WASHINGTON — The Trump administration's election security czar issued a rare statement describing foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 election Friday. Democrats labeled it misleading, saying it failed to convey the scope of Russia's interference and how its messaging matches that of President Donald Trump.
With just over 100 days until the November election, the statement came from Bill Evanina, a career FBI agent who serves as the top counterintelligence official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Evanina has been given the task of coordinating what to tell Congress and the public about foreign political interference.
American adversaries are "seeking to compromise the private communications of U.S. political campaigns, candidates and other political targets," Evanina said in Friday's statement, and they "also seek to compromise our election infrastructure, and we continue to monitor malicious cyber actors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections."
"In addition, foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process," Evanina said. "The coronavirus pandemic and recent protests, for instance, continue to serve as fodder for foreign influence and disinformation efforts in America."
Russia, China and Iran are the adversaries of top concern, Evanina said, but he didn't say which of them are hacking campaigns and election systems, and he didn't specifically describe any of the influence campaigns each nation is believed to be undertaking.
Russia, Evanina said, is seeking "to weaken the United States and diminish our global role. Using a range of efforts, including internet trolls and other proxies, Russia continues to spread disinformation in the United States that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia 'establishment' in America.
Evanina made no mention of what American intelligence analysts have concluded about whether Russia is trying to help President Trump, as intelligence agencies assessed happened in 2016. The official who is coordinating the intelligence community's efforts on election interference, Shelby Pierson, told Congress months ago that there was evidence Russia again sought to boost Trump.
Shortly after Evanina's statement was issued, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized it in an appearance on Andrea Mitchell Reports on MSNBC. A Senate aide told NBC News that Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee share Schiff's concerns.
"I have been urging Bill Evanina and others in the intelligence community to level with the American people about what's going on, to bring them into the conversation, so they're armed with good information about what our foreign adversaries are doing," Schiff said. "And I have serious concerns about the statement that was just put out — serious concerns in how it gives a false sense of equivalence between what Russia is doing, what China is doing, what Iran is doing."
Schiff did not explicitly say what he believes the statement left out about Russia, but he said, "I think that our adversaries, in particular the Russians, are going to amplify the false messages that the president is putting out about, 'Well, you can't trust absentee ballots,' even though that's how the president votes."
He added, "The Russians will look for any divide they can to sow chaos in the United States. And but — what better way than to amplify false information about how millions of Americans cast their votes?
Later, Schiff signed a joint statement with fellow California Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia.
The Democrats's statement said Evanina did "not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process," and argued his statement "gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together."
The Democratic leaders added that Evanina's statement also "fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November. To say without more, for example, that Russia seeks to ‘denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia 'establishment' in America’ is so generic as to be almost meaningless. The statement omits much on a subject of immense importance."
Asked to respond an ODNI official told NBC News:
“Our statement in no way downplays the election-related threats from Russia, which are very serious and which we have briefed to Congressional leaders repeatedly. However, other nation-state actors have entered the election threat arena in a big way and they can’t be ignored. This is about the 2020 election, not the 2016 election.”
The official added that "there are serious threats to our elections from multiple nations, not just one. There is no particular order or weight by which the threat actors are listed in the statement."
More information will be forthcoming, the official said.
"We encourage Americans to consume information with a critical eye, check out sources before reposting or spreading messages, practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy, and report suspicious election-related activity to authorities."