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Just two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its final report on Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. The bipartisan report concluded that Russia tried to influence that election in favor of Donald Trump, who became president. It also detailed instances when the Trump campaign shared information with Russian officials.
Against this backdrop, it is essential that Congress be kept informed about these efforts to sway American voters. So, it is alarming that the Director of National Intelligence last week said he would no longer brief Congress on election security. Instead, Director John Ratcliffe said his office would submit written reports, according to letters obtained by CNN.
Ratcliffe wrote that written reports would protect sources, stop leaks and allow the intelligence committee to communicate with a singular voice.
The problem with written reports is that lawmakers are unable to ask questions and get quick responses, which is essential with just two months before the presidential election. This race is already shrouded in concern and controversy. Now, more than ever, Americans need strong oversight of our elections and efforts to interfere with them.
Plus, such briefings are required by law. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2020, passed in December, requires that the Director of National Intelligence, along with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, brief congressional intelligence committees about foreign intrusion and other actions directed at U.S. elections. The Trump administration says only the FBI and Homeland Security will now provide such information, which is counter to the law’s requirements.
Both Maine senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both condemned the move by Ratcliffe and, more importantly, both pledged to work with their colleagues to prompt a return to in-person briefings. Collins even threatened to withhold money from the office.
“It is critical for these oversight briefings to continue to help safeguard our elections. The [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] has committed multiple times to keep [the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] up to date on election security threats facing our country, including through briefings,” Collins said in a statement to the BDN.
“If the [Director of National Intelligence] does not follow through on this commitment, there is a range of options available to attempt to compel testimony, which could include a subpoena. I hope that will be unnecessary,” she added. “Furthermore, Committee members who also sit on the Appropriations Committee, like myself, can impose budget restrictions or fence funds to compel cooperation and to remind the Executive Branch that it is subject to congressional oversight.”
King stressed that the information gathered by the U.S. intelligence agencies belongs to the American people, who deserve to know about efforts to manipulate or interfere with the Nov. 3 election. He is working with the intelligence committee leaders to restart the required briefings. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the committee, called the briefing situation “a historic crisis.”
“The American people need to educate themselves. They need to know that [foreign interference] is happening,” King told the Bangor Daily News editorial board in an interview.
He emphasized that Ratcliffe’s unilateral move to stop committee briefings is illegal. “A written document is not a briefing,” he said.
The move to end briefings also contradicts a pledge Ratcliffe made to the Intelligence Committee in May to continue the required briefings. When asked by King if he would testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee even if the White House told him not to, Ratcliffe replied: “I will. I will.”
Four months later, that promise has been broken.
The logical question American voters are left with is, “What are they hiding?” That question, as well as all questions about foreign election interference on behalf of or against any candidate, need to be answered now, not months after the Nov. 3 election.