WASHINGTON — Sounding the alarm from behind a curtain of classification, lawmakers briefed on U.S. intelligence have been practically begging the Trump administration to make public information about ongoing 2020 election meddling, even before the U.S. intelligence community’s startling new assessment.
Now that the administration has taken a step in that direction, some of those same lawmakers are insisting they’ve viewed far more intelligence that must be declassified — and soon, so voters can protect themselves ahead of an election just three months away.
“We believe more of the information that was made available in these briefings can, and at the appropriate time should, be shared with the voting public,” Sens. Marco Rubio and Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate’s intelligence panel, said in a joint statement. They urged the administration to “share with the voting public as much information about foreign threats to our elections as possible.”
The public assessment late Friday from U.S. counterintelligence chief William Evanina framed foreign election meddling as a threat to both presidential candidates, emphasizing that China and Iran want President Donald Trump to lose re-election.
But it was the assessment that Russia is working “to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden” that spoke directly to what members of Congress had been trying to get into the public domain — especially when it comes to Andriy Derkach, the pro-Russian member of Ukrainian parliament who Evanina said is “spreading claims about corruption” to taint Joe Biden and Democrats.
“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” the assessment added.
All 535 members of the House and Senate have access to some sensitive information, including U.S. intelligence, not available to the general public. The Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers and their top members on the intelligence committees, known collectively as the “Gang of Eight,” are privy to even more highly classified information that can only be viewed in a special secure facility.
Disclosing classified information without authorization, even if someone believes it’s in the national interest, is a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While Congress is often blamed for national security leaks, lawmakers are generally careful not to cross over into classified territory when they speak publicly.
So when threats emerge that lawmakers feel the public needs to know about, often the best they can do is sound the alarm in vague and general terms in hopes it triggers enough public pressure and media attention to force the government to go public.
Such was the case last year when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., went public with the fact that the Trump administration was withholding a whistleblower complaint, without disclosing what the underlying complaint was about. It turned out to center on Trump’s notorious call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In this case, Democratic lawmakers have been warning for weeks with growing urgency about what they allege is a foreign plot to “launder” disinformation through Congress to influence the election. In public hearings and TV interviews and written statements, the lawmakers have alluded strongly to a Russian plot and pleaded with Trump’s Cabinet members to make more information public, while pointedly noting they themselves couldn’t say more.
“I know other colleagues have made reference to it, but over the past few days we have received classified briefings about the continuing, absolutely shocking and startling threats from malign foreign interference in our elections that is potentially ongoing,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. “It's absolutely chilling, based on the facts we received in a classified setting.”
Last month, the four Democrats on the Gang of Eight wrote the FBI director asking for a defensive briefing for all lawmakers. Although the public portion of their letter didn’t go into detail, they included a classified addendum that several congressional aides said made reference to an ongoing investigation by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Johnson, a Trump ally, has been leading one of two GOP Senate investigations involving Biden and his son, Hunter, that Democrats allege are attempts to smear the former vice president ahead of the election.
Derkach, the Ukrainian lawmaker, has been circulating questionable materials he says implicate Biden’s son in corruption in Ukraine, an unproven claim the Bidens have long denied. Derkach, who studied at a Russian spy academy and has worked on anti-Biden efforts with Rudy Giuliani, has said publicly that he’s sent packets of information to Johnson and other Republican offices on Capitol Hill.
Johnson, for his part, insists he’s not spreading Russian disinformation and that he carefully vets his sources. But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, brought up secret audio recordings of Biden and a former Ukrainian president that Derkach somehow obtained and publicized.
When Murphy asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the hearing whether Derkach should be viewed as “a credible source of information,” Pompeo demurred, even when Murphy implored him not to withhold information about malign election influence.
“If, when it's appropriate, I will,” Pompeo said. “When there's still work ongoing, and there's still unsettled intelligence around these things, I'm going to try to be just a little bit more careful, senator.”
One week later, the public assessment from Evanina, who directs the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, indicated the intelligence was no longer unsettled.
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“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,” Evanina said in his latest update to the public about 2020 meddling attempts.
Yet lawmakers briefed in a classified setting on meddling efforts are insisting even the new public assessment keeps American voters largely in the dark in the campaign’s final months. Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the public needs “specific information that would allow voters to appraise for themselves the respective threats posed by these foreign actors, and distinguish these actors’ different and unequal aims, current actions, and capabilities.”
“We hope and expect that the Intelligence Community will be even more forthcoming with the public moving forward,” the Democratic lawmakers said.