Politicization problems exist in U.S. spy agency assessments on foreign influence in the 2020 U.S. election, including analysts appearing to hold back information on Chinese meddling efforts because they disagreed with Trump administration policies, according to an intelligence community inspector.
Barry Zulauf, an analytic ombudsman and longtime intelligence official, issued a 14-page report obtained by the Washington Examiner to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, revealing his investigation was “conducted in response to IC complaints regarding the election threat issue.” In addition, he lamented the “polarized atmosphere has threatened to undermine the foundations of our Republic, penetrating even into the Intelligence Community.”
The intelligence community’s classified assessment on foreign influence in the 2020 election, which will not focus on claims of mail-in fraud or unfounded allegations of voting machines flipping millions of votes, was also submitted to Congress on Thursday. Expected in December, the assessment was delayed as senior intelligence officials clashed over the role played by China and as Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe sought to include more viewpoints in the final analysis.
“Given analytic differences in the way Russia and China analysts examined their targets, China analysts appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference. The analysts appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward because they tend to disagree with the administration’s policies, saying in effect, I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies,” Zulauf concluded, saying this behavior violated analytic standards requiring independence of political considerations.
The ombudsman shared a number of recommendations he said had been accepted by Ratcliffe, including to “reinforce through direct leadership communications from ODNI to the workforce as a whole, and from agency heads to all IC agencies, the importance of protecting analytic integrity and a renewed commitment to analytic objectivity and avoiding politicization in both policy and practice.”
Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman from Texas, signed a three-page unclassified letter on Thursday, also obtained by the Washington Examiner, in which he contended that “from my unique vantage point as the individual who consumes all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence on the People’s Republic of China, I do not believe the majority view expressed by the Intelligence Community analysts fully and accurately reflects the scope of the Chinese government’s efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections.” The ombudsman report, Ratcliffe added, “includes concerning revelations about the politicization of China election influence reporting and of undue pressure being brought to bear on analysts who offered an alternative view based on the intelligence.”
A senior intelligence official told the Washington Examiner that “inside the IC we’re going to have to wrestle with the issues outlined in this report and the revelation that our own internal umpire basically said Ratcliffe was right and some of our career people, even CIA management, were politicizing China intelligence.”
This comes four years after an assessment on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which is still contested by some, and the backdrop of the debate is laden with rising concern about Chinese influence over U.S. lawmakers, a massive SolarWinds hack assessed to have been likely conducted by Russia, and chaos on Wednesday as supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol and attempted to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes certifying President-elect Joe Biden win.
Congress worked late into the night and early morning, certifying Biden's victory just before 4 a.m. Following the decision, Trump said he would commit to an orderly transition of power on Inauguration Day.
A source familiar with the process of creating the 2020 assessment told the Washington Examiner that one reason for the delay in submitting the assessment to Congress, in addition to the internal debate, was a desire to get past Jan. 6 to ensure the report was not exploited for political reasons during debate over the Electoral College votes counted by Congress. The source cited concerns about how politicians, such as outspoken Trump critics like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, might exploit the report, but also sought to avoid allowing conspiracy theorists like Trump-allied lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood to make misleading claims about it that would make their way to Trump for him to latch on to as he refused to concede.
The ombudsman’s report added: “Russia analysts assessed that there was clear and credible evidence of Russian election influence activities. They said IC management slowing down or not wanting to take their analysis to customers, claiming that it was not well received, frustrated them. Analysts saw this as suppression of intelligence, bordering on politicization of intelligence from above.”
Zulauf said that “due to varying collection and insight into hostile state actors’ leadership intentions an domestic influence campaigns, the definitional use of the terms ‘influence’ and ‘interference’ and associated confidence levels are applied differently by the China and Russia analytic communities.” He pointed out that Russia analysts could rely on a formal definition document but “there is no parallel document for China” and so “the terms were applied inconsistently across the analytic community.”
In his letter, Ratcliffe said that “it is clear to me that different groups of analysts who focus on election threats from different counties are using different terminology to communicate the same malign actions” and “similar actions by Russia and China are assessed and communicated to policymakers differently, potentially leading to the false impress that Russia sought to influence the election but China did not.”
The ombudsman said that “the most egregious example” of attempts to politicize intelligence “is the talking points provided alongside the written introductory statement delivered by, but not written by” National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina in March 2019. Zulauf also pointed to Evanina’s July and August statements, saying Evanina “said that he assumed they represented coordinated IC views,” but the ombudsman concluded that “they in fact did not represent fully coordinated IC views.”
The ODNI under then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell provided an unclassified fact sheet briefed to Congress in March, stating, “The IC has not concluded that the Kremlin is directly aiding any candidate’s reelection … This is not a Russia-only problem.” In July, Evanina released a statement contending that “we’re primarily concerned with China, Russia, and Iran.”
The August assessment warned that Russia was “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden, noting that Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach was working to undermine the former vice president. Evanina also said Iran sought to “undermine” Trump and divide the country ahead of 2020. In addition, he said “we assess that China prefers that President Trump … does not win reelection” and China “has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020” and “recognizes that all of these efforts” could affect the election.
Zulauf said “analysts claim that NIC leadership consistently watered down conclusions during a drawn out review process, boosting the threat from China and making the threat from Russia sound not too controversial” and that “NIC officials pointed to ODNI senior officials as intervening in the changes.” But the ombudsman said Ratcliffe “just disagreed with the established analytic line on China” and quoted him insisting that “we are missing China’s influence in the U.S. and that Chinese actions ARE intended to affect the election.” The ombudsman said that “ultimately the DNI insisted in putting material on China in, and was aware analysts disagreed” and “as a result, the final published NICA, analysts felt, was an outrageous misrepresentation of their analysis.” Zulauf said Ratcliffe acknowledged that “many analysts think I am going off script” but “they don’t realize that I did it based on the intelligence.”
The ombudsman revealed two national intelligence officers wrote an “NIC alternative analysis memo” in October “which expressed alternative views on potential Chinese election influence activities,” but stressed that “these alternative views met with considerable organizational counter pressure.”
“ODNI has to ensure that alternative views are expressed, even when they differ from the majority. A healthy challenge culture in the IC can foster differences of analytic views and ensure that they are shared in intelligence products,” Zulauf concluded. “In my discussions with him, DNI Ratcliffe agreed with the concerns expressed in the alternative analysis memo.” The ombudsman emphasized the analytic standard that assessments be based on all available sources of intelligence.
“The analytic ombudsman says Ratcliffe wasn’t being political — he was being honest that China intelligence was being suppressed for political reasons,” the senior intelligence official contended to the Washington Examiner.
“It is evident that what began as a mischaracterization of IC analytic assessment by ODNI officials escalated into an ongoing widespread perception in the workforce about politicization and loss of analytic objectively throughout the community on the topics of Russian and Chinese election influence and interference,” the ombudsman assessed. “No ODNI official has stated that reviews or edits of election threat intelligence were phrased in a way that was explicitly political in nature. Rather, from the ODNI leadership perspective, officials were seeking a way to deliver intelligence in away that the Trump Administration would consume it.”
Ratcliffe contended “the majority view expressed in this ICA with regard to China’s actions to influence the election fall short of the mark” and “alternative viewpoints on China’s election interference efforts have not been appropriately tolerated.” He said the yet-classified ICA “gives the false impression” that the national intelligence officer for cyber “is the only analyst who holds the minority view on China” and that “placing the NIO Cyber on a metaphorical island by attaching his name alone to the minority view is a testament to both his courage and to the effectiveness of the institutional pressures that have been brought to bear on others who agree with him.”
“In 1962, a National Intelligence Estimate stated that the Soviet Union was unlikely to place missiles in Cuba. Then-CIA Director John McCone forcefully disagreed with the analysts, and later ordered the U-2 reconnaissance flights that discovered that missiles had in fact been deployed,” Ratcliffe concluded. “In that same spirit, I am adding my voice in support of the stated minority view — based on all available sources of intelligence, with definitions consistently applied, and reached independent of political considerations or undue pressure — that the People’s Republic of China sought to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections.”
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