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EXCLUSIVE: Intelligence chief briefed lawmakers of foreign influence threats to Congress
The nation's top intelligence official briefed lawmakers last month that foreign influence campaigns targeting Congress were more expansive than previously known, but a lack of specifics has left some with questions, multiple sources tell The Hill.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe led intelligence officials in separately briefing the House and Senate Intelligence panels behind closed doors on the threats, informing lawmakers that the burgeoning foreign influence threat is being perpetrated by the usual suspects: China, Russia and Iran, though he indicated that Beijing was the primary aggressor.
Ratcliffe gave ballpark estimates of how many lawmakers have been targeted, suggesting it is from the dozens to roughly 50. But in the briefings, he declined to identify which members of Congress were the targets and he did not indicate if one party was being more heavily targeted than the other.
Asked about the briefings, an intelligence official said China is leading Russia and Iran in election influence operations.
"The [intelligence community] has become aware of Chinese influence operations targeting members of Congress at a rate of approximately six times that of Russia, and 12 times that of Iran," the intelligence official told The Hill.
But there is a debate in the intelligence sphere over what Ratcliffe considers interference, including distinguishing election interference from foreign government lobbying, foreign government pressure or foreign government influence.
Some sources said Ratcliffe appeared to be categorizing efforts by countries such as China to lobby members of Congress to support a certain agenda - something viewed as a fairly common practice by foreign nations - as an effort to interfere.
In explaining Ratcliffe's thinking, a second intelligence official contended that certain efforts by foreign governments to covertly influence members of Congress on legislation should be considered election influence or even election interference. Currently, intelligence community definitions consider such activity, even when accompanied with threats of extortion, blackmail or bribes, to be "malign foreign influence" rather than election influence.
The official offered an example of a hypothetical Chinese-owned company that employs hundreds or thousands of U.S. workers and, acting at the direction of or facing pressure from the Chinese government, threatens or bribes the head of the local workers union to demand that a lawmaker support pro-China or oppose anti-China legislation in Congress or risk losing the vote of every worker. Regardless of whether the lawmaker is influenced in their decision, the outcome of their election may be affected, and that would mean the Chinese government was behind an effort to influence not only U.S. policy but also potentially the reelection of a U.S. lawmaker.
Because the primary purpose and intent of China's activity was to influence pro-China legislation in that scenario, it is not considered election influence or interference. But the use of threats or bribes clearly has an impact on the potential outcome of elections, the official argued. Despite that, such activity is not considered election influence or interference under intelligence community standards. Ratcliffe thinks it should be.
"Different countries interfere in different ways," the intelligence official said. "China is influencing, policy and policy makers who hold congressional seats."
Some intelligence experts, however, argue that the motive has to be to purposefully alter or modify the perception of the larger voting electorate, citing Russia's hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 that had the purpose of embarrassing the Clinton campaign and its online influence campaigns to sow discord and fan chaos, like pitting advocates on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement against each other.
"I think of [election] interference as an attack and meddling," said Larry Pfeiffer, who served in the intelligence community for 32 years, including in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and CIA. "I just don't see it as exactly the same thing as the Russians covertly manipulating social media ... or taking stolen materials and deploying them under some cover of a Danish hacker or something."
Other experts said it depends on the foreign government's end goal.
"I can't say that what Ratcliffe is doing is improperly conflating normal sort of standard foreign government influence with election interference. To the contrary, it may very well be election interference. It all depends on what the end goal is and how he described it," said Jamil Jaffer, a former senior counsel for Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.
In response to the hypothetical the intelligence official presented, Jaffer argued that if the lawmaker in question unknowingly voted a certain way based on the lobbying of a company with foreign ties, then that might be considered foreign government influence. But if the company or Chinese government then put out a statement suggesting that the lawmaker is in the pocket of the Chinese with the purpose of influencing how the electorate votes, then that could be election interference because of the intention behind the action and its effects.
Jaffer said the distinction between the two terms has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
"The whole claim by Democrats with respect to Ratcliffe is that he is talking about the Chinese because he wants to avoid discussing Russian interference," said Jaffer, who now heads George Mason University's National Security Institute. "The problem with that claim in this scenario is there's a very real way you could think about what they may be doing as being related to election interference. While on the face it may not seem like it, there's a lot of reasons why it might be just that."
Separately, after Ratcliffe's briefing of lawmakers, some participants were left wondering why the intelligence community wasn't warning them of the specifics so they could take preventive measures, particularly if the foreign aggressors behind the threat are using covert means to interfere, like surveilling the phones of House members and senators, according to sources.
If the intelligence community learns a lawmaker is being targeted by a foreign nation, it primarily falls on the FBI to provide the lawmaker with a briefing.
"When we have specific information about a member of Congress being targeted, we work closely with the FBI, who is responsible for providing defensive briefing," an intelligence official said.
The FBI, in a separate statement, said it "is committed to keeping Congress informed on election security and malign foreign influence threats," while describing protecting U.S. elections as a "top priority."
News of the briefings comes as Democrats and Republicans have adopted two diverging messages on threats stemming from Russia and China.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and other Democrats have criticized Ratcliffe and Trump administration officials for what they describe as an effort to create a false narrative that China is on the same footing as Russia when it comes to election interference.
They say the narrative is intended to appease President Trump, who has sought to downplay intelligence that Russia helped his campaign in 2016 and is aiming to do so again.
A House Intelligence Committee official declined to comment on or confirm any classified briefings but highlighted their past concerns that the president's allies are seeking to appease Trump by amplifying claims of Chinese interference.
"As we have underscored previously, it is clear that the ODNI is continuing to try to draw a false equivalence for political reasons between the actions of Russia and China. It's no secret that the Chinese have sought to influence U.S. policy and politicians, and will continue to do so," the committee official said in a statement.
"We must be on guard for that, but we must also not take our eye off the ball that Russia, and only Russia, is actively interfering in the 2020 elections to sway the outcome of the presidential race."
Some Republicans have taken a different position.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has argued that while Russia remains an aggressor in terms of election interference, China is a growing threat.
Rubio "is also becoming increasingly concerned about China's ongoing efforts to expand its influence and interference efforts in America," a spokesman for Rubio told Axios in late July.
"Beijing has a proven capability to carry out cyberattacks and spread disinformation with a clear intent to influence our government policies and pressure policymakers, including members of Congress," added Rubio's spokesman, while noting that "China's resources are far greater than those of Russia."
The briefings with the Senate and House panels, which both lasted roughly two hours, come after Ratcliffe indicated to both chambers earlier this year that he was shifting away from in-person briefings to providing election threat updates primarily through written intelligence reports.
The announcement sparked fierce condemnation from Democrats, who alleged he was limiting key election threat information to Congress just when they needed it most: the final stretch of a heated campaign. Ratcliffe later clarified his remarks, saying in a statement that Congress would still be briefed in person, but the shift is still in motion to primarily update Congress through written reports.
Criticism over whether the Trump administration was seeking to equally blame Russia, China and Iran first began taking hold when William Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, publicly shared a series of foreign threats facing the 2020 presidential election in August, in which he pointed to China, Russia and Iran as the three primary foreign foes.
In particular, Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned that Russia is using a range of measures to "primarily denigrate" Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
In the case of China, Evanina said the U.S. intelligence community has found that Beijing does not want Trump to win reelection because it views him as "unpredictable."
Evanina, however, did not point to concrete efforts to interfere and instead pointed to China's "public rhetoric" over the past few months related to actions taken by the Trump administration on issues like Hong Kong, video app TikTok, 5G cellular networks and the legal battle over the South China Sea, and he warned that "China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action."
Some intelligence experts echoed Evanina, warning that even if China is not currently interfering on the level that Russia is, it could be.
"China has watched the Russians interfere in U.S. elections, be wildly successful and pay almost no price for it," said Jaffer, the former Republican senior counsel on the House Intelligence Committee. "So they are likely wondering, 'Well, why shouldn't I do this too? If they're going to do it and get away with it and benefit themselves, why shouldn't we too?'"
Still, some experts say more information is needed from the government.
"I think it's incumbent on the government, while protecting sources and methods, to find a way to explain that to us," said Pfeiffer.