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Former DNI Daniel Coats criticizes suspension of in-person briefings to Congress on election security

Former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats criticized the Trump administration’s decision to suspend in-person briefings to Congress on election security. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Daniel Coats, a former head of the intelligence community, warned Wednesday that the Trump administration’s move to roll back in-person briefings to Congress on foreign threats to the 2020 election undermines the agencies’ mission and efforts to safeguard the vote.

“It’s imperative that the intelligence community keep Congress fully informed about the threats to our elections and share as much information as possible while protecting sources and methods,” the former director of national intelligence said in an interview.

Coats’s stern warning came in response to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s notifying Congress a week and a half ago that he was suspending in-person briefings to lawmakers, though the Senate Intelligence Committee’s acting chairman said his panel will continue to receive such updates.

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Whatever the case, Coats said, “these briefings in person should be delivered to both the Senate and the House oversight committees and also should be delivered to the duly elected members of the House and Senate at the appropriate classification level when directed by the bipartisan leadership of both the House and the Senate.” He added: “We must stand united in defending the election security process from being corrupted and ensure that a vote cast is a vote counted.”

Coats, who was forced out by President Trump last summer, has for months mostly kept silent. But as the official who in 2019 established the intelligence community’s program to coordinate briefings on foreign election threats, he said he felt obliged to speak publicly.

“We’ve got to get this process back in place,” he said. “Designating it to one committee and not the other and shutting down all members briefings is the wrong thing to do.”

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As a Republican U.S. senator from Indiana, Coats took part in many all-member briefings, especially in his second stint from 2011 to 2017, where each senator was afforded an opportunity to raise a question, he said. “ ‘What did you mean when you said, ‘X’? ‘Wait a minute, so-and-so said something else,’ “ he said. “It is that back and forth” that makes in-person hearings valuable.

Coats spoke on the heels of the publication of an opinion piece by his former deputy, Sue Gordon, in The Washington Post, in which she decried how “the national conversation around election security has turned vitriolic, diversionary and unhelpful, and we are doing our enemies’ work for them.”

In a veiled allusion to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community, Gordon wrote that “when intelligence assessments are described as biased, when federal institutions are decried as inept or corrupt, when vague fears of widespread tampering with our physical election infrastructure are advanced, and when disagreement over policy and approach turns to accusation of illegitimacy, our enemies’ destructive goals are advanced as we busily attack ourselves.”

Coats said he “absolutely” agreed with Gordon, who served 31 years as an intelligence officer. “[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin ought to be very happy with the way this is turning out,” Coats said. “He can only view his efforts as successful.”

Coats also voiced dismay over the “continued questioning of whether we were delivering just the facts and not trying to shape anything in terms of policymaking.”

Trump has long derided U.S. intelligence analysts’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that it intends to do so in 2020. Coats said Trump has resisted any change to analysts’ assessments with regard to Russia.

Coats is firm that Russia is the most significant foreign threat to the 2020 election. A recent public assessment by William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers for appearing to equate the efforts of China, Russia and Iran, when it is primarily Russia that is engaged in covert efforts to try to actively help Trump by attacking his opponent, Joe Biden.

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“They clearly have demonstrated the capacity to do things other countries either can’t do or have decided not to do,” Coats said of Moscow. “And they have a long, long history there.”

Coats noted that the 2018 midterm elections went off largely without incident, thanks in part to an interagency working group led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the sharing of threat data among agencies, and which also provided information to the private sector and state and local election officials. “Those processes worked,” Coats said. “We were able to assure the American people that the votes were not manipulated or influenced in any way that made a change in the result.”

But, Coats said, he knew that “the Super Bowl of all elections is coming our way in 2020.” So in 2019 he formally established the position of the “election threats executive,” and named to that job Shelby Pierson, a senior Russia analyst who had been ODNI’s point person on the issue in the midterms.

Pierson told lawmakers in February that Moscow had a preference for Trump in November. After Trump learned of the briefing from a GOP ally, he fired Coats’s successor, acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire. Pierson kept her job, but Evanina was moved in to run the Hill briefings, though Pierson is marshaling the intelligence and has attended briefings with Evanina.

“There’s a great deal of concern among people who have spent their lives trying to stay out of politicizing intelligence and making sure that it’s just the facts,” Coats said. “That has been questioned and I think that has had a major impact on the morale of the intelligence community.”