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US appoints official to counter foreign election interference

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WASHINGTON Director of National Intelligence Avril D. Haines has appointed a new officer to oversee election threats, fulfilling a critical role in the nation’s efforts to counter foreign election interference, her office announced Friday.

The new officer, Jeffrey Wichman, who has worked at the CIA for more than three decades, will take over as head of election threats in the office of the director of national intelligence next week, said Nicole de Haay, spokeswoman for the director. national intelligence.

Individual intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and US Cyber ​​Command have already begun to step up election threat monitoring ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But without a new executive on election threats, some on Capitol Hill worried that progress had stalled, coordination had diminished and important analytical differences had gone unresolved.

Mr Wichmans’ appointment came after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was forced to delay plans to create a malevolent foreign center of influence that would oversee foreign efforts to influence elections and politics American more generally. The creation of this center has been slowed by disagreements on Capitol Hill over the scope of the effort and its funding.

Mr. Wichman is currently director of analysis for the CIA’s counterintelligence mission center, and he previously served as a senior cybersecurity analyst in the agency’s digital innovation directorate. In addition to roles focused on counterterrorism and the Middle East, he also held a leadership position at the CIA school that trains analysts.

Once Congress approves funding for the broader malign center of influence, the election threats team led by Mr. Wichman will be brought into the new group.

As we work with Congress to secure funding for the center, the intelligence community remains focused on countering malign foreign influence, de Haay said.

The main goal of the new executive is to create a common understanding of what constitutes malign electoral influence. In 2020, Republicans and Democrats lamented that intelligence agencies used different standards to judge Russian and Chinese efforts. Some analysts were reluctant to categorize China’s attempts to assert its views as influence operations and suggested intelligence agencies needed a common standard.

Warnings this week in Britain and Canada about Chinese efforts to influence lawmakers in those countries have made questions about malign influence and election threats more acute.

Government intelligence analysts are still assessing how foreign threats are evolving ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But a senior intelligence official said the companies are increasingly carrying out campaigns for foreign countries, efforts that include manipulating information and laundering disinformation narratives.

The growth of these efforts, the senior official said, threatens to make the public more vulnerable to manipulation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operations of intelligence agencies, much of whose work is classified.

Prior to the announcement of Mr. Wichmans’ nomination, some former intelligence officers and Capitol Hill aides had raised questions about whether the Biden administration had done enough to assemble an election defense team.

Shelby Pierson was named Election Threats Executive 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 interference in the elections, the task quickly became difficult.

Ms. Pierson led a February 2020 congressional briefing that accurately reported that Russia’s election influence campaign continues. But Mr Trump’s anger over the briefing ultimately led to the firing of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. The Trump administration later blocked Ms. Pierson from briefing Congress.

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

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

But some congressional aides said leaving the post empty for four months was a missed opportunity to quickly repair the damage done to the office at the end of the Trump administration, when Pierson was blocked from briefing Congress.

Other former intelligence officers said the leadership vacuum halted much of the coordination operation. Without an Election Threat Officer, sharing information between multiple intelligence agencies has proven difficult.

Part of the reason the position was not filled immediately was that intelligence officials intended to expand the team of election threat officers into a broader malevolent center of foreign influence. While the annual defense policy bill Mr. Trump signed into law in 2019 created such a center, Congress has yet to fund it.

The center of malevolent influence was originally the brainchild of Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who is now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The center, he said this week, would tackle both foreign efforts to influence the election and counter the full range of such threats, which continue to evolve.

It would focus on a series of countries trying to influence the United States, not just China and Russia.

As various intelligence agencies try to tackle malign influence campaigns, Mr. Reed said there was not enough coordination between departments. As midterm elections approach and other countries seek to use information warfare to undermine infrastructure, the economy and the military, it is essential to keep the center running, he said. he declares.

Last year, Ms. Haines, the director of national intelligence, offered to reallocate positions to create a small center for up to 15 people without adding new jobs, congressional aides said.

But Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee raised questions about whether a new effort could legally be funded by such a move, according to congressional aides. And the House Appropriations Committee posed a series of questions to Ms Hainess’s office.

DNI’s initial request lacked important details about the center’s operations, size and scope, and I had questions that I didn’t answer, said Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat and deputy chairwoman. Defense Committee of House Appropriations Committees.

At this time, with the federal government operating under an interim spending bill, the new center cannot be created and it is unclear whether Congress will pass long-term spending bills. before the end of the fiscal year in September. McCollum said she included funding for the center in this year’s defense spending bill, but without agreement between the House and Senate, the legislation remains stalled.

It is clear that disinformation and misinformation pose a serious threat to national security, she said, and I will continue to work with the DNI to fund appropriate solutions.

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