Politico

Trump administration, Democrats joust over warning on election interference


A pointed warning Friday about election interference inspired an extended back-and-forth Friday between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats, who argued it wrongly places China and Iran in the same league as the threat posed by Russia.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in a statement earlier in the day that all three countries are working to influence the 2020 election, in what he called “a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy.”

But Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said the statement “omits much on a subject of immense importance” — making their newest plea for a fuller disclosure about the scope of the threats facing the election.

Evanina’s warning “does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement with House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

“The statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together,” the lawmakers said. In addition, it “fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November.”

The same four lawmakers asked the FBI this month for a briefing about what they called a “concerted foreign interference campaign” aimed at influencing the election.

An ODNI official later rejected the Democrats’ criticism, saying Evanina’s statement “in no way downplays the election-related threats from Russia, which are very serious and which we have briefed to Congressional leaders repeatedly.”

“However, other nation-state actors have entered the election threat arena in a big way and they can’t be ignored,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity WHY. “This is about the 2020 election, not the 2016 election.”

Evanina’s statement, issued to mark 100 days until voters go to the polls, is meant to highlight that “there are serious threats to our elections from multiple nations, not just one,” the official added. “There is no particular order or weight by which the threat actors are listed in the statement. “

“This is the beginning of a conversation with the American public. There is more to follow,” the official said.

Evanina said the intelligence community is “primarily concerned” about China, Russia and Iran, “although other nation states and non-state actors could also do harm to our electoral process.”

Beijing “recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race,” Evanina said, by “expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism” of Beijing.

Russia’s “persistent objective is to weaken the United States and diminish our global role,” Evanina said, through a “range of efforts,” like internet trolls, to spread disinformation that is “designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America.”

Iran, likewise, has centered its efforts around online influence operations, such as spreading disinformation on social media and pushing anti-American content, to “undermine U.S. democratic institutions and divide the country in advance of the elections,” Evanina warned.

In their joint statement, Democratic leaders described the warning as “so generic as to be almost meaningless.”

Evanina’s statement comes a week after Joe Biden, citing intelligence briefings that he is now receiving, warned that Russia and China are both actively trying to sow doubt in the country’s electoral system.

“We know from before and I guarantee you I know now because now I get briefings again,” the presumptive Democratic nominee said during a fundraiser. “The Russians are still engaged in trying to delegitimize our electoral process. Fact.”

China and others “are engaged as well in activities that are designed for us to lose confidence in the outcome,” Biden added.

While it’s unclear exactly what kind of intelligence briefings Biden has received, he may have been referring to sessions on election security threats led by Evanina, whom ODNI earlier this year made the point for such intel-based briefings.

Evanina, and Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community’s election-threats executive, provided a classified briefing to the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday about the latest election threat landscape, two people familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

Evanina’s warning also arrived the same week Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, the chief of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, reiterated that his top priority is defending November’s election from foreign interference.

“Our No. 1 objective at the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command is safe, secure and legitimate 2020 elections,” Nakasone said during a webinar hosted by the Association of the United States Army.

“Much like 2018, we’re going to know our adversaries better than they know themselves,” Nakasone said. “We’re going to act when we see adversaries attempting to interfere in our elections.”

Earlier this month, the president acknowledged that he had ordered Cyber Command to carry out a first-of-its-kind offensive digital strike on an infamous Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, before the 2018 midterms. The attack knocked the organization — which has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government — offline on Election Day and for several days afterward to prevent it from spreading disinformation as Americans went to the polls.

Evanina’s statement didn’t address Trump’s spurious claims that mail-in voting is an attempt to rig the election.

Instead, he stressed that the public “has a role to play in securing the election” by being vigilant about influence attempts.

“At the most basic level, we encourage Americans to consume information with a critical eye, check out sources before reposting or spreading messages, practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy, and report suspicious election-related activity to authorities,” Evanina said.

He added: “As Americans, we are all in this together; our elections should be our own.”

Democratic leaders noted that earlier this month they had requested that the FBI provide a “defensive briefing” to the entire Congress “about specific threats related to a concerted foreign disinformation campaign, and this is more important than ever.”

However, a “far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods,” they continued Friday. “We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves. But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it.”

They added: “When it comes to American elections, Americans must decide.”

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