interests of the American people and “effective administration of justice.”

“Disclosing non-public information about ongoing investigations could violate statutory requirements or court orders, reveal road maps of our investigations, and interfere with the Department’s ability to gather facts, interview witnesses, and bring criminal prosecutions where warranted,” he said. “Maintaining confidentiality also safeguards the legal rights, personal safety, and privacy interests of individuals implicated by, or who assist in, our investigations.”

GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the new House Intelligence Committee chairman, told “Face the Nation” in December that a briefing and damage assessment by the director of national intelligence were “in process,” but said last week that he had not heard from the intelligence community since formally requesting a briefing earlier in January. Turner gave the director a deadline of Jan. 26 to comply.

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