The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is scaling back its election security briefings to Congress, according to two sources familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by POLITICO.
ODNI told the House and Senate intelligence committees that it will still provide written briefings, but that they should not expect verbal, in-person briefings on the topic, according to a congressional official and letters dated Aug. 28 that Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe sent to top members of Congress. Ratcliffe indicated in those letters that leaks from Congress were the reason for ending in-person briefings.
The move has enraged congressional Democrats, who have long charged the Trump administration with downplaying threats to U.S. elections from foreign actors, especially Russia. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said in a statement that ODNI canceled separate briefings that had been scheduled for September before the intelligence committees and all members of Congress.
“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 Pelosi said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, acting chair of the Senate intelligence committee, and Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s vice chairman, released separate statements on the administration’s decision, with Rubio excoriating those who leak classified information while urging Ratcliffe to “continue to fulfill” his obligations to fully brief Congress, and Warner casting the decision as “outrageous” and “an unprecedented attempt to politicize” the issue.
ODNI decided to scale back the briefings because classified material from recent briefings leaked out, according to a U.S. intelligence official and a congressional official in touch with the office. CNN first reported the development.
ODNI officials were particularly angry about a leak from an all-House classified briefing led by top counterintelligence official Bill Evanina late last month, where Pelosi accused him of keeping Americans in the dark about the details of Russia’s continued interference in the 2020 campaign.
Evanina ultimately acknowledged in that briefing that Russia is again trying to boost President Donald Trump’s reelection and denigrate his opponent, Joe Biden. In a statement at the time, an ODNI official said Evanina was “incredibly disappointed in the inability of some to protect classified information they are legally obligated to safeguard and instead attempt to use it for partisan gain.”
During a roundtable in Orange, Texas, on Saturday, Trump blamed House Democrats for leaking information.
“Director Ratcliffe brought information into the committee, and the information leaked,” Trump said. “Whether it was Shifty Schiff or somebody else, they leaked the information. … And what’s even worse, they leaked the wrong information. And he got tired of it. So he wants to do it in a different forum, because you have leakers on the committee.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows added, “[Ratcliffe’s] going to make sure that there’s proper tools for their oversight and make sure they contain it in a way that does not jeopardize sources and methods for the intel that we’ve got.”
Biden, meanwhile, said in a statement the move was “nothing less than a shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump.”
“There can be only one conclusion: President Trump is hoping Vladimir Putin will once more boost his candidacy and cover his horrific failures to lead our country through the multiple crises we are facing,” the Democratic presidential nominee added.
On the more recent moratorium on verbal briefings, an ODNI official provided this statement to POLITICO: “We are committed to meeting our statutory responsibilities and keeping Congress fully and currently informed. For clarity and to protect sensitive intelligence from unauthorized disclosures, we will primarily do that through written finished intelligence products. We are concerned about unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information following recent briefings. The DNI is committed to ensuring Congress is fully and currently informed and that classified information is protected.”
Ratcliffe explained the decision to the Hill in letters to the heads of the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees’ subcommittees on defense, and the top two Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. The House Intelligence Committee did not receive such a letter until hours after the news was publicly reported, according to an aide, who said the panel received verbal notification without an additional explanation.
Ratcliffe hinted at friction in prior election security briefings.
“While many of these engagements and products have been successful and productive, others have been less so,” he wrote.
“In order to ensure clarity and consistency across the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI’s) engagements with Congress on elections, the ODNI will primarily meet its obligation to keep Congress fully and currently informed leading into the Presidential election through written finished intelligence products,” he continued.
Ratcliffe also hinted at prior unauthorized disclosures of classified material.
“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,” he wrote. “It will also better protect our sources and methods and most sensitive intelligence from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse.”
FBI Director Chris Wray also recently dodged Democrats’ requests for all-member briefings.
In response to their requests that he brief the full House and Senate on election threats, Wray wrote a letter to Sens. Chuck Schumer and Warner and Reps. Pelosi and Schiff on August 21 indicating that while he shared their concerns, the member briefings were being led capably by Evanina along with select FBI personnel and other national security officials, according to two people who have seen the letter.
He also mentioned the FBI’s Protected Voices program, an initiative begun in 2018 that aims to help political campaigns and individuals protect themselves against foreign influence operations and cybersecurity threats. ODNI has not clarified if Evanina will give in-person briefings on election security to all members of Congress in the future.
An FBI spokesperson said after this story was published that FBI senior executives “had participated in a number of briefings with Members of Congress regarding election security over the summer” and added that the FBI “has not advised Congress that the Director will not participate in an election security briefing.” The FBI declined to comment further, however, whether when asked whether the director had committed to such a briefing.
Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.