Outcry as US intelligence stops in-person reports to Congress on election security

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Decision to provide only updates in writing means oversight panels will not quiz intelligence officials

The United States’ top intelligence office has told lawmakers it will largely stop holding in-person briefings on election security, signaling that it does not trust lawmakers to keep the information secret.

Donald Trump’s new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, notified the House and Senate intelligence panels on Friday that it would send written reports instead, giving lawmakers less opportunity to press for details as the 3 November election approaches.

Ratcliffe attempted to justify the change on Sunday, telling Fox News that he would continue to keep Congress “fully and currently informed as required by the law”. He blamed the shift towards less accountability on Democratic members whom he accused of leaking intelligence “within minutes” of his briefing them.

“We’ve had a pandemic of information being leaked out of the intelligence community and I’m going to take the measures to make sure that stops,” he said.

Ratcliffe repeatedly insisted that the main threat to US national security came from China, which has a preference for Joe Biden winning the presidential election according to US intelligence. Democrats, by focusing instead on Russia’s interference in the election in 2016 and again this cycle on behalf of Trump, were “politicizing intelligence for their own narrative”.

Ratcliffe’s assurance that he would continue to meet his legal requirements to keep Congress informed did not satisfy leading House Democrats. On Sunday, Amy Klobuchar, US senator from Minnesota and a former Democratic presidential candidate, called the move a “complete outrage” and raised the possibility that Ratcliffe would be hauled before the House under subpoena.

“The House is going to have to subpoena the director of intelligence in order to get information, which is crazy. We are just a few months out of a major election,” she told This Week on ABC News.

Adam Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, also implied that he might use the panel’s powers of subpoena to force intelligence officials to appear before it. He added though that the decision would be made by Nancy Pelosi the top Democrat in the House.

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Schiff accused Trump of “malignant narcissism” and said the US president was trying to hide from the American people his renewed reliance on Russia to win re-election.

“The president evidently believes he can’t beat Joe Biden without receiving foreign help or disenfranchising voting during a pandemic, and doesn’t want the country to know about it.”

Moving from face-to-face hearings to on-paper reports, the administration was effectively ducking questioning by Congress, Schiff said. “When you hide behind documents and not have to answer questions about it you can conceal the truth.”

Ratcliffe’s office had offered to hold in-person briefings for the House and Senate oversight panels next month, even after concerns surfaced about leaks from previous meetings, a House committee official said. It later rescinded the offer.

The decision was first reported by CNN.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican and acting chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, said in a statement late on Saturday that he had spoken to Ratcliffe, who “stated unequivocally” to him that he would fulfill the intelligence community’s obligations to keep members of Congress informed.

But there were expressions of unease from the Republican side. Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff to Kirstjen Nielsen when she was homeland security secretary, and now adviser to an anti-Trump campaign group Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (Repair), told CNN on Sunday morning: “I know John Ratcliffe and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt…but I unequivocally disagree with the decision. In-person briefings are vital.”

The committee will continue receiving briefings on all oversight topics, including on election matters, Rubio said Ratcliffe told him. It was unclear whether Rubio meant those would be in-person briefings.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, told reporters while on a visit to Texas that Ratcliffe will “ultimately give full briefings, in terms of not oral briefings, but fully intel briefings”.

The office of the director of national intelligence said this month that Russia, which orchestrated a hacking campaign to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, was trying to “denigrate” Trump’s 2020 Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. And it said China and Iran were hoping Trump is not re-elected.

“For clarity and to protect sensitive intelligence from unauthorized disclosures, we will primarily do that through written finished intelligence products,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden said in a statement late on Saturday that the office was curtailing one of the intelligence community’s most basic duties and it is “nothing less than a shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump”.

Ratcliffe, a close political ally of Trump, is a former member of the House intelligence panel and was a vocal defender of the president during investigations of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. He told senators during his confirmation hearing this year that “the intelligence I deliver will not be subject to outside influence.”

Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin who chairs the Senate homeland security committee, attempted to deflect attention, blaming Democrats for disruption.

Johnson told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday: “We are doing Putin’s work for him. What Adam Schiff and the media have done in terms of the false Russian collusion with the Trump campaign narrative – that is what has destabilised our politics.

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