By Carrie Cordero / Special to The Washington Post
Early voting is well underway. Intelligence community and election security leaders know time is running out to get the right amount of accurate information out to the public to prevent a foreign adversary from influencing voters.
Wednesday’s joint news appearance during television prime time by top intelligence and law enforcement officials was the latest and most dramatic step yet to warn Americans in real time about foreign governments’ efforts to influence the election. It took days, not weeks or months, for national security officials to determine who was behind the activities and communicate that information to the public. The coordinated news appearance also had the effect of letting adversaries know in a very public way that the U.S. government knows what they’re up to.
Leading up to the 2016 election, the Obama administration was reluctant to release information publicly about the threat of foreign interference, particularly Russian operations. There were a variety of legitimate reasons for that; including, not insignificantly, the risk that releasing information would be viewed as politicizing intelligence, and more specifically, selectively declassifying information for the purpose of aiding Hillary Clinton’s campaign. At the time, Russian election interference activities were of such a scope and scale that they presented somewhat of a novel threat, and the idea of providing transparency about it was new, too. As a result, the October 2016 joint assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came late in the election cycle and was overshadowed by competing events and distractions.
This year, the Trump administration can neither plead ignorance nor unpreparedness for attempted foreign interference in the election. And with a president who has for four years denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 election despite a nonpartisan special counsel investigation and a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation both unequivocally stating the opposite, intelligence community professionals are walking a tightrope.
Now, instead of just providing greater transparency about how it does its business, the intelligence community is working to reveal more about what it’s learning. That’s a change. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, recognized this shift in remarks to NPR in August: “I think it’s a very important step for the intelligence community to view the American people as one of their customers. The people pay for this intelligence, and they’re entitled to the benefit of it, subject to protecting sources and then to not compromising how we got this information.” The need for greater transparency about intelligence threats has been apparent for some time. But this type of public transparency about real-time threats is a paradigm shift for the intelligence community.
Finding the right way to release information is neither easy nor typical. The traditional role of the intelligence community is to inform, at a tactical level, intelligence analysts, investigators and warfighters so they can do their day-to-day work to protect the country. At the strategic level, the intelligence community provides insight about the intentions and activities of foreign actors and warns policymakers, diplomats, members of Congress and, traditionally, the president, about national security threats. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr. and his senior staff took a number of steps to provide greater transparency about intelligence community activities during the Obama administration. Those efforts, however, primarily concerned releasing more information about the legal authorities, policies and procedures that applied to intelligence work. They were also prompted, in large part, by unauthorized disclosures of highly classified information.
Other than the annual worldwide threat assessment, where intelligence community chiefs testify before Congress about the most pressing national security threats — which, until this year, had been held in an unclassified format every year for the past 25 — the intelligence community is not in the practice of providing details to the public in real time about the nature of intelligence information unless it involves public safety, such as a discrete threat posed by someone engaged in an attempted act of terrorism. Information about the activities of foreign intelligence services is usually reserved for senior government leaders in the executive branch and members of the congressional intelligence oversight committees.
Before Wednesday’s announcement about Iranian and Russian activities to influence the upcoming election, including Iranian agents sending threatening emails to Democratic voters in Florida under false pretenses, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a component of DHS, had released information about threats to election infrastructure, foreign disinformation from online journals and the potential for distributed denial of service attacks against election infrastructure. FBI Director Christopher Wray’s September testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee clearly articulated, under oath, information about Russian disinformation on social media sites related to the upcoming election. And CISA Director Chris Krebs appears to have kept his agency focused on securing the election and insulated from the politics that plagues much of the rest of his department.
But the actions of the ODNI have shown evidence of conflict between the objectives of a nonpartisan intelligence community and the political leadership it operates under. In July, National Counterintelligence and Security Center director Bill Evanina promised “to continue to update the American public and other key stakeholders on threats to the election.” Just weeks later, his more detailed public statement appeared to equivocate the threat posed by preference for a candidate by China or Iran with active interference activities conducted by Russia, although the text does allow a reader to make a reasonably informed assessment that Russia poses the greater threat this election cycle. DNI John Ratcliffe’s declassification of unverified information about purported Russian intelligence information regarding activities about the 2016 Clinton campaign, one-sided congressional intelligence briefings, and recent cable punditry during the election have exposed him as a partisan whose every passing day in the position of DNI damages the credibility of the intelligence community.
The competing pressures the NCSC, in particular, has been operating under should not be underestimated. The NCSC reports to the DNI. It would be highly unusual for its director to go around either the DNI or the president. But the NCSC director also carries the weight of Congress and the public’s perception of the intelligence community as an apolitical assessor of intelligence; as opposed to being yet another institution corrupted by the Trump presidency. For that reason, NCSC’s Evanina’s recent participation in a nine-minute video alongside Wray, Krebs and NSA Director Paul Nakasone warning the public about foreign influence activities and committing to protecting the country, was important. Because he has conducted himself in partisan fashion, Ratcliffe’s appearance yesterday instead of Evanina had the unfortunate effect of tainting the message.
As I wrote in a July report published by the Center for a New American Security, we cannot afford to wait for an after-the-fact, four-year, five-volume review of how a foreign power interfered in the 2020 election. From now until Nov. 3, the best thing those in leadership positions can do is speak clearly, truthfully and, where possible, collectively, as the recent video release from the four directors and Thursday’s news appearance, demonstrate. Leaning into intelligence transparency about foreign threats to the election is not easy and is taking the community far outside of its traditional zone of comfort. But it’s the right call. Americans deserve to know what they’re up against.
Carrie Cordero is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law.