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U.S. intelligence ensnared in politics over election security briefings

With Election Day just over two months away, Americans will begin casting ballots in a few weeks. The U.S. intelligence community has already warned of multiple attempts by foreign powers to intervene in the November election. But now comes word of changes in how top U.S. intelligence officials will brief Congress about the threats. Lisa Desjardins and Nick Schifrin join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Americans will begin casting ballots in this fall's general elections in just a couple of weeks, and Election Day itself is just a little more than two months away.

    But now there is word of changes in how top U.S. intelligence officials will brief Congress about other nations' attempts to interfere in the election.

    For more on that, I'm joined by our own Lisa Desjardins and Nick Schifrin.

    So, hello to both of you.

    Lisa, first of all, tell us a little more about what is happening and why this matters?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Speaking to many sources today, both parties are very concerned about threats to election security this year coming from foreign adversaries.

    And I have learned there was scheduled a briefing for the House Intelligence Committee in mid-September. But, Friday, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, set a letter to both chambers of Congress — or sent a letter to saying that all briefings in-person would be canceled.

    This led to a confusing back-and-forth for the next 24 hours about what exactly he meant. And now, it seems, sources are telling me the understanding — this is coming largely from Republicans — is that now Republican senators will be briefed, but not House Democrats.

    So, just to review, here is what we're talking about. As a co-equal branch of government, these are the two committees that usually are fully briefed, House Intelligence, led by Democrat Adam Schiff, and Senate Intelligence, now led by Republican Marco Rubio.

    The change, Judy, as we understand it right now, is that only the Republican Senate Intelligence Committee — I'm sorry — only the Senate Intelligence Committee, both parties on that committee, will be briefed fully in-person. Everyone else will get written statements.

    OK, so, why does this matter? First of all, briefings provide a great deal more information in-person than on paper. Separately, this shows the mistrust that is growing between lawmakers, who usually put politics aside on this issue.

    And it's coming at an important time, Judy. There are real concerns right now about Russia in particular attempting to manipulate this election. And as one senator, Angus King, pointed out to me on a phone call, there is a feeling that, in 2016, the public was warned too late about what Russia was doing, and there is concern that again the public may not be aware of what is going on right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, what is the intelligence community saying about this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, an ODNI official told me that — quote — they're "committed" to meet their statutory responsibilities to keep Congress informed, but they wouldn't confirm what Lisa just reported about whether there will be some in-person briefings to either the Senate or the House Intelligence Committees.

    As for the motivation, they're very clear. Those letters that Lisa just mentioned were sent to congressional leadership and committees on Friday. And Ratcliffe wrote that he didn't want information — quote — "misunderstood or politicized."

    He told Fox News that that meant he didn't want to see information leaked.

  • John Ratcliffe:

    We have had a pandemic of information being leaked out of the intelligence community, and I'm going to take the measures to make sure that that stops.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I asked Ratcliffe's office about leaking. All they would say is that, "We take unauthorized disclosures of classified information seriously."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And to add to that, Judy, I asked lawmakers also.

    And Senate Republicans could not pinpoint a specific example of a leak that came from Democrats that they thought was a problem. Instead, they said it is a general politicization of intelligence. Democrats pushed back. They think they're being penalized for being too aggressive or more aggressive on this issue.

    And some Democrats do believe, as Nick just reported, that this action could be illegal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, finally, you have been also talking to former intelligence officials. What are they saying?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, these former officials, Republicans, Democrats, senior career intelligence officials, they accuse Ratcliffe of misleading the public on the threat to the election.

    In that Fox News interview, he insisted that China was the U.S.' top threat. And many officials across the government do believe that China is the long-term strategic threat that the U.S. is most concerned about.

    But the immediate, overt threat to the election is Russia. And that was even in a recent statement released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It said pro-Kremlin actors were to denigrate former Vice President Biden and boost President Trump's candidacy, whereas China's goal was long term, shape the policy environment, pressure political figures considered anti-China, and deflect criticism.

    And that really leads to former officials' fear of the politicization of the intelligence community. First, Ambassador Ric Grenell, a Trump ally with no intelligence experience, became acting director, and now John Ratcliffe, nominated and withdrawn last year, also a Trump ally with no intelligence experience, confirmed a few months ago.

    And now former officials tell me that senior career intelligence officials are leaving the intelligence community, for fear it's being politicized.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And all of this happening just weeks before the election, before people start voting.

    Nick Schifrin, Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

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