The decision by the nation’s top intelligence official to halt classified, in-person briefings to Congress about foreign interference in a presidential election that is just nine weeks away exposes the fundamental tension about who needs to know this information: just the president, or the voters whose election infrastructure, and minds, are the target of the hacking?
The intelligence agencies are built to funnel a stream of secret findings to the president, his staff and the military to inform their actions.
President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he does not believe the overwhelming evidence, detailed in thousands of pages of investigative reports by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and indictments of Russian intelligence officers by his own Justice Department, that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, and is at it again.
One of the bitter lessons of the last election is that intelligence about hacking into voter registration systems and the spreading of disinformation must be handled in a very different way. Those defending against misinformation include state and city election officials; Facebook, Twitter and Google; and voters themselves, who need to know who is generating or amplifying the messages they see running across their screens.
And if they do not understand the threat assessments, they will enter the most critical phase of the election — those vulnerable weeks when everything counts and adversaries have a brief window to take their best shot — without understanding the battle space.
So it is no surprise that as soon as word leaked about the decision by the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, to give Congress only written updates about the latest intelligence, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. led the parade of accusations that Mr. Trump is paving the way for a second round of election interference.
“Nothing is more important than the security and integrity of our elections,” Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, said in a statement on Saturday. “And we know that President Trump is unwilling to take action to protect them. That leaves Congress as the best defender of our democracy.”
“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,” Mr. Biden added. “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.”
Whether or not Mr. Biden’s accusation of malicious intent is correct, the White House is once again seeking to marginalize Congress and the committees that are charged with overseeing, and funding, the $80 billion intelligence enterprise.
Intelligence officials sorting through the complexities of the 2020 intelligence note that the real danger arises from the swirl of conflicting signals about how the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians are writing new playbooks for 2020.
Interpreting their intentions — and their feints — would be hard enough in normal times.
Mr. Ratcliffe, a Trump partisan who is new to his job, is discovering that he does not have a monopoly on the intelligence. Every week dozens of cybersecurity firms issue reports that sift through evidence of malware and disinformation.
So Mr. Trump and Mr. Ratcliffe will not be stopping the flow of data about what foreign actors are up to, or whether they are succeeding. They will just be pulling the U.S. intelligence services back from publicly assessing what is important and what is background noise — at the most critical moment in a highly contested, highly divisive race that the president himself declared a month ago will be “the most rigged election” in history.
(Mr. Trump was referring to the surge in mail-in ballots, which he claimed, without evidence, that Russia and China could gain access to. Intelligence agencies last week contradicted those claims.)
Until a few days ago, there seemed to be a movement inside the intelligence agencies to say a bit more about election threats — but not much more. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, who demanded more public disclosures about Russian activity, intelligence officials this month issued a new public warning about Moscow’s interference. But they also cautioned that China and Iran were coming in on Mr. Biden’s behalf, even though their activities so far have been marginal at best.
Meanwhile, the director of the National Security Agency, who also serves as commander of Cyber Command, the vast military operation designed to push back in the daily cyberconflict among nations, published a vaguely worded essay in Foreign Affairs magazine reminding American rivals that the United States was pursuing a new strategy of “persistent engagement” deep inside adversary computer networks — but he was not specific about the threats.
“This is a new concept for the intelligence community,” Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who led a lengthy congressional study into enhancing the nation’s cyberdefenses, said in an interview on Saturday. “Their fallback position is always secret. And their second fallback position is that we only give this to the national security apparatus. Maybe we will give it to Congress. We will never give it to the American people unless someone demands it.”
“But I argue the American people are the decision makers and they are entitled to the information and it has to be given to them in a form that is useful and thoroughly examined,” he added, noting that “a cold written statement” does not meet that standard because those statements can be watered down to fit Mr. Trump’s agenda.
In fact, the challenge is that American intelligence analysts do not write for the public. They employ code words understandable to those who read their reports, but which need translation for a public that is struggling to comprehend spear-phishing and ransomware and cannot agree on what constitutes disinformation. The result is that even the best-intentioned warnings often fail at their purpose.
That is one reason Democrats are pressing to interrogate the analysts and force them to state their conclusions in plain terms. Mr. Ratcliffe insists that is too risky.
In an appearance on Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Ratcliffe said he had decided to end in-person briefings on election security because, a few weeks ago, “within minutes of one of those briefings ending, a number of members of Congress went to a number of different publications and leaked classified information, again, for political purposes to create a narrative that simply isn’t true: that somehow Russia is a greater national security threat than China.”
Mr. Ratcliffe insisted there was “a pandemic of information being leaked out of the intelligence community, and I’m going to take the measures to make sure that that stops.”
Mr. King disputes that any sources and methods were compromised, and several federal officials agreed.
What Mr. Ratcliffe ignored was the risk ahead. If the complaint about the intelligence agencies under President Barack Obama in 2016 was that they had their radar off and never saw the Russians coming until it was too late, the concern in 2020 may be a deliberate failure to communicate.