July 23, 2020

Intelligence Transparency and Foreign Threats to Elections

Responsibilities, Risks, and Recommendations

By Cole Stevens

In the midst of a global pandemic, historic unemployment, a summer of civic unrest and violence, and a highly charged political environment, the United States faces another looming challenge: the threat of malign foreign interference in the November presidential election. Given the breadth of information that has come to light about foreign electoral interference since 2016, a new playbook is needed to ensure that the intelligence community (IC), policymakers, and the public are in sync regarding transparency expectations about foreign threats to the election.

In a new report “Intelligence Transparency and Foreign Threats to Elections,” CNAS Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow Carrie Cordero examines how intelligence transparency was addressed in the 2016 election and adjusted for the 2018 midterms, and weighs the responsibilities of the IC against the risks involved in greater transparency. Cordero offers a set of policy recommendations for election threat transparency in order to protect against and mitigate ongoing foreign efforts to damage the United States’ stressed democracy.

Key recommendations for intelligence leaders include: continue to work behind the scenes in identifying threats; adhere to proper order of operations for nonpolitical intelligence assessment; and lean in to declassification, consistent with protection of sources and methods. Recommendations for Congress include: recommit to bipartisanship in intelligence oversight; mandate the annual worldwide threats briefing through legislation; and consider legislating requirements for IC assessments about election threats.

Cordero concludes: “The country cannot afford to wait for an after-the-fact, four-year, five-volume, heavily redacted written review explaining how a foreign government influenced the outcome of the 2020 election. The federal government agencies responsible for providing warning about threats to the administration of elections and about foreign efforts to influence voter attitudes have increased their efforts to communicate publicly at a high level of generality since 2016. It is critical that the intelligence community lean forward in providing warning to policymakers and the public regarding foreign efforts to affect our elections, and the proper functioning of our democracy that those elections represent.”

For more information or to schedule an interview with the author, please contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org or call 202-695-8166.

Authors

  • Cole Stevens

    Communications Officer

    Cole Stevens is the Communications Officer at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In this role, he manages the Center's relationships with press, lawmakers, and pub...