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Democrats Say Change In Election Security Briefings Is 'Outrageous'

Congressional Democrats are calling the director of national intelligence's cancellation of additional in-person election security briefings "outrageous," after the change was announced on Friday.
Congressional Democrats are calling the director of national intelligence's cancellation of additional in-person election security briefings "outrageous," after the change was announced on Friday.

Updated at 8:08 p.m. ET

Congressional Democrats are calling the director of national intelligence's cancellation of additional in-person election security briefings "outrageous," after the change was announced on Friday. Election Day is about nine weeks away.

Congress will still be briefed on election security by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but through written reports instead of verbal briefings.

In a letter to congressional leaders, John Ratcliffe — a former Texas Republican congressman who was confirmed as director of national intelligence in May — wrote that he believes the change "helps ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that the information ODNI provides the Congress ... is not misunderstood nor politicized."

President Trump said Saturday that Ratcliffe was ending the briefings in order to prevent leaks.

The change comes just weeks after a top counterintelligence official warned about ongoing interference and influence efforts by Russia, China and Iran.

Democrats, including Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, say the in-person briefings allow Congress to ask necessary questions and assess the tone and urgency of any threats from the intelligence community.

"I think it's outrageous," Krishnamoorthi told Weekend Edition Sunday. "The fact that they would prevent further in-person briefings means that they want us not to be able to question career public servants about the intelligence that backs up this assessment of Russian interference, press for additional information about it and, quite frankly, ask how can we do more to combat it."

Addressing the counterintelligence report that Russia is again trying to influence the upcoming presidential election, Krishnamoorthi said Russians are using lessons they learned from 2016 and using different tactics this year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, released a joint statement on Saturday saying the change "is a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility to keep the Congress currently informed, and a betrayal of the public's right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy."

Schiff, appearing on CNN's State of the Union, said there is a possibility that Congress could subpoena U.S. intelligence officials to testify about election interference.

"We will compel the intelligence community to give Congress the information that we need. We will compel the intelligence community also to speak plainly to the American people," Schiff said. "And the American people ought to know what Russia is doing, they ought to know their president is unwilling to stand up to Vladimir Putin."

On Face the Nation on Sunday, Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said his department does intend to continue to brief Congress on cyber threats to election infrastructure and that much of what they deal with is unclassified information. He says the change by the ODNI is "not about limiting access, this is about providing the information to Congress — they're going to do that in a different format."

When asked about the leaks that Trump cited as a reason for Ratcliffe's decision, both Krishnamoorthi and Schiff said that while leaks being used for political gain is a legitimate concern, they do not consider that to be the case in this situation.

Krishnamoorthi says this change is the Trump administration "trying to create a chilling effect within the intelligence community."

"They don't want people to tell the truth, they want to muzzle them," he said, adding that the announcement "just invites the suspicion that once again, they're trying to invite that foreign interference."

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also criticized the decision on Saturday, saying in a tweet that the committee "does not and will not accept ODNI's refusal to brief Congress in the 66 days ahead of the election."

"What it appears to me, is that Ratcliffe is trying to control the flow of information," Warner told NPR's All Things Considered on Sunday. "Not have intelligence professionals be able to brief. We all know, the way you get information is the back and forth questioning that goes on in the normal course of congressional oversight. He is refusing to have that congressional oversight."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the acting chair of the intelligence committee, also released a statement on the changes, saying past leaks have hurt the relationship between the intelligence community and Congress. Rubio did not say he would take any action to push for in-person briefings again, but that he still expects intelligence officials to keep Congress informed.

NPR's Christianna Silva contributed reporting.

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