U.S. intel officials worry their latest findings about Russian election interference are being distorted

At issue is an analysis presented to Congress by the official in charge of election security and whether Russians are actively interfering to help Trump.
President Donald Trump at a news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.Alexander Drago / Reuters
By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that their latest findings about Russian election interference are being distorted and weaponized for political gain by both sides, current and former officials told NBC News.

At issue is the secret analysis presented to the House Intelligence Committee Feb. 13 by the top intelligence official in charge of election security, Shelby Pierson. Current and former officials who spoke to NBC News this week say the misinformation and controversy surrounding that briefing have left them on the defensive, and worried that the public is not getting a full appreciation of the threat of foreign election interference in 2020.

Last week, a bombshell report in The New York Times said Pierson and other briefers in the meeting had told lawmakers "that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected."

Intelligence officials say that was an overstatement, fueled, they believe, by a misinterpretation by some Democratic lawmakers on the committee.

Two intelligence officials told NBC News this week that Pierson did not tell lawmakers that intelligence showed Russia was actively working to help the president's re-election campaign.

As with most intelligence, there is nuance. Weeks before the briefing, Pierson said publicly that the Russians were continuing to interfere in American politics through disinformation on social media and other means. And the intelligence officials who spoke to NBC News did not dispute that she told the House the analysis suggests the Russians favor Trump — a preference the Russians displayed during the 2016 election, the U.S. intelligence community publicly concluded.

Two former intelligence officials briefed on the matter told NBC News there is evidence that the Russians would like to see Trump remain in office.

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What the intelligence doesn't show, the officials said, is that the Russians are actively taking steps to help Trump now. That was also true in the 2016 election, public intelligence reports say — the Russians at first sought to sow chaos, then moved to actively supporting Trump.

Adding to the complex picture, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders disclosed Friday that he had been briefed that the Russians were trying to help his campaign. He didn't say how or why. According to an indictment of Russians by former special counsel Robert Mueller, the Russians also sought to boost Sanders in 2016.

"My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do," Sanders said.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at Vic Mathias Shores Park in Austin, Texas, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

In contrast, Trump and his national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, have sidestepped questions about how they would respond to foreign election interference, and have instead put the focus on the Democrats. By doing so, they have also played politics with intelligence and national security, current and former officials say.

Asked Tuesday morning in India whether he had a message to Vladimir Putin about Russian election interference, Trump answered by commenting on Sanders, before pivoting to an accusation that House Democrats leaked classified intelligence. The president did not urge Russia to back off, as Sanders did.

"I think it's disgraceful," the president said, speaking not about Russian election interference, but about leaks describing the Feb. 13 classified briefing to House lawmakers.

O'Brien said Sunday on CBS that "what I heard from the FBI is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination and would probably like him to be president, understandably, because he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military. That would make sense."

He added that he had seen no evidence the Russians were doing anything to help Trump.

"They are calling the intelligence community liars because they know the intelligence community won't defend themselves," a former senior intelligence official told NBC News.

The official, who spoke to people who participated in crafting the intelligence analysis that was briefed to lawmakers, said the intelligence assessment that Russia favors Trump called upon a variety of sources from agencies across the government.

Shelby Pierson.NBC News

"This is not a matter of interpretation. It is the product of a tradecraft that has been in place for decades, designed with truth as a central premise."

National Security Action, a Democratic group, said in a statement Tuesday that what it called the Trump administration's "manipulation of our intelligence is an unmistakable signal that this administration places Trump's political interests ahead of our national security."

Trump, for his part, alleges that it was Democrats who compromised national security by leaking details of a classified briefing — some of which were wrong.

"I think it's terrible. They ought to stop the leaking from Intelligence Committee," Trump said after a reporter asked what he would say to Putin about Russian interference.

Trump them moved on without addressing that question.

Ken Dilanian