The federal office that oversees U.S. intelligence agencies informed Congress that it would no longer provide in-person briefings about security threats to the 2020 presidential election, suggesting that it was worried about lawmakers leaking sensitive classified materials.
The move has further inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and Capitol Hill over congressional access to top officials, and concerns the White House may be playing down possible challenges to the integrity of the November vote. One Democratic senator urged his colleagues to issue a subpoena to intelligence officials demanding they appear before the intelligence committee, and to hold them in contempt if they don’t comply.
The change comes just over two months before the November presidential contest between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, which senior intelligence officials have repeatedly said remains vulnerable to foreign interference operations after Russia’s cyber-enabled attacks on the 2016 election.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will still provide updates in writing to the congressional intelligence committees, officials said. But the change is a departure from precedent. Lawmakers and their staff members typically prefer live briefings from the agencies they oversee, so they are able to ask follow-up questions and press administration officials on issues they deem important.
“We are committed to meeting our statutory responsibilities and keeping Congress fully and currently informed,” an ODNI official said Saturday in a statement. “For clarity and to protect sensitive intelligence from unauthorized disclosures, we will primarily do that through written finished intelligence products.” The official added that the office was “concerned about unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information following recent briefings,” but didn’t specify which disclosures or briefings.
Former Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe is the current director of national intelligence, a post he has held since May.
News of the change in protocol was earlier reported by CNN.
Other agencies responsible for aspects of protecting elections from foreign interference, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, plan to continue providing regular briefings to the Senate and House intelligence committees in person, officials said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, criticized the development in a joint statement as “a shocking abdication of (the intelligence office’s) 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.”
They added: “This intelligence belongs to the American people, not the agencies which are its custodian. And the American people have both the right and the need to know that another nation, Russia, is trying to help decide who their president should be.”
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, raised the idea of issuing subpoenas to intelligence officials. “Russia is once again interfering in our elections to get Donald Trump elected and, rather than defend American democracy, Trump and his partisan intelligence leadership are trying to keep the facts from Congress,” he said.
During a briefing in Texas on Hurricane Laura, Mr. Trump was asked about the change in election security briefings.
“Whether it was Shifty Schiff or somebody else, they leak the information before it gets in, and what’s even worse they leak the wrong information,” the president said, in reference to Mr. Schiff, who led impeachment proceedings against him. “You have leakers on the committee. Obviously leakers that are doing bad things.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting Republican chairman of the Senate panel, offered support for Mr. Ratcliffe’s decision late Saturday, saying it was the result of “the willingness of some to commit federal crimes for the purpose of advancing their electoral aims.” Mr. Rubio didn’t specify which purported leaks he was referring to, but added that he had spoken to Mr. Ratcliffe and secured a commitment that legal obligations to respond to congressional oversight requests would still be fulfilled.
The move came just days after a senior intelligence official told reporters during a press briefing that intelligence agencies hadn’t seen evidence that foreign powers are attempting to sabotage voting by mail in the presidential election, disputing an assertion made by Mr. Trump and some of his allies. A historically large number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in the coming general election amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Senior officials have repeatedly warned that foreign powers are intent on disrupting the 2020 election, and told reporters this week that such operations were often unpredictable. Earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence community said in a statement it found that Russia has undertaken a broad effort to damage Mr. Biden’s bid for the presidency.
Democrats and some officials have warned the effort could evolve into a repeat of Moscow’s 2016 operations, when, according to the U.S. intelligence community, Russia interfered in the presidential election by hacking and leaking Democratic emails and conducting influence efforts on social media to boost Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Russia has denied interfering.
China and Iran have developed an interest in undermining Mr. Trump, the intelligence statement said, though in terms described as less extensive or covert than Russia’s activity. China and Iran have denied interfering in U.S. elections.
Democrats have repeatedly accused the administration of attempting to politicize intelligence about election threats by limiting the flow of information to Congress and minimizing the threat that Russia poses because of Moscow’s preference for Mr. Trump.
The White House has said Mr. Trump won’t tolerate foreign interference in the election and that he has made it clear to adversaries there will be consequences for attempting to do so.
In March, Mr. Trump’s previous acting intelligence chief, Richard Grenell, didn’t appear before Congress for a closed briefing on foreign election threats, which surprised lawmakers and other administration officials.
A month earlier, Mr. Trump grew irate during an Oval Office briefing on election security after learning that lawmakers received a classified hearing on the same topic a day earlier, people familiar with the meeting have said. In that meeting, Mr. Trump expressed frustration that lawmakers were told about Russia’s possible interest in interfering on his behalf, these people said.
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