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Political appointees, career analysts clashed over assessments of Russian, Chinese interference in 2020 election

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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President Trump’s political appointees clashed with career intelligence analysts over the extent to which Russia and China interfered or sought to interfere in the 2020 election, with each side accusing the other of politicization, according to a report by an intelligence community ombudsman.

The findings by Barry A. Zulauf, the “analytic ombudsman” for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), describe an intelligence community afflicted by a “widespread perception in the workforce about politicization” of analysis on the topic of foreign election influence — one that he says threatens the legitimacy of the agencies’ work.

The dispute illustrates the task faced by the incoming administration, with senior advisers to President-elect Joe Biden saying they want to end what they describe as a toxic political environment in the intelligence community and produce the best information for policymakers.

Citing Zulauf’s report, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, chosen for the position by Trump last year, charged Thursday that career analysts in a recently completed classified assessment failed to capture the full scope of Chinese government influence on the election — a charge that some current and former officials say illustrates the issue of politicization, because it downplays the much larger role of Russia.

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Ratcliffe cited Zulauf’s 14-page report, obtained by The Washington Post, as evidence for his charge in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the classified assessment submitted to the congressional intelligence committees Thursday.

Zulauf said China analysts, who “tended to disagree with the administration’s policies,” downplayed judgments and “appeared reluctant to have their analysis” brought forward.

The analysts were “saying in effect, ‘I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies,’ ” he wrote. He did not specify what intelligence on Chinese interference was at issue or what policies the analysts disagreed with.

Some current and former officials said China analysts feared their reports would be misused by senior political appointees to exaggerate Chinese attempts to influence the election and equate it with what the Russians were doing — in an effort to assuage the president.

That may be so, one official said, but “it’s outrageous” that analysts would shade or withhold intelligence out of fear of what policymakers would do with it. “They do not get to make that call,” said the official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Ratcliffe did not mention in his letter to Congress that Zulauf, a career official, also found an “egregious” example of attempted politicization of the Russian interference issue in March talking points on foreign election threats, prepared “presumably by ODNI staff” and “shaped by” then-Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

The talking points were delivered at a congressional briefing by a senior intelligence official who had no role in drafting or vetting them and were “a gross misrepresentation” of “established” intelligence-community views, analysts told Zulauf. The main drafters of the talking points were not analysts, and the drafters “did not completely consider” the analysts’ concerns in preparing the final version, Zulauf said.

The talking points stated, among other things, that the intelligence community “has not concluded that the Kremlin is directly aiding any candidate’s reelection or any other candidates’ election. Nor have we concluded that the Russians will definitely choose to try to do so in 2020.”

That view underplayed the analysts’ judgment that Moscow had developed a preference for Trump and was likely to seek to interfere to help him, current and former intelligence officials said. “It goes completely against the analytic line,” one former official said.

Zulauf noted in his report that he did not interview Grenell or his staff, because they have left the ODNI and are no longer under his purview as ombudsman. Grenell did not respond to a request for comment.

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A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel takes “very seriously” any allegations of politicization of intelligence. “We look forward to reviewing this report, digging into the allegations ourselves,” spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said.

She added that the panel expects to work with Biden’s ODNI nominee, Avril Haines, “to stop any politicization of intelligence and fix the failures of the Trump administration.”

As the administration draws to a close, Zulauf’s report reflects a tension rooted in the fact that Trump is allergic to intelligence that highlights malign Russian activities while proving receptive to reports spotlighting negative Chinese acts, according to current and former officials.

In his letter, Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist who was sworn in this past May, cited Zulauf’s description of “undue pressure being brought to bear on analysts who offered an alternative view” on China’s role in influencing the election, a conclusion “based on the intelligence.”

And, Ratcliffe added, the ombudsman found that “CIA management” pressured analysts to withdraw their support for the alternative viewpoint “in an attempt to suppress it.”

The former senior intelligence official called Ratcliffe’s letter “infuriating” and “a clear attempt to politicize and cherry-pick intelligence by someone who came into the office right away with an agenda he planned to carry out for the president.”

A senior intelligence official pushed back, saying it is “unfair” to charge Ratcliffe with politicization when he worked with the ombudsman in writing his letter.

Zulauf, in his report, said, “Politicization may be in the eye of the beholder, but my objective and independent view is that there was politicization from above and below.”

Current and former intelligence officials said analysts believe senior political officials are downplaying the Russia threat and hyping China’s role.

“The evidence shows that Russia is doing actual interference operations — not just running influence activities, like the Chinese mostly are,” one intelligence official said. “That’s the big issue now from the analysts’ perspective. The side we have to be most concerned about is the one that’s actually carrying out major operations.”

That is not to say there is no threat from Chinese influence operations, the intelligence official said, but the analysts’ concern “was that there was some sort of political effort to pump up the Chinese threat by the political-appointee types, and that has ended up downplaying the Russia angle.”

The intelligence community recognizes that the Chinese government poses the greater strategic threat to the United States, “but that doesn’t mean you start twisting intelligence in one area because you have a problem with them in another,” the former official said.

The tensions arose not just between political appointees and career analysts but between the analysts and senior career intelligence officials. Zulauf noted the Russia analysts sometimes felt their work was being improperly delayed or withheld by superiors acting out of political motives. In fact, said the former official, managers sometimes withheld material that they found repetitive — where analysts were “writing the same thing over and over again.”

Another issue Zulauf noted was that China analysts and Russia analysts lacked a standard set of definitions for the terms “influence” and “interference.” In general, “interference” refers to illegal actions that can range from hacking and dumping emails to running covert operations to seeding information that will affect the outcome of an election, the former official said. “Influence,” by contrast, encompasses actions that while perhaps malign are not necessarily illegal, such as seeking to sway public opinion through propaganda and lobbying.