WASHINGTON — Senior intelligence officials will no longer brief Congress in person on foreign interference in the 2020 election. Instead, they will inform lawmakers of threats in writing, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Saturday.
The decision, made with Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s assent, arose out of concerns that briefings to lawmakers have resulted in leaks of classified information, an ODNI official said.
But the change threatens to undermine the community’s pledge to be transparent with Congress and the public at a time when three foreign adversaries, including Russia, are seeking to influence the American political process.
“I believe this approach helps ensure … that the information ODNI provides the Congress … is not misunderstood or politicized,” Ratcliffe wrote in letters to congressional leadership, including the chairmen and vice chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence panels.
“It will also better protect our sources and methods and most sensitive intelligence from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse,” he wrote. The development was first reported by CNN.
Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, immediately cried foul.
“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,” she said in a joint statement with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
“The ODNI had requested the opportunity to brief the intelligence committees and the full U.S. House of Representatives in mid-September and has now canceled those briefings and said it would hold no others,” the pair wrote. “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.”
In a briefing Saturday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows defended the decision.
“It really comes down to one simple thing: The last time they gave briefings, a few members went out and talked to the press and disclosed information they shouldn’t have,” Meadows said, adding that the written briefings “will make sure there is proper tools for oversight” but don’t “jeopardize sources and methods for the intel we get.”
The move follows a public statement earlier this month by William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official who had been leading the in-person briefings, that Russia is “using a range of measures” to interfere in the 2020 election and has enlisted a pro-Russian lawmaker from Ukraine — who has met with President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer — to damage Joe Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.
He also said the government of China does not want Trump to win reelection, because Beijing sees him as “unpredictable.” Evanina described China’s efforts to date as largely rhetorical and aimed at shaping policy and criticizing the Trump administration for actions Beijing sees as harmful to its long-term strategic interests.
Iran is seeking to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections, said Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
Evanina’s statement drew criticism for appearing to ascribe equal significance to the three countries as an election interference concern, when in fact Russia is viewed as posing the greatest immediate threat.
But one former senior intelligence official suggested that Evanina worded the statement to avoid incurring the wrath of President Trump, who has consistently played down Russian election interference as a threat, while “sticking to analytical language.”
Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the decision to abandon in-person briefings “is an outrage.” He said he has been in “hundreds” of briefings, “and I’ve never been in one where the questioning didn’t elicit relevant and important information — and that goes for the most recent hearing with Bill Evanina on this very subject at the end of July.”
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The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.