Oh, how the administration’s critics howled when Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced there would be no more in-person briefings on foreign interference in U.S. elections for the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff D-Calif., promptly denounced the decision as a “betrayal of the public’s right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy.”
They’re wrong. In fact, the decision is a smart move by the DNI, one that better protects the American people and their right to a free and fair election.
For starters, the statement that the DNI is betraying the “public’s right to know” pretty much points to the problem the DNI is trying to solve. The classified intelligence briefings provided to Congress are not for the public. They are for members of Congress and their staffs with security clearances.
The DNI already makes public its unclassified intelligence assessments on the elections. What the DNI discovered is that some of the classified information given to Congress was being leaked and spun for partisan political purposes.
There are two problems with leaking classified intelligence on the security of national elections. First, leaking intelligence, especially for political gain, shatters the bonds of trust and confidence between the Congress and the professional intelligence community.
Professional intelligence staff have no desire to be caught in the crossfire of partisan political squabbling. Their only interest is in giving the Congress objective information that the two houses can then use to legislate and provide better oversight. It is no fun getting played.
The second and more serious problem is that intelligence is often classified to protect the sources and the methods used to get the information. This allows us to go back and collect more from the same sources, using the same methods. The value of intelligence can also be compromised when we let our adversaries know we’re onto their games.
If members of Congress and their staff think there is a compelling public interest to declassify intelligence, there is a way to do that. But unilaterally leaking it to the press is not that way. And leaking for partisan gain is not a compelling public interest.
The DNI’s action basically short-stops the efforts of members of Congress to play politics with classified intelligence. Congress will get exactly the same information they got before. They’ll just get it in writing.
When individuals receive written information there is an audit trail. If information is leaked, it is easier to track down who leaked it. Leaking classified intelligence is a crime. So this step alone constitutes a serious deterrent.
In addition, when there is a written record of what information a lawmaker received, as well as written questions and answers, that lawmaker cannot later claim “I didn’t know” or present a different version of what was said. Not that anyone in Congress would willfully distort the facts given in an oral briefing, of course. But this process will help keep everyone, including staffers, honest.
Is the new process more cumbersome? Sure. Does it limit the opportunity for a free exchange of information and views? Yes. Should it not be necessary? You bet.
But there are more important questions to ask. Does it compromise the intelligence Congress needs to do its job? Not at all.
Does it protect the integrity of the intelligence community and safeguard the interests of the American people at a time when we need to be doing everything possible to protect the integrity of national elections? Yes.
As for consequences, there are several more questions. Should those who forced the DNI’s hand on this matter be ashamed of playing politics with national intelligence? You bet.
Should they be prosecuted if they broke the law? I would hope so.
The funny business should stop. Congress and the intelligence community should focus on the people’s business, not politics.
This piece originally appeared in Fox News