Spy agencies withdrew study of 2020 votes amid internal dissent


By NOMAAN MERCHANT – Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — As U.S. spy agencies stepped up their work to detect foreign interference in this year’s election, a team of CIA experts studied lessons learned from the controversial 2020 vote. Unexpectedly, their report sparked controversy within parts of the intelligence community.

In a rare move, their study was taken down shortly after it was published in the spring after rank-and-file officers protested that it had failed to address allegations of intelligence-seeking politics that arose during the election. of 2020 and which remain unresolved for some today. .

Reissued in September, the study remains classified and its full content is not known to the public. Several people familiar with the matter would say only that it included recommendations on how intelligence officials can best review and report on election threats attributed to Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries.

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The dispute over a relatively routine study and its unusual withdrawal highlights lingering concerns about how to deal with various foreign threats to the US election – including disinformation, cyber espionage and amplifying existing divisions within the American company. In an increasingly polarized America, some of those tensions have spilled over into the theoretically apolitical world of intelligence, some former officers say.

Some officers have alleged intelligence chiefs in 2020 downplayed findings on Russia to respond to demands from former President Donald Trump, who fired a director of national intelligence in a dispute over Moscow’s election interference. Others say election-related intelligence on China in particular has been wrongly downplayed, thinking politicians would misuse it.

The study was commissioned by the former head of election threats at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the 18 US spy agencies. It was eventually republished with what’s called a “scope note” explaining that the study was primarily focused on senior leaders and not intended to delve into the politicization of intelligence or other potential election-related issues.

Several people described the debate over the study on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.

Tim Barrett, the chief spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, said intelligence officials had expanded training on objectivity in analysis and worked to improve collaboration between agencies.

“We are committed to impartial and inclusive analysis and will continue to provide the information necessary to safeguard our democracy,” Barrett said in a statement.

The CIA’s Intelligence Studies Center produces internal histories of key moments and issues in the intelligence community. Its reports are intended to guide current and future agents.

Nicholas Dujmovic, a retired CIA officer who served on the agency’s history staff, said any decision to withdraw a study would be unusual, but not unprecedented. Dujmovic, now a professor at the Washington-based Catholic University of America, said he had no specific knowledge about the recently republished study.

“We are in the intelligence business. We are in the realm of truth,” he said. “From time to time, if we have information that a study is flawed, we may withdraw it and rework it.”

One of the study’s recommendations was that intelligence agencies adopt a definition in all countries of “election influence” and “election interference.”

The lack of standard practice was flagged by Intelligence Community Analytics Ombudsman Barry Zulauf shortly after the 2020 election. Zulauf wrote in a separate report – an unclassified version of which was published in January 2021 – that analysts studying Russia and China defined “influence” differently, which may have led analysts to draw different conclusions about each country’s intentions and actions.

The ombudsman accused key Trump appointees of delaying and misrepresenting certain intelligence findings for political reasons. Some of Trump’s attacks on election-related intelligence became public knowledge in 2020, including his firing of Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire after his office informed Congress that Russia was trying to boost Trump’s re-election campaign.

Zulauf also found that political pressure may have affected China-focused analysts, who “seemed hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference,” in part because they believed Trump would use their findings. to attack China and minimize Russian interventions in its favour. .

Ultimately, US intelligence concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations intended to help Trump while China’s leaders were “considering but not deploying” measures. In a dissent published in the same report, the National Cyber ​​Intelligence Officer said he believed China “took at least some steps” in 2020 to try to undermine Trump, mostly through social media. and official statements.

This year, U.S. officials warn of more foreign campaigns to influence midterm races, as well as the spread of domestic disinformation, the prospect of cyberattacks, and threats and harassment toward election workers.

“The current election threat environment is more complex than it has ever been,” Jen Easterly, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity Branch, said in a recent press briefing.

Intelligence officials did not provide public information on foreign election threats. But unclassified intelligence reports from the Department of Homeland Security, sent to state and local governments, capture some of the current US findings about Russian, Chinese and Iranian intentions.

Russia is seen as trying to undermine Americans’ willingness to support Ukraine eight months after Putin’s invasion.

Iran may be interested in “exacerbating social divisions and casting doubt in America’s democratic institutions,” according to a DHS report released earlier this year.

And China is likely seeking to sway some midterm races to “impede candidates perceived as particularly antagonistic in Beijing,” according to a September DHS report. Officials said in the notice that they believe Beijing sees lower risk in midterm interference than in a presidential election.

Zulauf, the ombudsman, said in his report released last year that the “polarized atmosphere” of the United States has “threatened to undermine the foundations of our Republic, even penetrating into the intelligence community.”

This has made electoral influence a particularly sensitive topic for spy agencies, say former officers.

“In the golden age, in the good old days, people at work didn’t know if your colleagues – also intelligence officers – were Democrats or Republicans,” said Dujmovic, the retired CIA historian. . “That changed over time. There is more partisanship in the workforce and this reflects American society in general.

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