Intelligence disputes fuel rare public acrimony among Gang of Eight

The infighting has intensified so rapidly that Rubio even suggested this week that his committee’s annual hearing on global threats might not go on as planned, citing “heavy politicization.” The hearing allows members of the House and Senate intelligence panels to hear directly from the heads of the CIA, National Security Agency and other agencies about the dangers posed by countries like Russia, Iran and China.

“It’s become harder to get to an agreement on a forum that doesn’t turn into a political circus,” Rubio said.

“Why would a career professional intelligence official at any level at this point want to be dragged into being turned into a political pretzel to further the narrative of one side or the other?” he added. “You would hope intelligence matters could be above it, but right now it isn’t.”

As the election nears, concerns about Russian interference via Ukrainian actors are coming to a head among Democrats, who see an ongoing effort by the Kremlin to damage presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Recent revelations about Moscow’s intentions are causing Democrats to push the Trump administration for more direct, specific statements about the foreign-influence campaign.

Democrats have even suggested that senior intelligence officials might be facing politically motivated pressure on what to say in public statements and when to say it, so as to not anger President Donald Trump.

The fundamental disagreement between the Democratic and Republican sides of the Gang of Eight centers on how much information about foreign threats should be made public. While Democrats have urged more transparency, Republicans have warned about the potentially dangerous precedent that would set. As a result, the Democratic and Republican sides of the group have issued dueling statements and demands on subjects on which they are normally unified.

In 2016, the group reportedly clashed over whether to issue a bipartisan statement denouncing Russia early on for its interference in the presidential campaign. Senior Obama administration officials accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Gang of Eight member, of significantly diluting that statement. McConnell has vehemently denied the charge.

The latest dispute began after the Democratic half of the Gang of Eight, which includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, released a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray last week demanding a briefing for all lawmakers centering on unspecified threats to the integrity of the 2020 election.

POLITICO later reported that those threats mentioned in a separate, classified letter included concerns about Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) investigations targeting Biden and his son Hunter, and efforts by Russian-aligned Ukrainians to influence GOP lawmakers with Kremlin-backed disinformation. Johnson has since responded to the claims, accusing Democrats in a scathing letter of running their own disinformation campaign to undermine and discredit his investigations.

Republicans dismissed the Democratic letter as a partisan effort and said they were never asked to join the Democrats’ calls for a congressional briefing. Democrats have a political incentive to speak up, given that their presidential candidate is allegedly the target of a Russian disinformation campaign.

The House Intelligence Committee voted on Wednesday to give all House members access to the classified portion of the Democrats’ letter to Wray.

Biden last week threatened to hold the Kremlin and other foreign governments accountable for any interference if he is elected president, reflecting a growing concern not only about Trump’s unwillingness to commit to not accepting foreign help in the election, but also about what his campaign and members of Congress view as an escalating disinformation campaign emerging out of Ukraine.

Later in the week, William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the country’s top counterintelligence official, released a “100 days” statement on Friday warning of foreign election interference. This statement became yet another point of contention between Democrats and Republicans on the Gang of Eight.

“With just over 100 days until the election, it is imperative that we also share insights with the American public about foreign threats to our election and offer steps to citizens across the country to build resilience and help mitigate these threats,” the statement read.

It cited unspecified influence operations and disinformation campaigns being waged by China, Russia and Iran and encouraged Americans “to consume information with a critical eye,” “practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy” and “report suspicious election-related activity to authorities.”

The statement provoked an immediate reaction from Democratic half of the Gang of Eight — which also includes House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California — who, along with their Republican counterparts, had been briefed by Evanina on the foreign interference intelligence two days earlier.

Some Democrats were skeptical to begin with about the usefulness of a 100 days statement, said people familiar with their thinking, and urged Evanina to be specific about the Russia threat if he insisted on making public comments about the interference campaign. They were ultimately disappointed and thought the statement failed to reflect the acuteness of the Russians’ efforts that Evanina had conveyed to the Gang of Eight privately, the people said.

That led the Democratic half of the Gang of Eight to issue another joint statement, slamming Evanina’s declaration as “so generic as to be almost meaningless” and giving “a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.”

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), who supported Evanina’s Senate confirmation to his current role, suggested that Evanina might be facing politically motivated pressure on what to say in public statements.

“I think [Evanina] is somebody who really wants to do the right thing,” Warner said. “I think there’s pressure inside the administration about how much information to reveal. … I want to make sure that he is fully empowered to do his job, which means we need to make sure the Senate and the American public are informed.”

Representatives for Warner and Schumer declined to comment on the senators’ interactions with Evanina.

Rubio and McConnell quickly pushed back on the Democrats’ characterization of Evanina’s statement, calling their response an attack that “baselessly impugns” Evanina’s character “and politicizes intelligence matters.”

The back-and-forth only helps adversaries trying to exploit partisan divisions in the U.S., while depriving the intelligence community of comprehensive oversight, said former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who was a member of the Gang of Eight in his capacity as House Intelligence Committee chairman from 2011 to 2015.

“The truth is we have nation states who are looking at this dysfunction and engaging in activities that could threaten our election and they’re not going to pick a team,” Rogers said. “When the committees get this dysfunctional and when these people decide to litigate in public, you have to ask yourself, who are they helping?”

“You don’t try to fight out these issues in dueling press releases,” Rogers said. “You bring it up in a classified setting. And this is exactly why the IC isn’t getting proper oversight — no one in the community wants to brief these committees because it’s a revolving door to the public.”

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.