Democrats explore new ways to resurrect election security briefings

Democrats explore new ways to resurrect election security briefings
© Greg Nash

More than a dozen House Democrats are pushing leadership to use must-pass legislation this month as a cudgel to compel the intelligence community to resume election security briefings for Congress.

Eighteen Democratic lawmakers are calling on House leaders to include language in either a spending bill or the annual reauthorization of intelligence programs that would force the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to reinstate regular election security briefings. Both measures are expected to receive floor votes in September.

“Congress should consider all remedies available to enforce regular intelligence briefings in advance of the elections, up to and including withholding of funds from the ODNI entirely,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Mark PocanMark William PocanOvernight Defense: 6B Pentagon spending bill advances | Navy secretary nominee glides through hearing | Obstacles mount in Capitol security funding fight House panel advances 6B Pentagon bill on party-line vote Democratic tensions simmer in House between left, center MORE (Wis.) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse bill targets US passport backlog Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe Tlaib, Democrats slam GOP calls for border oversight to fight opioid crisis MORE (Va.), wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel GOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work MORE (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerMcCarthy mocks Cheney and Kinzinger as 'Pelosi Republicans' Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE (D-Md.).

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Democrats are furious that Director of National Intelligence John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeUFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE, a former House GOP lawmaker, decided recently to do away with in-person briefings for members of Congress, saying the move was necessary to prevent leaks of classified information.

Democratic leaders have hinted at possible subpoenas or targeting ODNI funds, but have not yet threatened to pursue either approach. 

Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFive things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work Schiff: Jan. 6 committee mulling subpoenas, testimony from riot participants House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), a top appropriator who oversees defense spending, warned in a letter this week that they would “consider the full range of tools available to compel compliance” if Ratcliffe didn’t reinstate the briefings.

A Pelosi spokesperson pointed to the Speaker’s previous missive to Ratcliffe on Tuesday when asked about the letter from Democrats calling for conditioning legislation to fund or authorize ODNI on the briefings.

Neither Pocan nor Connolly went as far as declaring they would oppose a stopgap government funding bill if it didn’t include provisions to resume the briefings.

But they argued that the funding should be an arrow in House Democrats’ quiver.

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“The power we have as Congress is the power of the purse,” Pocan, a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, told The Hill. “We need to push back as Congress to make sure that we're having our ability to have the necessary oversight.”

Connolly suggested a proposal in which Ratcliffe’s office would be directly targeted while leaving intelligence-gathering programs intact.

“Given the fact that this defiance came directly out of ODNI, we need to respond. And one of the tools the Constitution explicitly, clearly, and unambiguously gives Congress is the power of the purse,” Connolly said.

Such a proposal is all but certain to be opposed by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans.

It’s also unlikely to be included in any government funding legislation now that Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden rallies Senate Dems behind mammoth spending plan Mnuchin dodges CNBC questions on whether Trump lying over election Democrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer MORE have informally agreed to a clean continuing resolution, meaning it would be free of any controversial policy riders.

Ratcliffe informed lawmakers late last week that the intelligence community would provide written updates on election security leading up to the November elections instead of in-person congressional briefings.

The notification came a month after William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued a statement detailing election security threats, including that Russia and Kremlin-linked actors are “using a range of measures” to boost President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE's candidacy, like they did in 2016, and undermine Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE.

ABC News reported on Thursday that a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence bulletin warned Russia is likely to continue attacks on voting by mail "to undermine public trust in the electoral process." The bulletin said Russian "malign influence actors" have been trying to sow distrust in electoral processes since at least March.

Schiff seized on the DHS bulletin as another example of why lawmakers should have access to in-person election security briefings.

“This bulletin further demonstrates why the ODNI’s cancelation of in-person briefings on election security for Congress is so dangerous — Congress must be able to directly question and engage with the intelligence community professionals with the responsibility for protecting our elections from foreign interference,” Schiff said on Thursday.

Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked mail voting, claiming without evidence that it would lead to widespread voter fraud. The president voted absentee in this year’s Florida primaries.

Pelosi, Schiff and Visclosky revealed that briefings had been scheduled this month for the House Intelligence Committee, as well as all House members, that they say would have provided an opportunity for lawmakers to hear directly from intelligence officials and ask follow-up questions.

Ratcliffe’s move has also sparked criticism from some Republicans.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE (R-Fla.), the interim chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a Florida news outlet on Wednesday that Ratcliffe had pledged to continue briefing the GOP-led panel but not its House counterpart.

“This relationship between Congress and the intelligence community is at a crisis,” Rubio said. “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.”