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Sen. Mark Warner On DNI's Move To End In-Person Election Security Briefings

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today with news that's provoked outrage among congressional Democrats, who say it could affect Congress's ability to monitor election security threats going forward. Last night, the office of the Director of National Intelligence announced that Congress will no longer receive in-person intelligence briefings on election security. Instead, lawmakers will be informed of threats in writing.

This comes just a few weeks after the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said that Russia, China and Iran were working to influence the 2020 election. To understand the impact of this change, we've called Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he's with us now by phone.

Senator, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MARK WARNER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So in-person briefings have been canceled, but you'll still be informed of threats in writing. Tell us more about why you say that's not sufficient. I mean, I can imagine that you won't be able to ask questions, for one thing.

WARNER: The whole purpose of a briefing is the exchange of information. This is an attempt to limit congressional oversight. This is an attempt to potentially not share all appropriate information with Congress. And at the end of the day, the listeners should understand this is about Americans' right to know who's messing with our elections.

If there's one thing I think we would all agree on, it's that the Obama administration four years ago should have been more forthcoming before the 2016 election about Russian interference. We know, as the Trump administration has already acknowledged, Russia is back. And they're back trying again this time to denigrate Vice President Biden. Americans need to know when foreign governments and their agents are trying to affect our elections.

And without getting that full information, both to Congress and to the public at large, I think the administration is doing both wrong and a great disservice. And, again, I just can't imagine what is driving this other than that, again, it appears, this president's complete unwillingness to ever call out Russia on any of their malevolent actions - you know, whether it's the recent poisoning of the opposition leader or the protests in Belarus. We've seen this pattern time and again and again.

MARTIN: You said on Twitter that the Senate Intelligence Committee does not and will not accept ODNI's refusal to brief Congress. And I do want to note that the acting chair of your committee, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, called this a, quote, "historic crisis." What recourse do you have as a committee?

WARNER: I'm very proud of the Senate Intelligence Committee. We just completed our fifth volume, bipartisan, of what happened in 2016 with the objective of making sure it doesn't happen again in 2020. We're looking at all our options.

What is also just remarkable to me - the first two directors of national intelligence that President Trump appointed, Dan Coats and Joe Maguire, both made election security their top priority, promised to make sure the American people would not be led astray again. This director, Ratcliffe, appears to not share that concern about our election security and is taking, again, actions that my friend Marco Rubio said puts us in a crisis. Not having Congress being able to be briefed in person just is not the way the system operates.

MARTIN: OK, but what's your recourse? Do you go to the courts? Is that an option? What's your recourse?

WARNER: We are going to look at all of our options. My hope is that cooler heads potentially may reconsider this decision. Again, the people who are being infringed upon the most - it's not, again, a tit for tat with Congress and the White House. This is the American public's right to know when a foreign government and their agents are trying to interfere in our elections. And if the American electorate is not informed, they may be subject to misinformation and disinformation campaigns similar to what we saw in 2016.

MARTIN: So the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, wrote in a letter announcing this change that the written reports would ensure that, quote, "the information is not misunderstood or politicized." He said it would better protect our sources and methods from additional unauthorized disclosures or misuse. Have you seen evidence of this behavior during your time on the committee?

WARNER: I have not seen evidence coming out of the Senate Intelligence Committee of that kind of behavior at all. What appears to me - what it appears to me is that Mr. Ratcliffe is trying to control the flow of information, not have intelligence professionals be able to brief. And we all know the way you get information is the back-and-forth questioning that goes on in the normal course of congressional oversight. He is refusing to have that congressional oversight. And we're just not going to let that stand.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, as briefly as you can, you're a senator from Virginia, which means you're home to - it's home to the CIA, the Pentagon and the largest naval station in the world, so many of your constituents are intelligence professionals. And I'm wondering if you're hearing from them about this change as well.

WARNER: Intelligence professionals have been completely undermined repeatedly by this president, and I hear it on a regular basis. And that it is unfortunate for protection of our country.

MARTIN: That's Democratic Senator Mark Warner. He's the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator Warner, thank you so much for talking with us today.

WARNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.