Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa

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As 2020 Election Draws Near, Senators Seek Accounting of FBI’s Use of Defensive Briefings

Oct 17, 2019
WASHINGTON – Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), respective chairmen of the Finance Committee and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are seeking details on the FBI’s procedures to brief presidential campaigns about potential threats. The FBI confirmed last year that it provided counterintelligence defensive briefings to several candidates in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, but it also acknowledged that it doesn’t have a specific policy governing when those briefings should be provided.
 
In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Grassley and Johnson are seeking details on how the FBI conducts such briefings and what policies are in place to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all campaigns. They also question whether policies are in place to prevent briefings from being used to surreptitiously gather information on the briefing recipients.
 
In 2017, Grassley sought confirmation on any efforts by the FBI to warn then-candidate Trump or his campaign staff of potential foreign influence and counterintelligence concerns.  Such briefings are commonly provided to allow unwitting organizations and individuals to take defensive actions to protect themselves from threats. Though the FBI confirmed that it provided briefings to multiple candidates, it did not provide details on whether or how those briefings were specifically tailored for those campaigns and the specific threats they may have faced.
 
It was later confirmed that, at the time of those briefings, the FBI was actively investigating now-debunked allegations of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia. Text messages between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa page also suggest that the FBI was using regular intelligence briefings with the Trump transition team as covert information gathering operations.
 
“The Department of Homeland Security has made clear that ‘[a] secure and resilient electoral process is a vital national interest.’ An essential part of that process is ensuring that all candidates for office are treated fairly and are fully and equally prepared to address any potential security and counterintelligence concerns,” the senators wrote to Wray. “The apparent absence of any policy, procedure, or practice for conducting defensive briefings undermines that process by risking the appearance of bias or, at worst, causing actual prejudice to a candidate for office.”
 
 
October 16, 2019
 
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
 
The Honorable Christopher A. Wray
Director
Federal Bureau of Investigation
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20535
 
Dear Director Wray:
 
With the approach of the 2020 presidential election, we write to request information regarding how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plans to provide counterintelligence defensive briefings to candidates and senior campaign officials.  On September 20, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to the FBI about defensive briefings provided to the Trump campaign.  In response, on October 26, 2017, the FBI described defensive briefings as “an essential [] counterintelligence tool,” yet also explained that it “does not maintain a specific policy governing when such briefings are to be provided.”[1]  
 
During the 2016 presidential election, “the FBI provided a counterintelligence defensive briefing to then-candidate Trump and other senior campaign officials.”[2]  The FBI also reported that it provided “[s]imilar briefings … to then-candidate Hillary Clinton and the two Vice Presidential candidates prior to the November election,” as well as briefings for both campaigns’ staff.[3]  We now know that, at the time of the August 2016 FBI counterintelligence defensive briefing to then-candidate Trump, the FBI also had an open counterintelligence investigation concerning the Trump campaign.[4]  In light of this and other information, there are significant questions regarding the similarity of those briefings for the 2016 candidates and whether those briefings were provided in a manner consistent with past practice.[5]
 
The Department of Homeland Security has made clear that “[a] secure and resilient electoral process is a vital national interest.”[6]  An essential part of that process is ensuring that all candidates for office are treated fairly and are fully and equally prepared to address any potential security and counterintelligence concerns.  The apparent absence of any policy, procedure, or practice for conducting defensive briefings undermines that process by risking the appearance of bias or, at worst, causing actual prejudice to a candidate for office.  For these reasons, we respectfully request that the FBI please provide the following information by no later than October 30, 2019:
 
  1. Does the FBI have established policies, procedures, and practices for providing counterintelligence defensive briefings?  If yes, please produce all relevant documents, and please provide a written description of any policy, procedure, or practice not otherwise set forth in those documents.  If not, please provide a written explanation for not having established such policies or procedures, and please address whether the FBI has any intention of changing that practice.
 
  1. How does the FBI determine which candidates for federal office and senior campaign staff will receive a defensive briefing?
 
  1. How does the FBI decide which employees will provide counterintelligence defensive briefings to candidates and senior campaign staff?
 
  1. How does the FBI address conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest with regard to the FBI team who will prepare and provide the counterintelligence defensive briefings?
 
  1. What policies or procedures preclude the FBI from using counterintelligence defensive briefings as an opportunity to further an investigation into the individual(s) receiving the briefing?
 
  1. How does the FBI determine the extent of the information it will share with a candidate and senior campaign staff during a counterintelligence defensive briefing?
 
  1. Please provide a list and description of each defensive briefing that the FBI has provided to a candidate for federal office and senior campaign officials from the 2008 elections through 2016.  In the description, please address what role, if any, other U.S. government agencies served in preparing for or providing those briefings.
 
  1. Please explain how the FBI works with other U.S. government agencies in preparing for and delivering counterintelligence defensive briefings.
 
  1. According to the FBI, it provided then-candidate Trump and Clinton “[s]imilar [defensive] briefings.”[7]  Please provide all documents related to the preparation for and presentation of those briefings, including a list of all FBI personnel involved in preparing for and providing the briefings.
 
In addition to those requests, please provide the Committees a briefing on these topics by no later than November 6, 2019. 
 
We anticipate that your written reply and some responsive documents will be unclassified.  Please send all unclassified material directly to the Committees.  In keeping with the requirements of Executive Order 13526, if any of the responsive documents do contain classified information, please segregate all unclassified material within the classified documents, provide all unclassified information directly to the Committees, and provide a classified addendum to the Office of Senate Security.  Although the Committees comply with all laws and regulations governing the handling of classified information, they are not bound, absent their prior agreement, by any handling restrictions.
 
Thank you advance for your assistance in this matter.  Should you have any questions, please contact Joshua Flynn-Brown of Chairman Grassley’s Committee staff at (202) 224-4515 and Brian Downey of Chairman Johnson’s staff at (202) 224-4751. 
 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
Charles E. Grassley
Chairman
Committee on Finance
 
Ron Johnson
Chairman
Committee on Homeland Security
     and Governmental Affairs
 
 
cc:      
 
Senator Richard Shelby
Chairman
Senate Committee on Appropriations
 
The Honorable Michael E. Horowitz
Inspector General      
Department of Justice
 
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[1] Letter from Gregory A. Brower, Assistant Dir., Office of Cong. Affairs, Fed. Bureau of Investigation, to Charles E. Grassley, S. Comm. on the Judiciary (Oct. 26, 2017).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Daniel Chaitin, Trey Gowdy: FBI Gave ‘Two Different Kinds of Defensive Briefings’ to Trump and Clinton in 2016, Wash. Examiner, (Jun. 23, 2019), https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trey-gowdy-fbi-gave-two-different-kinds-of-defensive-briefings-to-trump-and-clinton-in-2016.
[6] Election Security, U.S. Dep’t Homeland Security, https://www.dhs.gov/topic/election-security (last updated Mar. 5, 2019).
[7] Letter from Gregory A. Brower, Assistant Dir., Office of Cong. Affairs, Fed. Bureau of Investigation, to Charles E. Grassley, S. Comm. on the Judiciary (Oct. 26, 2017).
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