The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will stop providing in-person briefings on election security and foreign interference to Congress, according to congressional and intelligence officials, and instead will provide “primarily” written updates ahead of the November election.
An ODNI official told CBS News the change was being made out of concern over leaks that resulted from prior, unspecified congressional briefings, and in an effort to protect sensitive intelligence. The official said Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe ordered the change, which prompted immediate condemnation from senior Democratic lawmakers. In a letter to several congressional offices dated August 28 that was obtained by CBS News, Ratcliffe said he believed written briefings would help “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.” “It will also better protect our sources and methods and most sensitive intelligence from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse,” he wrote. Speaking after touring damage from Hurricane Laura in Texas, President Trump said the decision was because “you have leakers on the committee.” Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said Saturday that “it comes down to one simple thing: A few members talked to the press and disclosed information that they shouldn’t have disclosed and so he’s going to make sure there’s proper tools for their oversight and make sure that they contain it in a way that does not jeopardize sources or methods for the intel that we gather.”Multiple congressional officials said they had not received the letter before it appeared in the press and had previously been informed of the change by phone. In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called ODNI’s move a “shocking abdication” of its responsibilities and accused the Trump Administration of engaging in a “politicized effort to withhold election-related information from Congress and the American people.” They called for the resumption of previously scheduled briefings for the full House of Representatives in September, which they said ODNI had since abruptly cancelled. In a separate statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Ratcliffe had “made clear he’s in the job only to protect Trump from democracy, not democracy from Trump.”
The move comes fewer than 70 days before the presidential election and follows warnings from intelligence officials that Russia is using a “range of measures to primarily denigrate” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and that pro-Kremlin outlets were working to boost Mr. Trump’s candidacy. The unprecedented assessment also said that China would prefer Mr. Trump not secure reelection and that Iran might attempt to “undermine” U.S. institutions and the president through online content. Democratic lawmakers briefed on ODNI’s intelligence later criticized that assessment, which they said created a “false equivalence” among Russia, China and Iran, when in fact only Moscow was actively engaged in interference designed to benefit one candidate at the expense of another. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that the change in ODNI’s briefing protocol was “deeply alarming” and called for it to be “reversed immediately.” “As Joe Biden has said, the escalating menace of election interference undermines ‘the vote and the voice of every U.S. citizen,'” Bates said. “It constitutes an attack on our sovereignty as a nation and our very way of life.” Top counterintelligence official Bill Evanina was tasked in May with delivering intelligence-based briefings to relevant stakeholders, including Congress, political campaigns and the public, in a move ODNI described at the time as “an improvement and simplification to the threat notification process.” Evanina and other senior intelligence officials have since offered several election security briefings to the full House and Senate as well as select congressional committees, where lawmakers were able to question intelligence assessments in real time. Maine Senator Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats and who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called ODNI’s decision “an outrage, full stop.”
“The Director’s stated intention to only provide the Congress written updates is flatly insufficient,” King said. “I have never been at a Congressional hearing where members’ questions failed to elicit important information not contained in pre-filed written testimony, and this includes our recent hearing with the Director on this very subject.” “My hope in the coming days is that Director Ratcliffe will reconsider, but given the track record from the current administration, I am not optimistic,” King said. An ODNI official said the office was committed to “meeting our statutory responsibilities and keeping Congress fully and currently informed.” The official did not say whether in-person briefings to the Trump and Biden presidential campaigns would continue and referred inquiries about whether the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which are also routinely involved in briefings, would continue offering theirs orally. Inquiries to those agencies did not receive an immediate response.