WASHINGTON — While the Trump administration told Congress at the end of last month that it would no longer personally brief the intelligence oversight committees on foreign threats to elections, it appears the Senate may still get direct access to intelligence officials.
On Sept. 1, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told local Florida cable channel Spectrum News that he believed he and his colleagues would continue to be briefed in person by the intelligence community on threats to the election.
“The relationship between Congress and the intelligence community is at a crisis,” Rubio told Spectrum News. “The answer to that frustration can’t be, however, that we are just not going to talk to Congress anymore; that’s not what the law says.”
He told Spectrum he believed President Trump’s recently appointed director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, who was previously a Republican congressman and sat on the House Intelligence Committee, had committed to briefing his panel of overseers, though it remains unclear when or if that will happen.
On Aug. 28 Ratcliffe sent a letter to lawmakers tasked with overseeing the intelligence community declaring that his office would “primarily” brief Congress through written reports rather than in-person briefings, due to a fear of continued leaks of classified information.
While Rubio condemned leaks of classified information, he also stressed in a statement on Aug. 29 that “grotesque criminal misconduct does not release the intelligence community from fulfilling its legal requirements to respond to Congressional oversight committees and to keep members of Congress fully informed of relevant information on a timely basis.”
According to a congressional aide, Rubio spoke to Ratcliffe personally and emerged from that meeting confident that the Senate Intelligence Committee would continue to get in-person briefings on the status of election security as Election Day in November rapidly approaches. However, the committee is still trying to nail down the details for a previously arranged September briefing, the aide told Yahoo News. Rubio’s office referred Yahoo News to his previous interviews.
Meanwhile, briefings for the House Intelligence Committee and for the entire membership of Congress scheduled for September have been canceled, creating an uproar from Democratic leadership.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House; Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, described Ratcliffe’s decision to suspend in-person briefings as “an abdication of [his] responsibility to keep the American people and their elected representatives informed of foreign threats to the 2020 election” in a letter to Ratcliffe on Sept. 1.
National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina released a public statement Aug. 7 on the ongoing threat to election security, assessing that multiple foreign actors are seeking to interfere in some way with the voting process, though they would very likely not succeed in altering actual vote tallies. According to Evanina’s summary of the intelligence community’s conclusions, Chinese officials likely prefer that President Trump, “whom Beijing sees as unpredictable,” not be reelected — while Russia is using a “range of measures” to denigrate former Vice President Joe Biden and undermine his candidacy.
A decision to suspend in-person briefings for all but one Republican-controlled Senate committee would likely further enrage House Democrats who already feel that their access has been curtailed.
A House Intelligence Committee aide told Yahoo News that the panel has not received clarity or answers to letters, emails and calls directed to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concerning ongoing briefings.
A decision to exclude the House Intelligence Committee would be “unprecedented,” wrote Larry Pfeiffer, the director of the Hayden Center at George Mason University and an over-30-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community, in a message to Yahoo News. The intelligence community “assiduously avoids showing favor to one house or another, or one party or another. Pretty wimpy on the part of DNI Ratcliffe and the President, frankly, that they won’t face potentially adversarial examination of their intelligence findings.”
In response to a query from Yahoo News, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence declined to say whether the Senate would get an in person-briefing, and instead referred Yahoo News to Ratcliffe’s letter to Congress, stating he is “committed to meeting our statutory responsibilities and keeping Congress fully and currently informed.”
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