Experts, lawmakers and former federal officials expressed deep concerns about the Trump administration’s decision to discontinue in-person briefings for Congress regarding election security threats, saying the move undermines transparency and electoral confidence at a critical time.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe informed Congress on Friday that his office will no longer provide the briefings on election security matters and will instead provide written updates. CNN first reported the change on Saturday. Ratcliffe’s edict comes just two months ahead of Election Day, with Russia, China and Iran all intent on influencing the outcome, according to a recent statement by National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina. Ratcliffe––who was confirmed in May following controversy over his qualifications––justified the decision as a way to prevent leaks and said the new method will meet statutory requirements. However, the change was met with criticism and concern by many.
“Oversight isn’t always pretty, but it’s vital to ensuring public trust in secret agencies,” tweeted Amy Zegart, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies. “The essence of oversight is dialog, the asking and answering of questions. That just went out the window.”
Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight’s “Constitution Project,” told Government Executive on Monday the move is the “latest escalation of a pattern from ODNI where they seem to be unwilling to engage with Congress on security threats,” a stance that has “certainly gotten worse” over time.
NBC News reported on Sunday that the Homeland Security Department and FBI plan to continue briefing Congress on certain election topics. Laperruque said “that creates a potentially awkward scenario” because ODNI is supposed to be a “liaison between these different entities to provide information in the cleanest form both as it comes in and goes out of the various IC branches.”
Over the last 10 to 20 years, Congress has ceded much power to the executive branch, but “the difference is we now have a president [for whom that is] part of his agenda: disempowering Congress,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director for the nonprofit Issue One. “When you deprive the legislative body of critical information you are putting a dagger in the heart of what is actually one of the key elements of a democracy.” She said that the potential for leaks does not justify eliminating the in-person briefings.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Saturday the decision was “shameful” so close to Election Day.
It “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,” they said. “We expect the administration and intelligence community to keep us fully and accurately informed, and resume the briefings. If they are unwilling to, we will consider the full range of tools available to the House to compel compliance.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said that written briefings are “flatly insufficient” because the only way to obtain the most recent and relevant information is through asking questions in “real time.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who served under the Obama administration, said on CNN on Saturday, it will be a “shame on” Congress if they don’t insist on getting these briefings because “this is what intelligence oversight in Congress is for.” Meanwhile, Republicans did not express the same concerns.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on CNN on Sunday that the news was “blown way out of proportion.”
Also, Sen. Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Congress’ oversight of the intelligence community is facing a “historic crisis” due to the prevalence of leaks. “Yet, this grotesque criminal misconduct does not release the intelligence community from fulfilling its legal requirements,” Rubio said. “I have spoken to Director Radcliffe who stated unequivocally that he will continue to fulfill these obligations.”
Maggie MacAlpine, co-founder of the election and technology firm Nordic Innovations Labs and an election security expert, told Government Executive on Monday “while the ODNI may be justified in this move, one can’t help but view it against the backdrop of the politicization this issue has received.” She believes it remains to be seen if the “written briefings really are equivalent and do not reduce in frequency to know for certain if this move is in good faith.”
MacAlpine also noted that although states and localities run elections, many rely on the assistance from the federal government because they lack the resources to sufficiently protect themselves from foreign interference.
Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, which serves as an information clearinghouse for states, told Government Executive on Monday he is not sure if the ODNI’s decision will impact his agency.” The EAC is only “periodically” included in intelligence briefings given to election officials and he hasn’t heard anything about that changing, he said.