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 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 Congress
Letters with additional justifications for the change were also sent to lawmakers Saturday from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
“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.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested without evidence late Saturday the blame lay with the House Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Congressman Adam Schiff.
"Probably Shifty Schiff, but others also, LEAK information to the Fake News,” Trump tweeted. "these deranged lowlifes like the Russia, Russia, Russia narrative. Plays better for them. @DNI_Ratcliffe doing a great job!"
Schiff responded on Twitter, saying, “As usual, President Trump is lying and projecting. … Trump doesn’t want the American people to know about Russia’s efforts to aid his re-election.”
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.
“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,” Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
“This is shameful and – coming only weeks before the election – demonstrates that the Trump administration is engaged in a politicized effort to withhold election-related information from Congress and the American people at the precise moment that greater transparency and accountability is required,” their statement said.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, also placed blame for the change on 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.”
Democratic lawmakers, ODNI
Tensions between Democratic lawmakers and ODNI, which oversees all intelligence-based threat briefings, have been simmering for months.
Late last month, top Democrats slammed as insufficient a statement by William Evanina, the director of ODNI’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, for his public assessment of how Russia, China and Iran were seeking to compromise political campaigns and candidates and about the danger to U.S. election infrastructure.
“The statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries," the Democrats’ statement said. “The Russians are once again trying to influence the election and divide Americans, and these efforts must be deterred, disrupted and exposed."
Earlier this month, Pelosi and Schiff again criticized the ODNI and Evanina, charging that an updated assessment of the threats posed by Russia, China and Iran to the November election understated the threat from Moscow, despite serious allegations against the Kremlin.
“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,” Trump’s Democratic opponent in the November elections.
“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” Evanina added.
However, Republican Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the behavior of Democratic lawmakers in response to briefings, such as those from Evanina, has been unacceptable.
“His reward was to be smeared in vile and personal terms in a letter signed by Democratic leaders of Congress,” Rubio said in a statement issued late Saturday.
“This situation we now face is due, in no small part, to the willingness of some to commit federal crimes for the purpose of advancing their electoral aims,” he said.
"I have spoken to the Director Radcliffe, who stated unequivocally, that he will continue to fulfill these obligations. In particular, he made explicitly clear that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will continue receiving briefings on all oversight topics, including election matters,” Rubio’s statement said. It is unclear if the briefings will be in-person or a written report.
In contrast, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, called Ratcliffe’s action “outrageous” and “an unprecedented attempt to politicize an issue – protecting our democracy from foreign intervention – that should be non-partisan.”
Trump - Russia
While many Democrats have often pointed to warnings regarding suspected attempts by Russia to aid Trump, the president 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.”
Trump 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."
Questions and concerns
Some former intelligence officials are also expressing concerns 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 – a sentiment echoed by Senate Intelligence Committee member Angus King of Maine.
“I have never been at a congressional hearing where members’ questions failed to elicit important information not contained in prefiled written testimony,” King said in a statement. “This includes our recent hearing with the director [Ratcliffe] on this very subject.”
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 affect briefings for congressional candidates or if there will be any changes to the way ODNI briefs the Trump and Biden campaigns.
ODNI officials did not respond to repeated questions on that matter from VOA.
White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman and congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this story.