Top US Intelligence Official Ends In-Person Election Security Briefings for Congress

U.S. counterintelligence officials will no longer brief lawmakers on threats to the upcoming presidential election in November, telling them such in-person briefings have led to leaks of “sensitive intelligence” and the politicization of information.Officials with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) verbally informed key lawmakers and congressional committees of the change Saturday, saying the intelligence on threats to the November 3 presidential election would still be provided, just in a different form.”We are committed to meeting our statutory responsibilities and keeping Congress fully and currently informed,” an ODNI official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.”For clarity and to protect sensitive intelligence from unauthorized disclosures, we will primarily do that through written finished intelligence products,” the official said, adding, “We are concerned about unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information following recent briefings.”Notice sent to CongressLetters with additional justifications for the change were also sent to lawmakers Saturday from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.FILE – U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 5, 2020.”I believe this approach helps ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that the information ODNI provides the Congress in support of your oversight responsibilities on elections security, foreign malign influence and election interference is not misunderstood nor politicized,” Ratcliffe wrote, according to a copy of the letters obtained by VOA.”It will also better protect our sources and methods and most sensitive intelligence from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse,” Ratcliffe wrote.Ratcliffe’s letter did not provide any specific examples of what he considered to be harmful leaks, or misunderstood or politicized intelligence, as a result of previous in-person briefings. The change, coming just more than two months before U.S. voters head to the polls or face deadlines for submitting their ballots by mail, sparked immediate outrage from top Democrats in Congress, who accused ODNI of betraying its responsibility to lawmakers and the public at large.FILE – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 15, 2020.”This is a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility to keep the Congress currently informed, and a betrayal of the public’s right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in a FILE – U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY,  leaves after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 19, 2020.The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, also placed blame for the change on President Donald Trump and his administration, accusing them of trying to cover up his attempts to benefit from foreign interference.”Our intelligence officials have said there’s an active, ongoing assault on our democratic process from Russia,” Schumer said in a statement. “President Trump is simply using John Ratcliffe to hide the ugly truth from the American people — that the president is again receiving the help of the Kremlin.”FILE – Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina attends the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, Oct. 31, 2017.Earlier this month, Pelosi and Schiff again criticized the ODNI and NCSC’s Evanina, charging that an updated assessment of the threats posed by Russia, China and Iran to the November election understated the threat from Moscow.”Today’s [August 7] statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal,” they said at the time. The Democratic lawmakers pointed specifically to Evanina’s August 7 warning that while China and Iran would prefer to see Trump lose in November, Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President [Joe] Biden.””Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” Evanina added.For his part, Trump applauded the end of the in-person briefings for lawmakers.”You have leakers on the committee,” he told reporters Saturday, during a visit to Texas, where he was touring areas hit this week by Hurricane Laura.  “You have leakers on the committee,” responded @POTUS in #Texas when asked about the halt to the @ODNIgov briefings.— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) August 29, 2020Trump has repeatedly rejected any suggestions that Russia is trying to help his reelection bid.”I don’t care what anybody says,” he told reporters following the August 7 threat assessment statement. “The last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump because nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have, ever.” NEW: @POTUS reacts to US intel #Election2020 Threat warning “The last person #Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump bcs nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have, ever” he says— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) August 8, 2020Trump has also consistently rejected the conclusions of a 2017 report by the U.S. intelligence community that found Russia aspired to help him win the 2016 presidential elections as a “political witch hunt.” Praise from someDespite criticism from Democratic lawmakers, the decision to cancel in-person election security briefings for lawmakers is being met with praise from the president’s supporters, including former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.”Career intelligence officials came to me to say they didn’t want to brief the Hill [Congress] because the partial information leaks and manipulation of their words were detrimental to their careers,” he said on Twitter. “This is a very good reform.” Career intelligence officials came to me to say they didn’t want to brief the Hill because the partial information leaks and manipulation of their words were detrimental to their careers. This is a very good reform. https://t.co/oBOA2sXNPE— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) August 29, 2020As acting DNI, Grenell made the decision this past May to consolidate election security briefings under ODNI, making Evanina the point person for all “intelligence-based threat briefings to candidates, campaigns and political organizations.” NEW: @ODNIgov acting Dir @RichardGrenell announcing changes to way election-related threat information is shared w/candidates/campaigns/political organizations”The US Intelligence Community (IC) will lead all intelligence-based threat briefings” per statement pic.twitter.com/i9WZj0Jvjp— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) May 15, 2020But some former intelligence officials are expressing concerns on social media about the end of in-person briefings. They argue that while written intelligence reports can be helpful, briefings allow lawmakers to ask questions and get additional clarity – something that will no longer be possible.There are other questions, as well.For example, it is not clear how the decision to end in-person election security briefings for lawmakers will impact briefings for congressional candidates or if there will be any changes to the way ODNI briefs the campaigns for Trump and Democratic challenger Biden.ODNI officials did not respond to repeated questions on the matter from VOA.In the meantime, at least one Democrat suggested the top U.S. intelligence official should have to come before lawmakers to explain his actions.”This cannot stand,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said in a statement Saturday, accusing DNI Ratcliffe of “trying to keep the facts from Congress.””Congress can issue subpoenas and hold uncooperative officials in contempt,” Wyden said. “Congress must also ensure that patriotic whistleblowers who come forward with information the administration is trying to hide are protected.”White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman and congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.



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