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Trump’s top intelligence official is curtailing congressional briefings on foreign election interference

Perhaps he’s worried that the intelligence community is doing its job.

- September 1, 2020

On Saturday, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, announced that the intelligence community would cut back on its briefings to Congress on electoral security. The decision was immediately condemned by such Democrats as Joe Biden, who claimed that President Trump hopes that “Vladimir Putin will once more boost his candidacy and cover his horrific failures to lead our country through the multiple crises we are facing.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said congressional oversight of intelligence faced a “historic crisis.” Amy B. Zegart is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. She is the author of three books on U.S. intelligence, including “Eyes on Spies: Congress and the United States Intelligence Community,” the standard book on the relationship between Congress and intelligence agencies. I asked her via email about what the decision meant. The interview has been lightly edited for style.

Henry Farrell: Your book explains how difficult it is for Congress to oversee intelligence agencies. How will the move away from in-person briefings affect oversight?

Amy B. Zegart: Briefings are the heart of intelligence oversight. In other policy areas, information about agency activities is everywhere. It’s unclassified, posted online and analyzed by all sorts of interest groups. Not intelligence. There, Congress is on its own. Legislators know only what the executive branch chooses to tell them.

Written products are no substitute for in-person briefings. Good oversight isn’t a “check-the-box, submit-the-document” compliance exercise like filing a tax return. Oversight is all about dialogue, the asking and answering of questions. That exchange can improve intelligence by probing activities and analysis and offering different perspectives. It can help determine what information should be made available to the American people. And it can reassure citizens that intelligence agencies are doing their job.

The director of national intelligence suggests in his letter that previous briefings and communications have sometimes not been successful and productive. What might he be referring to?

The DNI is right that congressional oversight is often onerous. Demands for briefings and reports can be burdensome. In 2009, for example, the Department of Homeland Security spent 66 work years responding to congressional questions, giving more than 2,000 briefings. Especially in the House, oversight can get politicized. Intelligence officials get frustrated when Congress backs them in private but criticizes them in public. And let’s not forget the 9/11 Commission called intelligence oversight “dysfunctional.” It’s the least reformed part of our intelligence system.

But in this case, the DNI’s response is likely to cause controversy, for two reasons. First, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference is widely regarded as an example of successful oversight. In this hyper-polarized moment, that’s a big deal. Anyone who wants to understand the oversight process should watch the committee’s open hearings and read its five reports.

Second, this isn’t just any intelligence issue. This is foreign interference in our presidential election — an imminent, evolving threat that directly affects what voters believe and how they act. It also directly involves tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, which can act as threat vectors of disinformation. There’s always a security/transparency trade-off in deciding what intelligence information is shared with Congress and how. When key decision-makers include voters and technology leaders, not just government officials, the balance tips more toward transparency.

Democratic members of Congress fear that intelligence agencies’ assessments of foreign election interference might be skewed by the president’s political interests. Is there any precedent for these worries?

There’s always a possibility that intelligence agencies will tell presidents what they want to hear. But intelligence community norms emphasize the need for unvarnished analysis even when politicians don’t like it. Speaking truth to power is a core part of the intelligence community’s ethos and training. And history has shown that leaders make better decisions with better information, however unwelcome. President Kennedy certainly didn’t want to hear that the Soviets were secretly deploying missiles to Cuba in 1962. But the intelligence he received may have saved the world from nuclear war.

Limiting intelligence briefings to Congress suggests that the Trump administration may view the intelligence community as too independent. That’s actually a sign that the intelligence community is carrying out its assigned duties.

Your book shows how congressional oversight of intelligence agencies has been dominated by political moderates rather than partisans. What happens in a world where the intelligence community has become a partisan issue?

Partisanship in intelligence oversight makes intelligence less useful to governing. The more that elected officials weaponize intelligence to score partisan points, the less trusted intelligence will be.

What are the prospects for change or reform in oversight, given the structural issues that your book identifies?

Real reform is unlikely. Congress has strong incentives to tie its own oversight hands. Voters don’t care about intelligence and don’t reward legislators for overseeing it. Lawmakers serving on the intelligence committees can’t even talk about what they do. The House still has term limits that make members leave the committee just when they become experts. Why? Because intelligence is not considered an attractive committee assignment for reelection.

What’s more, the most powerful oversight weapon Congress has is money. But the intelligence committees don’t control intelligence agency budgets. The appropriations committees do. For years, reformers have tried and failed to move budgetary authority. Few things are as sacrosanct in Congress as turf, and few legislators are more powerful than appropriators. As one congressional staffer joked, “In Congress, there are Democrats, Republicans, and Appropriators.”