It was through the intelligence community that lawmakers and the American public were made aware of Russia’s 2016 election interference and the scope of that effort—to the chagrin of Donald Trump, who has publicly dismissed those conclusions and stood in the way of attempts to safeguard the upcoming vote against foreign meddling. But, lawmakers warn, an abrupt change to briefings announced by John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence, could make it harder for Congress—and everyday Americans—to access key intelligence about threats to undermine the November election.
In letters to Capitol Hill last week, Ratcliffe announced that his office would largely cease in-person intelligence briefings and will instead rely “primarily” on written assessments, which lawmakers say fail to provide as thorough an accounting as the live briefings. While Ratcliffe in his announcement framed the move as being in the interest of “clarity and consistency,” members of congress on both sides of the aisle were infuriated, warning the unusual shift—just over two months from Election Day—could leave legislators and citizens in the dark about electoral and national security threats. “It is an outrage,” Independent Senator Angus King told the New York Times last week. “It smacks of a cover-up of information about foreign interference in our elections. If there is foreign interference in our election, we should know about it before the election. The intelligence committee is not a history organization, it is a current events organization.”
Democrats, including Joe Biden, are growing increasingly vocal in their criticism of the change, raising fears that Trump may be welcoming or actively soliciting foreign intervention—something he’s done before—and covering it up by impeding the flow of intelligence information. “There can be only one conclusion: President Trump is hoping Vladimir Putin will once more boost his candidacy and cover his horrific failures to lead our country through the multiple crises we are facing,” Biden said in a statement over the weekend. “And he does not want the American people to know the steps Vladimir Putin is taking to help Trump get re-elected or why Putin is eager to intervene, because Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been a gift to the Kremlin.” Even Acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio, one of Trump’s enablers, slammed the decision, criticizing leaks from fellow lawmakers but cautioning that the DNI tightening its grip on intelligence could leave Congress unable to perform oversight. “Congressional oversight of intelligence activities now faces a historic crisis,” the Republican said in a statement Saturday. “Intelligence agencies have a legal obligation to keep Congress informed of their activities.”
Speaking on Fox News on Sunday, Ratcliffe defended the move, saying that a “pandemic of information being leaked out” threatened to compromise intelligence gathering. “I’m going to take the measures to make sure that that stops,” Ratcliffe said. But the timing of the move is suspicious, especially coming, as it does, from a Trump loyalist. Democrats have signaled they may go to the mat to ensure election security risks are made clear, with Adam Schiff on Sunday opening the door to possibly subpoenaing intelligence officials to testify about electoral issues heading into November. “This intelligence paid for by taxpayers doesn’t belong to Donald Trump,” Schiff said on CNN. “It doesn’t belong to the intelligence agencies. It belongs to the American people. The agencies are merely the custodians of that information.”
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