U.S. intelligence shows that Russia is trying to “denigrate” Joe Biden, and China prefers that President Trump lose reelection, while Iran is trying to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and the president ahead of the election.
That is the assessment as described by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the U.S. intelligence community, in an update released Friday on foreign interference efforts less than three months before the November presidential election.
On Russia, ODNI says Russia is using a “range of measures” to “primarily denigrate” Biden, consistent with Moscow’s past criticism of him.
“For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” ODNI says. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
On China, ODNI says Bejing sees Mr. Trump as “unpredictable,” and the communist country has grown increasingly critical of the president’s rhetoric.
ODNI assesses that Iran is trying to undermine and divide the country and will likely rely on social media disinformation. Iran believes Mr. Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of the pressure campaign against Iran.
“NCSC Director Evanina’s statement today builds on and provides additional context to his previous statement two weeks ago,” Acting Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio and Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner said in a joint statement. “We thank him for providing this additional information to the American people, and we look forward to his continued engagement, along with other members of the Intelligence Community and the Administration, with the public over the next 87 days.”
Publicly identifying the candidate preference of a foreign actor ahead of an election is an unprecedented step for the U.S. intelligence community. Although ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement in October of 2016 stating that the Russian government was behind the hacking and dumping of emails and had been scanning and probing election systems, it was not until two months later, in January of 2017, that the intelligence community said explicitly that Moscow, having “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” took those and other measures in an effort to damage Secretary Clinton’s election chances and boost then-candidate Trump’s.
That assessment – and subsequent efforts by the intelligence community to identify a preferred candidate in closed briefings – have become politically charged topics. Officials who told members of the House Intelligence Committee in February that Moscow had again demonstrated a preference for President Trump were criticized by Republicans who questioned the validity of the underlying intelligence.
Press reports about the briefing infuriated Mr. Trump, who tweeted that Democrats had launched a “misinformation campaign” about Russia’s preference for his candidacy and removed then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Mr. Trump has consistently downplayed Russia’s 2016 interference campaign while highlighting Russian president Vladimir Putin’s denials that Moscow had meddled at all.
The president has also criticized the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, whose findings on Russia’s 2016 campaign have been reinforced by a bipartisan Senate Committee and bolstered by the report compiled by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The update, which was mandated by a provision in last year’s intelligence Authorization Act, follows a preliminary statement, issued on July 24 by National Counterintelligence and Security (NCSC) Director William Evanina, that identified China, Russia and Iran as the top nation states known to be engaged in some level of election interference. Evanina has served for years as the top U.S. counterintelligence official and was tapped to lead intelligence-based election security threat briefings in May.
“We’re primarily concerned with China, Russia and Iran — although other nation-states and non-state actors could also do harm to our electoral process,” his July statement said. It warned voters to “consume information with a critical eye,” but offered few specifics about the activities or objectives of each actor.
Since 2016, intelligence and other administration officials have warned consistently that Russia and other adversaries were likely to continue engaging in election interference, likely using new and more sophisticated, less detectable, tactics.
All three countries identified in 2020 have previously been named as candidates likely to deal in disinformation – including in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, an annual report compiled by the intelligence community on top global security challenges.
“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the 2019 assessment said.
But Democrats have been sharply critical of many of ODNI’s election security disclosures to date. Senior Democrats belonging to the so-called “Gang of 8,” a select group of lawmakers routinely briefed by the executive branch on classified matters, criticized Evanina’s July statement in particular. They said it created a false equivalence among actors of “unequal intent, motivation and capability,” and that the warning about Russia’s activities was “so generic as to be meaningless.” They called for a “far more concrete and specific statement.”
Rubio later issued a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defending Evanina, saying the Democrats’ response “baselessly impugns his character and politicizes intelligence matters” and undercut Evanina’s “nonpartisan public outreach to increase Americans’ awareness of foreign influence campaigns.”
An ODNI official told CBS News there would be “more to follow” on election threats. “This is the beginning of a conversation with the American public,” the official said.
Evanina, along with Intelligence Community Election Threats Executive Shelby Pierson and other national security officials, briefed lawmakers in multiple classified sessions late last week and early this week. But some Democrats emerged similarly frustrated from the briefings and again called on ODNI to issue a more explicit public warning.
“I attended the briefing today by [ODNI] regarding foreign-based election interference,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted on Monday. “I remain very concerned information is being withheld from the public that could help voters distinguish legitimate political speech from foreign propaganda.”
“Shocked & appalled—I just left a 90 minute classified briefing on foreign malign threats to our elections,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, another Connecticut Democrat, tweeted. “From spying to sabotage, Americans need to see & hear these reports.”
The senators’ appeal follows a demand from the Democratic Gang of 8 lawmakers – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Warner – for a defensive counterintelligence briefing for all of Congress in August, expressing concern in a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray that lawmakers appeared to be “the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign.”
Two sources confirmed the Democrats’ concerns stemmed from information allegedly derived from Russian intelligence sources and provided by Ukrainian operatives to members of a Senate committee, led by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, that is currently investigating presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Politico first reported the details of Democrats’ concerns.
Johnson has denied receiving information from foreign nationals about Biden and, together with Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, accused Democrats of assisting Russian disinformation efforts.
In a letter to their Democratic counterparts, Johnson and Grassley said Democrats’ requests for briefings were “one-sided and highly political.”
“We hope that you will join us in rejecting any and all efforts by foreign entities to interfere in our elections, and refrain from using this issue as a political weapon to target investigations—investigations grounded in fact and that fall squarely within the Committees’ jurisdiction to safeguard our homeland security and financial systems —with which you happen to disagree,” they wrote.
Last week, the House Intelligence Committee voted to allow all members to access the classified materials it sent, along with its request, to Wray, who has not yet indicated whether the FBI will provide a defensive briefing.
According to a transcript of the committee’s business meeting, Ranking Member Devin Nunes was asked by Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney whether committee Republicans previously received materials from Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian, pro-Russia politician who has publicly released materials of unknown origin about Joe Biden, and who has acknowledged sending materials to other lawmakers. Nunes, according to the transcript, did not respond to Maloney’s questions. Committee Republicans later told Breitbart News Maloney’s questioning was “inappropriate” and that the committee’s Democrats were “clearly conducting election interference.”
— CBS News’ Kathryn Watson contributed to this report.