Top Democrats ask FBI to brief Congress on disinformation threats

Jon Ward and Jenna McLaughlin
·4 min read
Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders on Monday made public a letter they sent a week ago to the FBI requesting the agency brief all members of Congress about efforts by foreign governments to spread disinformation ahead of the 2020 election.

“Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation,” said the letter, which was sent July 13 by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

“We believe it is imperative that the FBI provide a classified defensive briefing to all Members of Congress and that the briefing draw on all-source intelligence information and analysis, consistent with due regard for the protection of sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” the letter stated.

No further details were included about the nature of the threat, but a congressional official told Yahoo News that the Democratic leaders provided the FBI with “a classified addendum that draws, in large part, from the Executive Branch’s own reporting and analysis.”

“The counterintelligence experts at the FBI must provide the full Congress with a defensive counterintelligence briefing on these threats before the August recess,” said the official.

Congressional officials declined to comment on the specific classified information that prompted their concerns. However, Politico reported that at least part of the impetus for the letter was a fear that a Senate investigation kicked off by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., had become a channel for foreign actors to attempt to spread damaging information about Joe Biden. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who was not party to the letter, issued a statement about similar concerns in May, accusing Johnson of using the Homeland Security Committee “to chase right-wing conspiracy theories” about Biden and Ukraine.

“Chairman Johnson explicitly supported Vice President Biden’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine, but now wants to pretend something nefarious happened to help Donald Trump,” Wyden wrote. “More alarming still is foreign disinformation of unknown authenticity and origin.”

Though the authors of the letter didn’t specify what disinformation they were concerned about, the classified annex may have included specific examples of disinformation or conspiracy theories created or promoted by "foreign actors.” Top congressional leadership in both parties, along with senior members of the intelligence committees — part of a select group known as the “gang of eight” — have access to classified information that most members of Congress are not privy to.

“We know foreign actors are working to influence the results of the U.S. presidential election, and members of Congress and other public figures are absolutely targets, just as they were in 2016, because of their ability to amplify narratives and influence voters,” said Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis for Alethea Group, a firm that works with political candidates to identify and mitigate disinformation.

“Already we have seen Russian state media and websites we know are linked to the Kremlin push the same conspiracy narratives some members of Congress have pushed, such as the claim that the election will be ‘rigged,’ as well as claims of antifa and ‘anarchists’ overrunning U.S. cities,” continued Otis, a former CIA analyst whose new book on disinformation, “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News,” will be published at the end of July.

Christopher Wray
FBI Director Christopher Wray. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

“All members of Congress should take this threat seriously and ensure they receive regular briefings on the issue,” Otis said.

The letter requested that FBI Director Christopher Wray have his office “outline a plan” for such a briefing of all members of Congress by Monday, July 20. The fact that the Democratic leaders released the letter publicly on the day they had requested to see a plan suggests that the FBI has so far declined to grant their request.

An FBI spokesperson told Yahoo News that the FBI received the letter and declined to comment further.

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