By JOSH MARGOLIN, LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, WILL STEAKIN and JONATHAN KARL, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — In early July the Department of Homeland Security withheld publication of an intelligence bulletin warning law enforcement agencies of a Russian scheme to promote “allegations about the poor mental health” of former Vice President Joe Biden, according to internal emails and a draft of the document obtained by ABC News.
The draft bulletin, titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Election,” was submitted to the agency’s legislative and public affairs office’s for review on July 7. The analysis was not meant for public consumption, but it was set to be distributed to federal, state and local law enforcement partners two days later, on July 9, the emails show.
Just one hour after its submission, however, a senior DHS official intervened.
“Please hold on sending this one out until you have a chance to speak to [acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf],” wrote DHS Chief of Staff John Gountanis, according to an email obtained by ABC News.
That was nearly two months ago. But the bulletin was never circulated.
In a statement to ABC News, a DHS spokesperson confirmed that the product was “delayed,” explaining that it failed to meet the agency’s standards.
According to the draft bulletin, analysts determined 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.”
“High confidence means what it sounds like — that they are highly confident that their assessment is accurate and they don’t use that language very often,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, told ABC News.
The document mentions Iranian and Chinese efforts to criticize Trump, but focuses on — and takes its title from — Russia’s attacks on Biden’s mental fitness. It is a line of attack also utilized by both President Donald Trump and his reelection campaign.
Beyond warnings of Russia’s purported activity, critics said the decision to withhold the document will fuel concern that the Trump administration has sought to politicize intelligence, particularly after an announcement over the weekend that senior intelligence leaders will cease congressional election security briefings due to alleged leaks from lawmakers, and will instead provide only written reports.
“We are hearing concerns being raised publicly that, in this administration, intelligence community reporting is being modified or blocked for political reasons — or to not anger the president,” said John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and the former undersecretary for intelligence at DHS under President Barack Obama.
“By blocking information from being released that describes threats facing the nation,” Cohen continued, “it undermines the ability of the public and state and local authorities to work with the federal government to counteract the threat.”
As an example of Russian efforts to raise doubts about Biden’s mental acuity, the draft bulletin points to a March story 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.”
The DHS spokesperson said that while 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,” the spokesperson continued, “[Office of Intelligence and Analysis] career leadership decided to delay the product for further review.”
In a statement to ABC News regarding the DHS bulletin, Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said, “We don’t need or want any foreign interference.”
“There’s no question that the President has been tougher on Russia than any president before him, imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats, in contrast to the Obama-Biden Administration, which choked in the face of Russian interference,” he said. “President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square.”
The White House declined to comment.
Biden camp accuses Trump of ‘speaking from the same script’ as Russia
The Trump campaign’s effort to depict Biden, who turns 78 shortly after Election Day, as mentally unfit for office has emerged as a central tenet of its multi-million dollar strategy to paint Biden as a feeble puppet of the “radical left.”
It dates back to 2018 when, at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner, Trump jabbed his future 2020 opponent: “There’s talk about Joe Biden, Sleepy Joe, getting into the race … the guy who keeps making outrageous statements thinks he has a shot at being president?”
And while Trump, himself 74, first tweeted the “Sleepy Joe” nickname in April of last year, he and his campaign increased attacks on the former vice president’s mental state earlier this spring as Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Trump repeatedly targeted Biden in remarks and on Twitter while his campaign in May launched a Facebook ad blitz that raised questions about his “geriatric mental health.”
In June, the Trump campaign ran a television ad titled “Fortitude” that worked to paint a dire picture of Biden’s mental state.
The next month — around the time the DHS memo was submitted — Trump said in a radio interview, “[Biden’s] record is terrible. He can’t even talk about his record. He forgets his record, he forgets everything.”
On Tuesday, the president said, “Biden doesn’t know he’s alive.”
In a statement to ABC News, Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, decried “the lengths to which Donald Trump will go to manipulate and conceal intelligence for partisan political purposes.”
“He is blocking the intelligence community from sharing with federal and state law enforcement a crucial finding: that Russia is disseminating false and scurrilous attacks on the health of Joe Biden — one that aligns with Trump’s own constantly-backfiring attacks,” Bates added. “And why would he do this? Because Russia and the Trump campaign are speaking from the same script of smears and lies.”
In the intelligence draft bulletin, analysts point out that Russia’s current line of attack targeting Biden’s health echoes its efforts in 2016 to “[raise] serious doubts about [then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s] physical capability,” particularly after she fell ill at a 9/11 memorial event in New York City.
At the time, Trump and his surrogates leveled similar attacks against Clinton, calling into question her physical fitness for office. Weeks after the 9/11 memorial incident, Trump said during a debate that Clinton “doesn’t have the stamina” to be president.
Intel chief’s move to limit congressional briefings sparks outcry
After months of warnings from law enforcement and the intelligence community of Moscow’s ongoing efforts to meddle in the November election, if it had been circulated, the July bulletin would have served as one of the most explicit and specific examples to date of Russia’s intentions.
In August, the Office of Director of National Intelligence publicly reported “that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden, adding that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Trump later disputed that finding, claiming that “the last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump, because nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have, ever.”
On Saturday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced it would halt in-person congressional briefings about election security, citing concern over “unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information.”
Newly minted Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote to congressional leaders that “this approach helps ensure… that the information ODNI provides the Congress … is not misunderstood nor politicized.”
Democrats fired back, calling Ratcliffe’s decision “a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility to keep the Congress currently informed, and a betrayal of the public’s right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf reacted Sunday on ABC News’ This Week, saying his agency will “continue to have in-person briefings with members of Congress and staff,” but defended Ratcliffe’s decision.
In their statement to ABC News, the DHS spokesperson added that “[the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis] is committed to fulfilling its mission to keep the Homeland safe and secure, which included the sharing of three reports on election security in August 2020 with state and local partners.”
On This Week, Wolf added that Russia, China, and Iran continue to engage in “disinformation campaigns to sow discourse within the U.S.”
In the August statement from ODNI, intelligence officials concluded that “China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection.” Iran, it found, “seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections.”
In the July draft bulletin, in addition to reports of Russian interference, analysts said Iranian state media has “amplified public discussion by medical professionals alleging that [President Trump] suffered from psychosis and narcissistic personality disorder.” In China, state media outlets have “questioned [President Trump’s] health and suggested that a debate about the mental health of a U.S. president is indicative of deeper problems with democracy.”
With just two months until ballots are tallied, Cohen said the safety and efficacy of our election depend on collaboration within the law enforcement community and transparency about malign foreign meddling.
“One of the ways you counteract these threats,” Cohen said, “is by providing state and local authorities, political parties, and the general public access to information about both the methods being used to spread this disinformation and the contents of this disinformation campaign so people know, when they see this material, that it is inaccurate and is to be disregarded.”
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.