On the afternoon of Nov. 8, almost a year before the 2020 presidential election, the intelligence community published new guidelines outlining how officials will decide how and when to notify potential victims of foreign interference in U.S. elections.
According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the intelligence community’s top agency in charge of coordinating information sharing between its 17 members, the new framework will “supplement” existing laws on victim notification and aim to “protect the American people” and “secure the integrity of our elections” by more quickly making information about threats available.
President Trump approved the new framework on Halloween, a senior intelligence official told journalists in a phone call Friday afternoon.
The new guidelines aim to create a clear path to disclosing sensitive information about specific threats to the owners and operators of election infrastructure, to targets of interference, to other “affected entities,” to Congress or to the American people, according to a written overview of the new policy by the ODNI. Critically, it says, “Partisan politics shall not play a role in the decision to provide notifications.”
The explicit guidance on partisan politics comes after several years of contentious debate about the 2016 presidential election, which saw widespread Russian interference targeting then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Prior to the election, the Obama administration was fearful that public disclosure about Russian meddling might lead critics to conclude the White House was acting to help Clinton.
The new guidelines, however, are designed to address those concerns and enable the prompt disclosure of information.
“There is an agreed-upon sense of urgency,” the senior intelligence official on the press call, said on Friday. “There is really a sense of urgency to operationalize this information as quickly as possible.”
Those disclosures might be private, intended only for the targets, or public, intended to inform the general population. For example, if two local counties were victims of a specific cyber attack and were notified by the FBI, the framework would allow the government to have another avenue to warn other potential targets, such as a higher-ranking state election official, without necessarily disclosing the specific details about the original victim, who might prefer to maintain anonymity.
Additionally, it would allow intelligence officials to release a public statement or brief journalists on a specific threat to elections, like a social media disinformation campaign, in order to broadly warn the American public.
The processes, summarized in a one-page document released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), stated explicitly that “partisan politics shall not play [a] role in the decision to provide notifications,” and that the integrity of political and social discourse would be protected.
The summary document said the U.S. Secret Service will be notified of “all activity” targeting major presidential and vice presidential candidates. Notification decisions will take into account whether sources and methods could be compromised by any public disclosure.
It also specified notification decisions will be made by “a group of experts from different Intelligence Community agencies,” including representatives from ODNI, Homeland Security, the State Department, National Security Agency, CIA and FBI. Officials from those agencies will determine whether any disclosures would deter – or amplify – attempted interference, including by “re-victimizing” targeted entities.
In the event a broad public notification is necessary, the document said the Director of National Intelligence “will convene a meeting of Principals to assess whether the notification should be made.”
The U.S. government issued a now-infamous warning about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in October of that year.
The newly established process “supplements existing laws and policies” governing the process by which victims of potential foreign interference, e.g., election officials or owners or operators of critical infrastructure, are currently made aware of those attempts.
Those notifications are currently issued by a trio of agencies – the FBI, DHS and the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) – which determine when and how victims of a potential crime are notified.
“The decision to notify will be in service of the national security interests of the United States and our responsibility to protect the American people,” the document said, “including to secure the integrity of our elections.”