US appoints official to fight foreign election interference

WASHINGTON — The director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, has appointed a new official to oversee election threats, and is playing a critical role in the country’s efforts to counter foreign election interference, said her office Friday.

The new officer, Jeffrey Wichman, who has spent more than three decades with the CIA, will take over the position of election threat executive at the office of the director of national intelligence next week, said Nicole de Haay, a spokeswoman for the director of national intelligence. .

Individual intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and US Cyber ​​Command have already begun ramping up surveillance of the election threat ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But without a new election threat leader, some on Capitol Hill had feared that progress had stalled, coordination had dwindled, and key analytical differences had remained unresolved.

The appointment of Mr. Wichman came after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was forced to postpone plans to establish a foreign evil influence center that would oversee efforts by foreign countries to influence elections and American politics more generally. That center’s creation has been delayed by disagreements on Capitol Hill over the scope of the effort and its funding.

Mr. Wichman is currently the director of analysis for the CIA’s counterintelligence center, and he previously served as a senior cyberanalyst in the agency’s digital innovation directorate. In addition to positions focused on counter-terrorism and the Middle East, he also held a leadership role at the CIA school that trains analysts.

Once Congress approves funding for the wider Malicious Influence Center, the election threat team led by Mr. Wichman will be included in the new group.

“As we work with Congress to secure funding for the center, the intelligence community remains focused on addressing foreign malevolent influences,” said Ms. de Haay.

The main thing on the agenda for the new executive is to create a common picture of what constitutes evil electoral influence. in 2020, Republicans and Democrats alike lamented that intelligence agencies used different standards to assess Russian and Chinese efforts. Some analysts were reluctant to classify China’s attempts to push its views as influence operations and suggested that the intelligence community needed a common standard.

Warnings this week in Britain and Canada about Chinese attempts to influence lawmakers in those countries have sharpened questions about malicious influence and election threats.

Government intelligence analysts are still assessing how foreign threats are shifting ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But a senior intelligence official said companies increasingly campaigned for foreign nations, efforts “including information manipulation and the laundering of disinformation stories.”

The growth of those efforts, the senior official said, threatens to leave the public more vulnerable to manipulation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operations of intelligence agencies, whose work is largely secret.

Before announcing Mr. Wichman’s appointment, some former Capitol Hill intelligence officers and aides had raised questions about whether the Biden administration had done enough to build an election defense team.

Shelby Pierson was hired as election threat manager in 2019 after working on security issues surrounding the 2018 midterm elections. But due to President Donald J. Trump’s sensitivity to discussions of Russian election meddling, the job quickly became fraught.

Ms. Pierson led a briefing to Congress in February 2020 accurately reporting that the Russian election influencing campaign was continuing. But Mr Trump’s anger at the briefing ultimately led to the resignation of acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire. The Trump administration then blocked Ms. Pierson from informing Congress.

Mrs. Pierson remained at the beginning of the Biden administration until the end of her assignment. In September, she took a senior position with the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

Intelligence officials said that even in the absence of Ms. Pierson, whose departure was previously reported by The Associated Press, work on coordinating various agencies and submitting reports to Congress had continued.

But some congressional staffers said leaving the position vacant for four months was a missed opportunity to quickly reverse the damage to the office that had been done at the end of the Trump administration, when Ms. Pierson was blocked from entering Congress. to inform.

Other former intelligence officers said the leadership vacuum had caused much of the coordinating operation to be disrupted. Without an election threat leader, sharing information between different intelligence agencies has proven difficult.

Part of the reason why the election threat task was not immediately fulfilled was that intelligence officials planned to expand the election threat executive team into a broader evil center for foreign influence. While the annual defense policy bill Mr. Trump signed in 2019 created such a center, Congress has not yet funded it.

The Malicious Influence Center was originally the idea of ​​Rhode Island Democrat Senator Jack Reed, who is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The center, he said this week, would focus on foreign efforts to influence elections as well as “countering the full spectrum of these threats that continue to evolve.”

It would target a range of countries trying to influence the United States, not just China and Russia.

As several intelligence agencies try to fight evil influence campaigns, Mr. Reed said there was not enough coordination between the departments. With midterm elections approaching and other countries attempting to use information warfare to undermine infrastructure, the economy and military, keeping the center afloat is critical, he said.

Last year, Ms. Haines, the director of national intelligence, suggested reallocating positions to create a small center of up to 15 people without adding new jobs, congressional officials said.

But Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, according to congressional officials, raised questions about whether a new effort could be legally funded through such a maneuver. And the House Appropriations Committee put a series of questions to Ms. Haines’ office.

“The original DNI request was missing important details about the operations, size and scope of the center, and I had questions that went unanswered,” said Representative Betty McCollum, a Democrat of Minnesota and chair of the Defense Subcommittee on Defense. the House Appropriations Committee.

For now, with the federal government operating under a contingency plan, the new center cannot be created and it is unclear whether Congress will approve long-term spending bills before the end of the fiscal year in September. But Ms. McCollum said she had included funding for the center in this year’s defense spending bill. The House has not yet acted on the measure.

“Clearly, disinformation and misinformation pose a serious threat to national security,” she said, “and I will continue to work with DNI to fund appropriate solutions.”