The Trump appointee who presides over the nation’s spy agencies, former Dallas-area congressman John Ratcliffe, was under fire Sunday for halting in-person briefings to keep Congress up to speed on foreign meddling in the presidential election.
“I’m going to continue to follow the law. I’m going to continue to keep Congress informed. But we have had a pandemic of information being leaked out of the intelligence community,” Ratcliffe, director of national intelligence, said Sunday on Fox News. “And I’m going to take the measures to make sure that that stops.”
Democrats have been in an uproar since Ratcliffe told Congress Friday that going forward, his office will provide Congress only with written memos on election interference, replacing briefings at which lawmakers can ask probing questions and demand follow-up information.
They accuse him of trying to hide Russian and Chinese interference and said their qualms about installing a Trump loyalist as the nation’s spy chief have been vindicated.
“It’s a complete outrage,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said on ABC’s This Week, after acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf had readily conceded that foreign countries are pumping disinformation into the U.S. political conversation.
With those malign efforts underway, she said, “this is not where you cut off Congress from getting the information.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden accused Ratcliffe of “shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump” while betraying his own oath to defend the American people and Constitution from adversaries.
When the Senate confirmed Ratcliffe as the nation’s new spy chief in May, on a party-line vote, Democrats expressed skepticism about his ability to provide the nonpartisan and unvarnished advice expected of a director of national intelligence.
Congress created the job after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve coordination among intelligence agencies. Ratcliffe oversees the CIA, National Security Agency and more than a dozen other agencies.
A former U.S. attorney in East Texas under President George W. Bush, and mayor of the small town of Heath, Ratcliffe was elected to the House three times. During Trump’s impeachment hearings and trial, he emerged as one of the president’s most effective advocates.
Wolf, making the rounds of Sunday shows, defended Ratcliffe, his fellow Texan.
“His concern is the leak of that classified intelligence,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Yet Wolf noted that hardly any of the material in the briefings at issue are, in fact, classified ― underscoring the Democrats’ point that the move is about controlling narratives, not secrets.
“The information that we share with Congress, that we brief with Congress is almost exclusively unclassified information,” Wolf said. “It’s about cyber threats to election infrastructure. Different from the foreign interference or disinformation campaigns that the intelligence communities and others are dealing with.”
On CNN’s State of the Union, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, downplayed concerns about the suspended briefings.
“This is being blown so way out of proportion. I could probably count on one or two fingers the things that are actually classified in those briefings,” he said, again seeming to undermine claims that Ratcliffe’s move is about protecting national security.
“We all know what Putin is doing. China wants Biden to be the next president. We understand that. But, you know, it is very difficult to change votes. It is very difficult to actually affect the poll numbers. What you can do is destabilize our politics,” Johnson said.
Ratcliffe and his defenders say that Democratic lawmakers have cherry-picked information from briefings to portray Russia as a bigger threat than China on election interference, to amplify claims that Trump benefits from foreign meddling. But they say, China prefers Biden and is actually the bigger threat.
Richard Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence until Ratcliffe’s confirmation, defended his successor’s move to abandon in-person briefings, because this way “politicians won’t get to leak to the cheerleading reporters and spin a tall tale.”
“The written form has the full context. If leaks occur it will either include everything or should be suspect to responsible reporters. The problem is leaks. And the crisis is partial information leaking,” he tweeted.
With the Senate controlled by Republicans, House Democrats threatened to subpoena Ratcliffe for information he has or may withhold.
“Russia is once again interfering in our elections to get Donald Trump elected and, rather than defend American democracy, Trump and his partisan intelligence leadership are trying to keep the facts from Congress,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, calling Ratcliffe’s move “part of an escalating pattern of law-breaking and contempt for democracy.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asserted that “DNI Ratcliffe has made clear he’s in the job only to protect Trump from democracy, not democracy from Trump.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., called Ratcliffe’s decision to end congressional briefings on election interference — including to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — “shocking.”
“When you can hide behind documents or withhold documents, and not have to answer questions about it, it lets you conceal the truth,” he said Sunday on CNN. “And in this case, concealing the truth is concealing Russians are again intervening to help the president in his reelection. The president evidently believes that he can’t beat Joe Biden without getting either foreign help or disenfranchising people from voting during a pandemic, and doesn’t want the country to know about it.”
Biden, in his statement, caustically referred to Ratcliffe as Trump’s “hand-picked DNI.”
“He does not want the American people to know the steps Vladimir Putin is taking to help Trump get reelected or why Putin is eager to intervene,” he said.
By Todd J. Gillman
Ratcliffe defends end of election security briefings, accuses lawmakers of leaks
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Sunday defended his announcement that in-person election security briefings to Congress will end, saying the move was necessary to prevent leaks.
“When I went through confirmation, people watched that. They heard me make a couple of promises,” Ratcliffe said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures. “One of them was to always follow the law. The other was that I would do everything I could to protect the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, allowing people to leak it for political purposes.”
“The action that I announced yesterday is entirely consistent with that. I reiterated to Congress, look, I’m going to keep you fully and currently informed, as required by the law. But I also said, we’re not going to do a repeat of what happened a month ago, when I did more than what was required, at the request of Congress, to brief not just the Oversight Committees, but every member of Congress,” he said.
“And yet, within minutes of that — 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,” he added.
Ratcliffe went on to tell host Maria Bartiromo that “Russia wants a seat at the table of the international order.”
“China wants to sit at the head of the table. China has a plan, through the Belt and Road Initiative, the made-in-China Initiative, the Thousand Talents program, military-civil fusion laws that require companies to spy for the government through 5G and Huawei, all of that is design to challenge U.S. superiority in every respect, and to sit at the head of the table, and really set the rules and standards and norms for international — in the international marketplace,” he added.
“This intelligence belongs to the American people, not the agencies which are its custodian. And the American people have both the right and the need to know that another nation, Russia, is trying to help decide who their president should be,” they said in a joint statement.
BY ZACK BUDRYK