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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 PocanProgressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Barrett touts independence to sidestep confirmation questions Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (Wis.) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyIRS closes in on final phase of challenging tax season Virginia voter registration website back up after outage on last day to register Judge issues nationwide injunction against Postal Service changes MORE (Va.), wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' On The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck Pelosi challenger calls delay on COVID-19 relief bill the 'privilege of politics' MORE (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats seek wave to bolster House majority Hoyer lays out ambitious Democratic agenda for 2021, with health care at top Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate MORE (D-Md.).

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Democrats are furious that Director of National Intelligence John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeWisconsin GOP says hackers stole .3M Hillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Rubio warns that election interference may ramp up around Election Day 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 SchiffCIA impeachment whistleblower forced to live under surveillance due to threats: report In our 'Bizarro World' of 2020 politics, the left takes a wrong turn Greenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox 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 Terner MnuchinMnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' On The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck Pelosi challenger calls delay on COVID-19 relief bill the 'privilege of politics' 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 John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE's candidacy, like they did in 2016, and undermine Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Florida heat sends a dozen Trump rally attendees to hospital Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report 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 RubioWisconsin GOP says hackers stole .3M Hillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Rubio warns that election interference may ramp up around Election Day 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.”