The result has been grave damage to U.S. counterintelligence and electoral security efforts.
Four years ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence helped warn the nation about a Russian information operation that sought to sway the 2016 election toward then-candidate Donald Trump. Today, the country faces another election and a flurry of suspected information operations from Russia, China, and Iran. This time, however, ODNI has ceased to be a reliable actor in the foreign interference and counterintelligence space.
When U.S. intelligence officials announced in a late-night Thursday press briefing that Iran was targeting American voters with false-flag intimidation emails, the initial reaction of both the Democratic leadership and many disinformation experts was to call the briefing itself into question. The trust has been lost.
Two trends are responsible for this sharp decline. The first is the erosion of the statutory independence of U.S. intelligence agencies under Trump, which sharply accelerated with the confirmation of John Ratcliffe as Director of National Intelligence earlier this year. The second, related trend is a raft of recent public disclosures by ODNI that seem engineered to obfuscate or confuse the issue of foreign interference. The result has been grave damage to U.S. counterintelligence and electoral security efforts. These wounds will persist after Trump leaves office.
It was not always this way. In January 2017, when the U.S. intelligence community released its first, stark assessment of Russian activities—and raised the possibility that Russia had coordinated these activities with Trump campaign surrogates—these findings were protected by a phalanx of Republican senators. They condemned foreign interference and vowed a thorough, nonpartisan investigation. They also pressured Trump into appointing then-Senator Dan Coats as DNI, who had the experience and stature to defend the intelligence community against undue political pressure.
That bulwark gave way slowly—but it did give way. Coats lasted two years, by which point his Cabinet allies had departed and most of his former Republican Senate colleagues had ceased to resist the president’s worst impulses. Coats resigned in July 2019 after Trump attempted to strike mention of Russian interference from the National Intelligence Estimate.
After that, the collapse began in earnest. In February 2020, the White House disavowed an ODNI congressional briefing that had mentioned Russia’s efforts to boost the president’s re-election campaign and fired the agency’s acting director. Several of ODNI’s longserving senior leaders were dismissed soon thereafter. The partisan takeover was completed in May with the confirmation of Ratcliffe, who had no intelligence experience and whose nomination had been previously pulled for misrepresenting his national security credentials. But Ratcliffe had what mattered most: a long history of casting doubt on Russian information operations, including vocal attacks on the investigations of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Under Ratcliffe, ODNI has worked to trivialize the threat of Russian information operations. In August, ODNI’s first major advisory about foreign interference placed Russian, Chinese, and Iranian efforts at the same level of threat. This assessment contradicted numerous intelligence leaks and all available open-source evidence, which suggested Russian operations were significantly more advanced in their methods and planning. When House Democrats sought answers and further clarification, ODNI responded by canceling its congressional briefings through Election Day.
ODNI’s most outrageous move came on Sept. 29, one day before the first highly anticipated presidential debate between Trump and former Vice President Biden. In response to a request from a highly partisan Senate Judiciary committee investigation led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, Ratcliffe released unverified Russian intelligence from 2016 that claimed that then-candidate Hillary Clinton was using accusations against Russia for her own political purposes. Trump loyalists quickly used these Russian statements to claim that the whole Russian operation had been a “hoax” invented by Clinton and the Obama White House.
There could scarcely be a better illustration of how far ODNI had fallen in four years. In 2016, intelligence officials agonized for weeks about exerting undue political influence before releasing a short, nonspecific October statement that had alleged hacking and influence activities by Russia. In 2020, by contrast, intelligence officials intentionally released and amplified unvetted foreign intelligence on the eve of the most important media moment of the presidential election. Eager to catch the evening news cycle, they did so with just 39 minutes’ notice to relevant congressional committees. Instead of avoiding electoral politics, ODNI went out of its way to put a finger on the scales.
And it may get worse. Since Oct. 14, there has been a new information operation underway, again working to Trump’s benefit and demonstrating nearly identical methods to the Russian hack-and-release effort that disrupted the 2016 election. This operation is targeting Biden’s son and using Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to launder hacked emails and photographs into far-right American media.
ODNI’s first comment on the matter came Oct. 19, when Ratcliffe appeared on Fox. He stated that “no intelligence” supported the interpretation that this was a Russian disinformation campaign. He went on to tacitly endorse Trump’s re-election bid, urging viewers to not let Democrats “return to power” and “again mislead the American people.”
Ratcliffe’s latest attacks on the notion of Russian interference directly contradicted off-the-record remarks by active U.S. intelligence analysts, who have warned of precisely such an operation for months. His remarks came just days after it was revealed that the FBI was conducting an active investigation. They came the same day that the Department of Justice unsealed new charges against Russian hackers for foreign election interference. Ratcliffe’s comments did not appear to reflect reality. Instead, they seemed to serve as undeclared advertising for the Trump campaign.
Unfortunately, this politicization of U.S. intelligence and foreign interference claims will likely persist even if Trump loses re-election. For Ratcliffe and other senior Trump appointees, there will be every incentive in their final months to release material that exaggerates the influence of China and Iran while fueling further conspiracy theories about the Russia “hoax.” Expect to see immediate, unsubstantiated claims about an election “stolen” by China. Expect to see those claims amplified by the president’s Twitter account.
Throughout it all, most civil servants at ODNI remain as dedicated as ever to the tasks of counterintelligence and election security. But their work has been repeatedly warped, suppressed, or misrepresented by a handful of senior political appointees. It will take extraordinary effort by a potential Biden administration to restore ODNI to its role as an accountable, honest broker for both policymakers and the American public.
But this effort must take place. Under the best circumstances, the issue of foreign interference is a political minefield, inviting tough questions and drawing understandable mistrust. Under the current circumstances—multiple suspected information operations being selectively investigated and publicized by a deeply politicized ODNI—the situation is impossible. The election is not safe.
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