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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

OIG Says Intel Report on Russian Election Meddling was Changed and Abnormally Delayed

OIG’s review found that the Acting DHS Secretary participated in the review process multiple times despite lacking any formal role in reviewing the product, resulting in the delay of its dissemination on at least one occasion. 

A partially redacted report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not comply with standards and requirements regarding an intelligence product about Russian interference with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.

In April 2020, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) Cyber Mission Center started drafting the intelligence product titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of U.S. Candidates to Influence 2020 Electoral Dynamics”. The intelligence analyst who authored the report believed foreign efforts questioning a candidate’s health were worth exploring because they could impact voters’ willingness to vote for that candidate and began drafting the product. In its initial form, the product was approximately two pages in length and included information relating to one “current Democratic presidential candidate” and to Russian activities to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. This version did not contain any information about other countries’ influence efforts and OIG determined that at this early stage, the product followed I&A processes and procedures.

However, OIG’s review found that DHS did not adequately follow its internal processes and comply with applicable Intelligence Community policy standards and requirements when editing and disseminating the product. For example, OIG said I&A employees during the review and clearance process changed the product’s scope by making changes that appear to be based in part on political considerations, potentially impacting I&A’s compliance with Intelligence Community policy. 

On viewing the draft, the Office of Privacy (PRIV) voiced concerns and called the product “quite problematic”. The concerns related to only one candidate being mentioned throughout the document. OIG’s report quotes the PRIV response: “It is quite likely that some recipients will view the product as a disingenuous attempt to further the message. This could possibly be averted if examples were included from both parties. If that is not possible, it may be better to limit the number of examples given.”

During OIG’s review, a PRIV official told the watchdog that his concern was that DHS would be seen as supporting one particular view.

In response to the PRIV concerns, and despite reservations by the product’s author, I&A added a tone box (which remained in the final product) that described overt efforts by Chinese and Iranian influence actors to promote unsubstantiated narratives questioning the mental health of then-President Donald Trump. This version of the product was also shortened by approximately one page.

OIG’s review also found that the *Acting DHS Secretary (Chad Wolf) participated in the review process multiple times despite lacking any formal role in reviewing the product, resulting in the delay of its dissemination on at least one occasion. 

OIG’s report notes that in September 2020, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published a whistleblower complaint that included several allegations and a number of specific examples. One such example alleged that during a July 8, 2020 meeting, the Acting DHS Secretary told the Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis (USIA) that an intelligence product should be “‘held’ because it ‘made the President look bad.’” OIG interviewed the Acting USIA, who confirmed that the Acting Secretary asked the product be held because it made President Trump look bad and hurt his campaign. The watchdog also spoke to other officials who were listed as present at the meeting. Not all of the officials recalled attending and those who did recalled some details differently than the Acting USIA. For example, they stated the request to hold the product was due to poor standards such as sentences that did not make sense.

The Acting USIA was moved to another position within DHS, but outside of I&A before the product was pulled on August 12. I&A ultimately approved the product for dissemination on September 4 with the new title of “Malign Foreign Influence Actors Denigrating Health of U.S. Presidential Candidates.” Multiple I&A officials told OIG that they considered the product’s review timeframe to be abnormal. It was disseminated a few days after approval and OIG found this was not done through its typical distribution channels and stakeholders were not given a copy of the product. An I&A official told OIG this was not normal practice.

The watchdog determined that the delays and deviation from I&A’s standard process and requirements put the office at risk of creating a perception of politicization. I&A supports this conclusion and acknowledges that the product might be viewed as politicized after conducting a tradecraft assessment of various versions of the product through its Analytic Ombudsman, who reviews I&A intelligence products based on analytic tradecraft and quality standards. Specifically, I&A conducted tradecraft reviews on two versions of the product: the version reviewed by the Acting Secretary in July and the final version from September. Neither version fared particularly well, but the September version fared worse than the July version despite its dissemination being delayed to allow for improvements. The Analytic Ombudsman noted various problems with the product, including that it was confusing, did not fully provide customers with the implications of its analysis, and included unsupported assessments. One of the larger issues that the Analytic Ombudsman noted was that “problems with the piece undermine[d] the original message and g[a]ve the perception of a lack of objectivity or an attempt at political influence.”

OIG recommended that USIA identifies and implements changes to the review and dissemination process for I&A’s election-related intelligence products to ensure they are in accordance with applicable policies and guidelines. I&A concurred and said that its Research Director, in coordination with leadership; I&A’s Strategy, Policy, and Plans Branch; and with appropriate legal, privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties oversight entities, will review and adjust or issue policies and procedures, as needed, to ensure: safeguarding intelligence products from inappropriate interference; preventing distortions and/or delays to intelligence products; and mitigating the perception of politicization of any I&A intelligence products, including those related to elections. I&A will also develop training for all I&A personnel, DHS oversight entities, and DHS leadership regarding policies and procedures designed to prevent politicization of intelligence and intelligence processes. It estimates that all work required to meet the recommendation will be complete by the end of the year. 

*A federal judge ruled in November 2020 that Chad Wolf was unlawfully appointed as Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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