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Intel chief curbs election briefings, citing leak ‘pandemic’

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe arrives for a briefing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about reports of Russia paying bounties for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, July 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

John Ratcliffe, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, blamed a “pandemic” of leaks in defending his restriction on election-security briefings to Congress, a decision criticized by Democrats as doing President Donald Trump’s bidding.

Ratcliffe, in what was billed as his first interview since he took office in May, said Sunday he would keep Congress informed and appeared to leave the door open to in-person briefings for House members specifically involved with intelligence. He ruled out addressing further “all-member briefings,” saying they led to leaks.

“We’ve implemented procedures where we’ll primarily brief through written materials,” Ratcliffe said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “But then we’ll also provide briefings to the members that are entitled to it, as we have before.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the initial decision by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility” to keep Congress informed. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, called it “a shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump.”

Ratcliffe, a former U.S. representative from Texas, said he took action after members of Congress leaked classified information “for political purposes” within minutes of a July 31 meeting in which he briefed lawmakers and asked them to keep it private. He portrayed those leaks as skewing the threat narrative toward Russia while diverting from a broader danger posed by China.

Schiff criticized Ratcliffe, suggesting he’s trying to evade questions about foreign influence on the 2020 election.

“You can state things in a written report that are not correct, and you can’t be subject to questioning about it,” Schiff said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Trump weighed in Saturday, saying “Ratcliffe brought information into the committee and the information leaked.”

A top U.S. counterintelligence official, William Evanina, said in a report this month that Russia, China and Iran are among the foreign powers working in various ways to sway U.S. voters this year.

“I don’t mean to minimize Russia — they are a serious national security threat,” Ratcliffe said Sunday. “But day in, day out, the threats that we face from China are significantly greater.

“Anyone who says otherwise is just politicizing intelligence for their own narrative,” he added.

Ratcliffe alleged that China has mounted an influence campaign at U.S. federal, state and local levels in a bid to sway U.S. policy. “They use middlemen and proxies to try and influence and ultimately blackmail in some cases or extort elected officials, business leaders and others to support pro-China policies,” he said.

“They’re playing in the election or expressing preferences for Vice President Biden over President Trump because President Trump has been tough on China,” Ratcliffe said.

An Aug. 7 statement by Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said that “China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection.” China has been expanding “its influence efforts” to “shape the policy environment” ahead of the vote, he wrote, adding that Iran similarly hopes for Trump’s defeat.

By contrast, the statement cited Russia as trying to interfere directly in the presidential campaign. It said Russia is “using a range of measures to denigrate” Democrat Joe Biden, including efforts by “Kremlin-linked actors” to “boost President Donald Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

“I’m going to continue to keep Congress informed,” Ratcliffe said. “But we’ve had a pandemic of information being leaked out of the intelligence community. And I’m going to take the measures to make sure that stops.”


©2020 Bloomberg News

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