The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has told the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence that it will no longer give in-person briefings about election security and foreign election interference.
The committees will still have access to written finished intelligence reports, but will not be able to question officials in-person about the reports, a change that may stem from previous intelligence leaks following briefings to Congress.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote in a letter on Friday that the ODNI will keep Congress informed through written finished intelligence products, an approach he said “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.”
“It will also better protect our sources and methods and most sensitive intelligence from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse,” wrote Ratcliffe, who leads the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies and has held his position for three months after a rocky nomination and confirmation process.
Ratcliffe is a Trump loyalist and former House Republican who defended the president against former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. He was first nominated for intelligence chief last year after the resignation of Dan Coats, who repeatedly clashed with Trump on national security issues.
Ratcliffe subsequently withdrew his nomination amid allegations that he misrepresented parts of his resume. Trump renominated him for the job this year and he was confirmed by the Republican held Senate in May.
Ratcliffe’s decision to halt in-person briefings brought a swift rebuke from Democrats in Congress, who have long alleged that the Trump administration has downplayed foreign interference in U.S. presidential elections, particularly from Russia.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Saturday called the cancellation of the election security briefings “shocking” and demanded the ODNI resume briefings.
“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,” Pelosi and Schiff said in a statement. “The American people have both the right and the need to know that another nation, Russia, is trying to help decide who their president should be.”
“We expect the Administration and Intelligence Community to keep us fully and accurately informed, and resume the briefings,” they added. “If they are unwilling to, we will consider the full range of tools available to the House to compel compliance.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security will still brief lawmakers in person on election-related cyber threats and disinformation, but not on plans of nation-state adversaries, which falls under the ODNI, two people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
“The FBI is committed to keeping Congress informed on election security and malign foreign influence threats. Protecting our elections remains a top priority for the FBI. We decline to comment further,” the agency said in a statement.
In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Ratcliffe defended his decision to stop in-person briefings to Congress, arguing that members have leaked classified information for political gain and to “create a narrative that Russia somehow is a greater national security threat than China.”
Leading U.S. intelligence official William Evanina said earlier this month that Russia is trying to “undermine” Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s candidacy in the November presidential election, while China and Iran are against President Trump’s reelection.
Evanina warned that “foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process” before the election.
In response to the intelligence assessment, National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said the U.S. “will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions.”
Trump has also pushed back on the analysis of his own intelligence agencies, arguing that he is “the last person Russia wants to see in office.”