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Intelligence Chief Ends In-Person Briefings On Foreign Interference In 2020 Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, U.S. intelligence leaders planned regular face-to-face briefings with Congress, Republicans and Democrats - the idea being keep both sides updated as the threat evolved and the next U.S. election loomed. Well, it has not gone smoothly. And now, just two months before the election, the country's top intelligence official says there will not be any more in-person briefings. To talk about this, we are joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So we learned of this because John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, wrote to congressional leaders, notified them - said we're not going to brief in person anymore. What else did he say? And did he say, Greg, why now?

MYRE: Well, he said that they will be given written briefings but none of these in-person briefings that they've been receiving in recent months. And the main reason that he cited was leaks. And indeed, they have followed quickly after previous intelligence briefings - within minutes, according to Ratcliffe. So leaks are a real issue by both sides, we should stress. But written reports can also be leaked. And Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the top Democrats in Congress have immediately cried foul. They say Congress needs to be kept fully informed, especially after what the Russians did in the 2016 election.

KELLY: Elaborate on what the concern here is. If they're still going to get briefed, just in writing instead of in person, what exactly is the problem as they see it?

MYRE: Well, intelligence is inherently in a lot of gray spaces. And the Democrats feel that they need to have back-and-forth discussions for nuance and detail. They see this as crucial and that that would be lost. But perhaps even a larger picture, they see this as a potential attempt by Ratcliffe to restrict the amount of information that would be provided Congress and they couldn't follow up with questions. They've been very skeptical of him. He became the director of national intelligence just a few months ago. He was a Trump loyalist as a Republican congressman, very limited intelligence experience. And of course, President Trump has always questioned Russia's role in the last elections. Democrats feel this would be a way that he could use one of his strongest supporters to shape the landscape surrounding this election.

KELLY: Do we know if anything in particular happened or what happened that may have prompted the DNI to make this change now?

MYRE: Well, you know, we've had a couple briefings, and the intent was nonpartisan, no surprises. But they haven't really gone well. They have sparked friction. The first one, the briefer talked about Russia seeming to favor Trump. The Republicans objected strongly. They said this was an intelligence assessment, not a proven fact. There was another one in July. The Democrats said it was too vague, there should be more detail and some of this should be shared with the public. So what has begun - or what started as this attempt to be nonpartisan, keep both sides in the loop, up to speed has quickly devolved into just another point of partisan friction.

KELLY: Well, let me pull back a little bit from all the partisan friction and the politics here. Just update us on the actual threat. What signs are we seeing of foreign interference right now?

MYRE: Right. So (laughter) a bit ironically perhaps, the intelligence officials from several agencies did give a briefing to journalists by phone last week and allowed us to ask plenty of questions. So the intelligence community stands by an assessment it made at the beginning of this month that Russia seems to favor Trump and China seems to favor Biden. And they stress that they are prepared for very large-scale attempts to interfere like we saw with Russia in 2016, but they haven't seen it so far. And Russia, they think, is again likely to be the greatest threat.

They are stressing there's far greater cooperation with state and local officials who - which were somewhat reluctant to work with the federal government in 2016. And they emphasize how hard it will be to change actual voting counts and that there's software installed...

KELLY: Right.

MYRE: ...On many systems throughout the country to detect intrusion.

KELLY: OK.

MYRE: Lots and lots of testing is taking place. They're sharing information in ways that just didn't happen last time.

KELLY: Okey-doke. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.