New Intelligence Chief Asks Election Czar to Remain in Post

• Feb 25, 2020

The new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, has asked an intelligence official who angered some lawmakers with a briefing about Russian interference in the 2020 election to stay on in her role.

Mr. Grenell’s move is a peace offering to the 17 intelligence agencies he oversees and a potential sign that he will not be conducting a widespread purge, as some administration officials have feared. Mr. Grenell, a Trump loyalist who has little experience in intelligence, removed the No. 2 official in his office in his first day on the job last week.

Whether Mr. Grenell, appointed to the post last week by President Trump, can win over members of Congress and the intelligence community will depend in part whether he can convince them that he will focus on protecting the elections from outside interference.

Some administration officials feared that the official who briefed the lawmakers, Shelby Pierson, would be removed as well. As the intelligence community’s top election security official since last year, she was subjected to withering criticism after her briefing to a classified hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13 touched off a fierce partisan debate over the nature of Russia’s interference in the 2020 election.

The briefing angered Mr. Trump, who was given a partial account of it the next day. It is unclear exactly what Mr. Trump was told, but five people in the briefing said Ms. Pierson relayed to them that Russia was intervening in the election, and that Moscow preferred Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump is highly sensitive to the view that Russian interference in the 2016 campaign helped him win the election and was upset that the issue had come up again.

Ms. Pierson, in a brief interview on Tuesday, would not address the substance of her briefing, noting that it was classified, and said only that she would keep her job. Ms. Pierson has discussed election security with Mr. Grenell several times since he was appointed last week.

“Ambassador Grenell has not asked me to leave,” Ms. Pierson said in the interview. “In fact, he has encouraged and affirmed his support for my position here in the organization. I have not asked to depart nor discussed resignation in any way.”

Some intelligence officials worry that the disclosures about Russian interference have in essence done President Vladimir V. Putin’s work for him, needlessly undercutting confidence in the 2020 vote.

Administration officials have been trying to reassure the public that despite any operations underway to influence the thinking of Americans, no foreign power has so far this year affected the voting infrastructure.

Those systems remain secure, and Americans should feel confident as they go to the polls in the weeks to come, Ms. Pierson said Tuesday.

“We have yet to identify any activity designed to prevent voting or change votes,” Ms. Pierson said. “It is important for us to restate that at every juncture.”

Her comments were meant to echo the claims senior administration officials have been making for days, even before Mr. Grenell took charge, including in an op-ed by administration officials in USA Today.

While intelligence officials have not detected any effort by Russia to hack into election systems to alter votes, interfere with vote counts or block people from casting a ballot, they have consistently said there are efforts to influence the thinking — and potentially the voting behavior — of Americans.

Ms. Pierson’s job security comes after nearly two weeks of turmoil that grew out of her Feb. 13 briefing.

The next day Mr. Trump confronted Joseph Maguire, the previous acting director of national intelligence. A few days later, the White House decided to replace Mr. Maguire with Mr. Grenell, sowing worry in Washington that Mr. Trump would politicize the intelligence agencies.

The briefing caused an immediate fury among Republicans and has become a deeply politicized topic. Mr. Trump called the Russian intervention a hoax. His national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, has said he has not seen any intelligence that suggested the Russians are intervening on behalf of Mr. Trump, but suggested that Russia wanted to see Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont win the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Sanders said last week that he had been given a briefing about Russian attempts to intervene in the campaign. Some intelligence officials believe the Russians may be working to favor Mr. Sanders in an effort to help Mr. Trump win the election, on the theory that Moscow believes Mr. Sanders might be a weak candidate against the president.

The appointment of Mr. Grenell was greeted with anxiety by many current and former intelligence officials, who feared he would engage in multiple firings, especially after the acting deputy director was pushed out.

But officials said that in his first days, Mr. Grenell has gone out of his way to reassure officials at his intelligence headquarters.

Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence, appointed Ms. Pierson last year as the election security coordinator in an effort to help intelligence agencies work better together and more quickly provide information on foreign threats to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.

“The priority and focus of the intelligence community on election security is unwavering and unchanged,” Ms. Pierson said.


You can read the full article by Julian E. Barnes here

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