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Trump fires intelligence community watchdog who handled complaint that led to impeachment

President Trump has fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, according to a letter from Mr. Trump obtained by CBS News. Atkinson handled the complaint from a whistleblower that led to Mr. Trump's impeachment.

The letter from Mr. Trump was sent to Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It said Mr. Trump is "exercising my power as president" to remove Atkinson. 

"It is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Federal programs and activities," the letter said. But, the letter continued, it is "vital" that Mr. Trump have the "fullest confidence" in the Inspector General, and "that is no longer the case."

The statute that created Atkinson's position says Trump must notify Congress no later than thirty days before removing him from office. But a source familiar with the matter told CBS News that Atkinson was placed on immediate administrative leave.

Mr. Trump called Atkinson a "disgrace" on Saturday, claiming that the whistleblower report which kicked off the impeachment inquiry was "fake."

"I thought he did a terrible job," Mr. Trump told reporters. He added that he has the "absolute right" to remove Atkinson, who was a Trump appointee.

The new acting inspector general will be Thomas Monheim, a career intelligence official who was most recently General Counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Atkinson was rumored to have been among the officials targeted by the White House for removal after the impeachment proceedings concluded in February, though Mr. Trump had discussed ousting Atkinson as early as last fall, soon after revelations about the whistleblower report filed with the ICIG's office first emerged.   

In a statement, Warner, a Democrat, called it "unconscionable" that Mr. Trump would fire Atkinson "in the midst of a national emergency."  

"The work of the intelligence community has never been about loyalty to a single individual; it's about keeping us all safe from those who wish to do our country harm," Warner said. "We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation's intelligence agencies."

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Atkinson's "professionalism" and expressed hope that his replacement would remain neutral.

"Like any political appointee, the Inspector General serves at the behest of the Executive. However, in order to be effective, the IG must be allowed to conduct his or her work independent of internal or external pressure. It is my hope the next nominee for the role of ICIG will uphold the same important standards laid out by Congress when we created this role," Burr said.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a strong advocate for whistleblower protections, said that more information was needed about Atkinson's removal.

"Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence. More details are needed from the administration," Grassley said.

Congressman Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair, called the firing "yet another blatant attempt by the President to gut the independence of the Intelligence Community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing. At a time when our country is dealing with a national emergency and needs people in the Intelligence Community to speak truth to power, the President's dead of night decision puts our country and national security at even greater risk."

Atkinson was involved in the early stages of what eventually became the impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump. On August 12, 2019, a whistleblower filed a complaint about an interaction between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

According to the transcript of the call that was later released, the whistleblower said "I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals."

Federal law stipulates that the inspector general must investigate any report of an "urgent concern" by an employee of the intelligence community and determine whether it "appears credible" within two weeks. If it is, the inspector general must then report it to the director of national intelligence, whose office is responsible for overseeing the nation's 17 intelligence agencies.

Atkinson concluded that the complaint was credible enough to be considered an "urgent concern," and on August 26, he sent a letter to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who left that position in February. In September, Atkinson wrote a letter to the House Intelligence Committee that revealed Maguire decided not to forward the complaint to Congress.

Atkinson's removal is the latest in a series of ousters at the top of the intelligence community ranks, most of which have been concentrated within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In February, Maguire was replaced by the current acting director, Richard Grenell, who serves concurrently as Ambassador to Germany. Maguire's then-second in command, career CIA official Andrew Hallman, was also removed. 

Mr. Trump then re-nominated Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas, who previously withdrew his candidacy amid scrutiny of his national security credentials, to the permanent DNI position — though it is unclear when a confirmation process may begin.  

Earlier this month, Grenell also announced the removal of the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), career intelligence official Russ Travers, as well as his deputy. Mr. Trump nominated Christopher Miller, a former Army Special Forces officer, to replace Travers. The NCTC's top two positions have since been filled on an acting basis by two other career officials, pending Miller's confirmation. 

Kathryn Watson contributed to this report. 

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