Homeland Security withheld intelligence warning about Russian misinformation attack on Biden

‘Career leadership decided to delay the product for further review,’ says agency spokesperson

James Crump@thejamescrump
Wednesday 02 September 2020 15:55
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Joe Biden makes light of past aneurysms in 2013

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) withheld the publication of an intelligence bulletin, which warned the agency of a Russian scheme to spread misinformation about the mental health of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The bulletin, titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Election,” was sent to the agency’s legislative and public affairs office for review on 7 July, according to internal emails and a draft of the bulletin obtained by ABC News.

In the draft, analysts said with “high confidence” that “Russian malign influence actors are likely to continue denigrating presidential candidates through allegations of poor mental or physical health to influence the outcome of the 2020 election.”

Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, told ABC that analysts do not use the phrase “high confidence” in reports of this kind “very often.”

The bulletin also raised the possibility of both China and Iran attempting to criticise president Donald Trump in the build up to November’s presidential election, but mainly focused on the alleged disinformation around Mr Biden.

As an example of interference in July’s draft bulletin, analysts used a story from March on a Russian proxy website that “refuted media claims that the candidate’s gaffes are a result of a stutter, instead arguing these verbal miscues are symptoms of dementia.”

Although the bulletin was scheduled to be sent out to state and local law enforcement two days later on 9 July, an hour after it was received by the agency, DHS Chief of Staff John Gountanis intervened.

In an email obtained by ABC, Mr Gountanis wrote: “Please hold on sending this one out until you have a chance to speak to [acting secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf].”

The bulletin was never sent out to law enforcement agencies, and a DHS spokesperson told ABC that its circulation was delayed because it did not meet the agency’s standards.

The DHS spokesperson said that the agency “generally does not comment on leaked documents, this particular draft product lacked the necessary context and evidence for broader dissemination outside of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

“After briefing the acting secretary and he asked questions, career leadership decided to delay the product for further review.”

The leaked document again raises questions about Russian interference in November’s election, after William R Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, claimed in August that the Russian government is taking active “measures to primarily denigrate former vice president Biden.”

Additionally, on Tuesday, Facebook and Twitter removed a small network of accounts and pages that were linked to a Russian “troll factory” that has reportedly used social media since 2016 to sow political discord in the US.

The Russian Internet Research Agency, which US intelligence agencies have previously said interfered in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump, recruited journalists from the US to write articles and purchase political advertisements, without them knowing the purpose, according to NPR.

Graphika, a US analysis firm, that received the data before Facebook’s announcement, confirmed that the network’s small effort was similar to other attempts by the agency to undermine support for Democratic candidates.

The analysis firm reported that the network’s content was hostile towards the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Kamala Harris, and was consistent “with the original [Internet Research Agency’s] attempt to depress support for then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by infiltrating and influencing progressive audiences.”

Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtagh told ABC about the claims of Russian misinformation schemes: “We don’t need or want any foreign interference,” in the 2020 election. He claimed that “president Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square.”

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