US delays intelligence center targeting foreign influence

WASHINGTON (AP), -- In an attempt to counter Russia's efforts to undermine American elections and cause discord among Americans the Congress created an intelligence center to coordinate efforts to prevent interference from foreign adversaries. Two years later, the center is still not open.

US delays intelligence center targeting foreign influence

Experts and intelligence officers agree that the Foreign Malign Influence Center proposal is a good idea. They claim that the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy to combat influence operations and there is not enough coordination between national security agencies. At a time when democracy is at risk in America and the rest of the world, adversaries that attempted to interfere in the presidential elections in 2008 and 2009 continue to bombard Americans with conspiracy theories and disinformation.

According to former and current officials, Congress and the intelligence community remain divided on the center's budget, mission and size. Although separate counter-interference efforts continue, the potential director identified as this year has been transferred to another location and the center is unlikely to open any time soon.

"It's really just giving a gift Russia and China, and other countries who clearly have their sights set on the midterm election but also on ongoing campaigns to destabilize American societies," stated David Salvo (deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy) and senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund.

Before taking office, the nation's top intelligence officer had advocated for the center. Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, co-chaired the task force that supported it from the German Marshall Fund last year. Nicole de Haay, spokeswoman for the Intelligence Community stated that the office is focused on creating a center to integrate and facilitate the Intelligence Community efforts to combat foreign malign influence.

Some lawmakers are worried about expanding the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's mission. Originally, ODNI was intended to be a small coordination body that would address intelligence-sharing problems prior to the September 11 attacks. There are several centers within the organization that critics claim are good-intentioned attempts to solve problems, but they end up creating unnecessary duplication.

Senator Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner stated that he supports the center but had questions about its size and how it would fit in with existing government efforts against foreign interference.

In a statement, the Virginia Democrat stated that "we want to make sure that this center enhances these efforts rather than duplicating or migrating them into unnecessary bureaucracy." "I have no doubt that we will eventually stand the center up in a relatively near future, but it is important to make sure we do it right."

It is not clear who will lead the center. A vacancy has also been created for an executive responsible for new election threats. The previous executive Shelby Pierson left her post and went back to work in intelligence. Pierson was in the news last year after she gave a closed-door briefing to lawmakers on Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2020 elections in favor of former President Donald Trump. Trump was furious and replaced Pierson later. Trump propagated falsehoods about election results and encouraged Republicans to follow his lead.

Experts in democracy have warned for years that "malign influence," which the government refers too, is a national security risk. Social media has made disinformation an easy and effective tactic for adversaries. They can spread false stories, videos, images and videos, as well as amplify falsehoods among Americans in order to promote their interests and cause chaos.

The U.S. and Western authorities have charged Russia with spreading misinformation about the coronavirus, vaccines, and stealing data from state and local election servers. They also accused Russia of pushing false stories to exploit divisions in race and civil rights. In 2020, intelligence agencies found Russia had used influence operations to favor Trump's campaign.

Although the U.S. concluded that China did not interfere with the 2020 election, Beijing was accused of spreading false theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. It also tried to influence businesses and all levels government. Iran was accused of sending emails to intimidate Democratic-leaning voters in order to support Trump.

Experts believe the new center will be able to warn Americans about foreign interference and provide better information to policymakers. Although the FBI, National Security Agency, and other government agencies have been working on foreign interference for a long time, Jessica Brandt, a Brookings Institution expert on disinformation and foreign interference, said that they aren't organized in a way that allows them to build a coherent threat picture.

There are also risks associated with the intelligence community's increased surveillance of Americans' reading and viewing habits. Both the FBI and NSA were accused of illegally spying on Americans. This history is a reason Americans distrust the intelligence community. Trump's attacks against intelligence professionals and the "deep state" that he calls the "deep state" are also contributing to their distrust.

Opponents point out that the U.S. has a history in covert interference in countries other than America and has helped to overthrow anti-American governments. The Kremlin-backed RT.com published a column claiming that the proposed center was "just an official cover for American intelligence intervention in domestic politics."

If the intelligence community takes the same untruths that are spread by Americans and labels them foreign interference, it could be seen as politically or infringing upon First Amendment rights.

Salvo of German Marshall Fund stated that the center will have to "deal with this immense challenge to communicate threats to American democracy and American elections at a moment when there seem two completely different realities."

The center was authorized by Congress in late 2019, and ODNI was directed to create it. A number of intelligence professionals who were involved at the time said that they did not know of any attempt by Trump White House to stop this center. Instead, ODNI leaders disagreed about how to organize the center or whether it should operate as a virtual center without an office.

One source claims that William Evanina, former chief of ODNI counterintelligence center, offered to accept the malign influence center as a subordinate of his authority. However, the office did not decide to pursue this option. Evanina declined comment.

After President Joe Biden was elected, ODNI presented a plan to create a small center that would employ a few dozen people and be attached to the intelligence and appropriations panels in the House and Senate. Despite Congress mandating the creation of the center, some key legislators from both parties expressed concern about the plan.

The proposal to finance the center failed this summer, and it is unlikely that it will be funded while the government continues to operate with temporary funding. If a complete spending plan is approved by the government in early 2022, the center could be included.

Suzanne Spaulding is an expert on election security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and called for swift action by the United States government.

Spaulding stated that "Time is not on the side of us." "Disinformation poses a national security risk and should be dealt with with the urgency that such a threat creates.

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