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Democrats raise alarm on election disinformation targeting Congress, seek FBI briefing

Lawmakers and intelligence committee leaders say a concerted disinformation campaign is being aimed at Congress and congressional races

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, July 16, 2020.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, July 16, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Top congressional Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to provide a classified briefing on how the agency was combating what the lawmakers described as a “concerted foreign interference campaign” that was targeting Congress as well as the presidential election in November.

In a July 13 letter to Wray and other top intelligence agency chiefs, including Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone, the lawmakers said the foreign interference was aimed particularly at the legislative branch.

“We are gravely concerned, in particular, that Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November,” the lawmakers wrote.

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A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the letter included a classified attachment that drew “in large part, from the Executive Branch’s own reporting and analysis” of threats.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee joined Pelosi in writing the letter.

“Given the seriousness and specificity of these threats, as members of congressional leadership and the congressional intelligence committees we believe it is imperative that the FBI provide a classified defensive briefing to all members of Congress and that the briefing draw on all-source intelligence information and analysis, consistent with due regard for the protection of sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” the lawmakers wrote to Wray.

They wrote that the briefing should be provided before lawmakers leave town for the August recess and asked that the FBI set a date for the briefing by July 20.

The letter comes on the heels of a warning from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden who last week said he had begun receiving intelligence briefings and was seeing signs that Russia and others were continuing to interfere in the U.S. election process.

“We know from before, and I guarantee you I know now because now I get briefings again. The Russians are still engaged, trying to de-legitimize our electoral process. Fact,” the former vice president said Friday, according to The Associated Press. “China and others are engaged as well in activities designed for us to lose confidence in the outcome.”

The warning from Democrats has eerie echoes to the warning in August 2016 from Harry Reid, who was Senate minority leader at the time and wrote to FBI Director James Comey asking if the agency was investigating Russian actors behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee. Reid also raised allegations that Donald Trump’s campaign aides were in touch with WikiLeaks to post the stolen DNC documents, and asked the agency to open an investigation.

The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III proved that Russian intelligence agents were in fact directly involved in breaking into DNC servers, stealing emails and publicizing them. The Mueller investigation also probed links between Trump confidant Roger Stone and WikiLeaks. Stone was later convicted for lying to Congress and witness tampering.

Trump earlier this month commuted Stone’s 40-month prison sentence.

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