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Election security briefing changes send wrong signal

Election security briefing changes send wrong signal
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As recently reported, the decision by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeFormer Trump officials eye bids for political office Grenell congratulates Buttigieg on becoming second openly gay Cabinet member Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE to stop briefing Congress in person about security threats in the run up to the November elections has caused anger on Capitol Hill and prompted concern by intelligence professionals. When nominated both in 2019 and earlier this year for the DNI position, Ratcliffe was a controversial choice to replace his predecessors (former DNI Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHow President Biden can hit a home run Former Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security MORE and Acting DNI Joe Maguire) given his relative lack of experience on intelligence issues and perceived partisan loyalties to President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE.  

During his confirmation hearing in May, Radcliffe stated that he would seek to deliver “unvarnished truth” or information that could upset the president or other senior officials based on the DNI’s key role as the president’s senior intelligence adviser. The rationale for providing only written election security assessments  to Congress has been explained by DNI Ratcliffe and White House Chief of Staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHow scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward MORE as an effort to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive intelligence discussed during previous sessions with lawmakers on these topics.

As a former senior intelligence official who briefed members of Congress regularly about key threats, I know first-hand how important it is to deliver impartial and objective insights and analysis to the U.S. intelligence community in-person. While there is value in delivering what are known as “paper-only” assessments to members of Congress, in my career lawmakers and staff glean further insights from direct questioning of intelligence professionals. Moreover, the give and take that occurs in closed briefing rooms allows for a better understanding of sensitive and complex topics.

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Limiting ONDI’s in-person briefings on election security to Congress – which previously had been led by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) or the ODNI’s Elections Threat Executive – will likely impact congressional efforts to better understand the threats facing the country between now and November and help design remedies, if necessary.

In fact, the NCSC director recently issued a statement that stated: “Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, 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.”

The statement went on to describe how Russia, China and Iran are all taking measures to influence the elections, although using a separate set of tactics and techniques and with different goals and aims.

The scale and sophistication of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 elections have been well documented. Perhaps Russia’s most effective efforts centered on its vast disinformation campaign using numerous social media platforms to promote then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the expense of Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE, and also to foment and heighten social and political divisions within the United States. 

The NCSC’s statement earlier this month warning about efforts by foreign adversaries to influence the upcoming elections should give all Americans pause. Now is the time for Congress and the executive branch to work together to ensure similar campaigns are not able to achieve their intended effects. Restoring the full spectrum of ODNI-led briefings to Congress can play a large role in ensuring that this year’s elections are not tainted by our adversaries’ attempts to influence the outcome.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has more than 20 years professional experience in Washington, D.C. on national security issues, including senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security Council.