Politics ‘We better get worried if Bill gets silenced’

‘We better get worried if Bill gets silenced’

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This year, just a few months out from the next presidential election, there have been no comparable joint briefings by the administration’s senior national security officials on election threats. Trump has weathered an impeachment scandal sparked by his demands for foreign help in sidelining a political rival. And he has purged top intelligence officials and replaced them with pliable allies.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” Trump said last week when asked about the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia is working to denigrate his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

And while the NSC has held several deputies-level meetings on the topic, there have been no traditional Principals Committee meetings—with senior Cabinet officials and the president—on the subject this year, according to a Trump administration official.

Instead, it has fallen to little-known career intelligence official William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and an FBI veteran, to take the lead on briefing — or deciding who briefs — “those affected by potential malicious influence,” including the presidential candidates, political organizations, Congress, and, through press releases, the public.

The decision to delegate these responsibilities to Evanina was made earlier this year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to “ensure consistency on messaging and fairness,” and as a way to “have a single point of contact with respect to intelligence-based briefings,” an ODNI official said at the time. The change was made after Joseph Maguire, a career official who headed that office after Trump removed Dan Coats, was pressured to resign for greenlighting a briefing to the House Intelligence Committee about Russia’s attempts to undermine Democrats in 2020.

Evanina has similarly been thrust into the center of a bruising political fight, with Democratic lawmakers accusing him of whitewashing the Russia threat and Republicans pressing him to focus more on China and Iran. And his role has been further complicated by the fact that he’s had to brief the full Congress on a foreign influence operation targeting lawmakers themselves.

“It’s a classic example of a professional, a career guy, running into the buzz saw,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI special agent who served as the director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive before recommending Evanina to replace him. “I’ve been in those crosshairs, where no matter what comes out of your mouth, someone will hate you.”

In interviews, nearly a dozen current and former national security officials who have worked with Evanina characterized the counterintelligence chief either as a “survivor” overly focused on keeping his political masters at bay or a “total professional” who is aggressive but deliberate in his assessments.

Evanina, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, has spoken in the past about the perils of having to steer between conflicting political currents.

“Being able to navigate the Intelligence Community and the rest of the executive branch, the private sector, the White House, Congress — the whole political navigation of all of that is probably the hardest part of my job,” he told The Cipher Brief in 2017. “Keeping everybody, I’m not going to say happy, but at least neutral. I work for the DNI, all my money comes from Congress, and my authorities are either vested in congressional legislation or executive orders from the White House. So I’m subservient to a lot of different people, and sometimes they don’t all have the same agendas.”

But several former FBI officials who have worked with him say Evanina, a Pennsylvania native who started his FBI career more than 20 years ago in the violent crimes unit and counterterrorism division, is more aggressive than he seems. And they argue that he is the best person to be keeping both lawmakers and the public apprised of such a subject that has become so politically sensitive, given his background as an apolitical career professional.

“I think in a way he could become the Dr. Fauci of the counterintelligence community,” said another former senior FBI official who worked closely with Evanina, referring to the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose careful pronouncements on the coronavirus pandemic have occasionally put him crosswise with a president determined to minimize the outbreak.

“This is a career professional who is trying to rise above the political lunacy right now, in a profession that was almost never impacted by politics in the past,” the former official said of Evanina. “And I think he’s the right man for this job. I don’t know whether the public at this point would trust some of the more senior Trump appointees and agency heads to give them an unvarnished assessment of where things stand. But I do know we better get worried if Bill gets silenced.”

A ‘by-the-book-kind of guy’

Evanina’s backstory reads almost like a cliche of the dedicated public servant. He grew up just outside Scranton, Pa. — the same hometown that features endlessly in Joe Biden’s stump speeches — where he played football and baseball and revered his high school coaches.

In interviews, Evanina has described himself as a “by-the-book-kind of guy,” whose college internship at a county district attorney’s office inspired him to go into law enforcement. “I wanted to be the guy that did all the hard interviews and investigating,” he told a local newspaper for a profile in 2014. “I wanted to be the first half of the show ‘Law and Order.'”

Like so many FBI veterans of his generation, the Sept. 11 attacks were a defining event. Before then, as a young FBI agent fresh out of the bureau’s training academy in Quantico, Va., Evanina had worked on mob cases and violent crimes in New Jersey. But after al Qaeda operatives hijacked planes and piloted them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he later said, “I became a terrorism special agent immediately” — tasked to help investigate the fiery crash of United Airlines Flight 93, which passengers had wrestled away from the terrorists and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

Evanina would go on to work on several other high-profile FBI investigations — the ill-fated probe of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the takedown of a network of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) operatives operating across the U.S., and the inquiry into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — before rising to lead the CIA’s Counterespionage Group, which coordinates efforts across the intelligence community to identify and neutralize foreign espionage activities in the U.S.

“Bill is what you think of when you think about an FBI special agent. He’s straight up and down,” said Chris Roberti, a former intelligence officer who worked with Evanina and now serves as the senior vice president for cyber, intelligence and security policy at U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If he’s got bad news, he’s going tell it to you, and if he has good news, he’s going to tell it to you. But when he’s coming at you, he’s not coming at you with an angle — he’s very comfortable in his own skin and he is always going to do the right thing.”

He added that Evanina “has built up strong relationships on the Hill, in the administration, and within the interagency, and is not afraid to use political capital to get things done.”

The former FBI official who worked closely with Evanina said his work on Russia, as the assistant section chief of the FBI’s Russia section, was particularly impactful. “If you were a Russian intelligence officer assigned to operate in D.C., you dreaded seeing Bill on the other end of the table,” the former official recalled. “He was so successful in shutting down Russians operating in the [Washington Field Office] domain that I almost had to pull him back.”

In 2014, Evanina was appointed head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center by James Clapper, who was then the director of national intelligence. There, he was tasked with rooting out and preventing so-called insider threats — leakers. One of his first assignments at NCSC, which houses the National Insider Threat Program, was leading the government’s assessment of the damage caused by the massive dump of highly classified National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden, a disgruntled contractor who flew to Moscow after sharing his trove with several journalists.

“Instead of getting carried away with the concept of leakers as heroes, we need to get back to the basics of what it means to be loyal,” Evanina said at the time. “Undifferentiated, unauthorized leaking is a criminal act. If you want to call yourself a whistleblower, there are methods in place,” he said. “A security clearance is considered sacred, a privilege and an honor.”

Evanina has told a story about sitting down with a friend at the Silver Diner in McLean, Va., when a disgruntled former cook repeatedly crashed his Hummer into the restaurant and tried to light the place on fire. Evanina, drawing on his FBI training, pulled the cook from the wrecked Hummer — then cuffed him. “When you look at that individual, that is the epitome of the insider threat,” he told NPR in a rare 2016 interview.

Thrust into the spotlight

For most of his two decades in government, Evanina had largely stayed out of the public eye. Then, Congress made his post a Senate-confirmed position — suddenly drawing him into a bare-knuckled fight between Republicans and the intelligence community over the probe into Trump’s ties to Russia.

In 2018, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the gruff longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced he was holding up Evanina’s confirmation as leverage for documents he sought related to the Russia investigation. “I’m not questioning Mr. Evanina’s credentials,” Grassley said in announcing his hold. It lasted for two years.

Evanina was ultimately confirmed in May of this year, in an 84-7 vote. Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner spoke glowingly of him on the Senate floor, describing Evanina as “a consummate counterintelligence and security professional, fiercely dedicated to the mission, with unquestionable honor.” Richard Grenell, a staunch Trump ally who briefly ran ODNI, said at the time that “America’s entire national security apparatus are stronger with Bill Evanina firmly in place.”

“He’s a true patriot, and is passionate about doing right all the time,” said another former senior FBI official who worked closely with Evanina. “He has character beyond reproach. And if we don’t have honest brokers sitting in seats of power like Bill Evanina, we nationally have a problem.”

Not everyone has been as confident in Evanina’s independence; his detractors have described him as too eager to please everyone in the room, especially his superiors, and say he has failed a litmus test in how he has portrayed the election interference efforts.

One former senior national security official who was briefed several times by Evanina recalled him being overzealous about wanting to prosecute leaks in the early days of the Trump administration, which was a top priority of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The former official saw it as emblematic of Evanina’s need to carve out a position for himself, and “an opportunistic way to weasel into this new administration by offering them red meat.”

“So it’s interesting to now see him in this touchy place where there’s real interference going on, but he still has this clear desire to ingratiate himself with the powers that be,” the former official said, pointing to the statements Evanina has released appearing to equate Russia’s election interference with Chinese and Iranian political rhetoric.

Dean Boyd, NCSC’s chief spokesperson, said in a statement that “no matter which administration is in office, Bill has pursued counterintelligence matters, including the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, with the same tenacity and vigor throughout his 24-year career at FBI, CIA and NCSC. He has been involved in investigations into leaks of classified information going back decades, whether it’s Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, or others.”

One current national security official said that when it comes to election interference, though, “Bill wants to be very measured in how we talk about it.”

“There’s an argument by some in the interagency that providing more information rather than less will insulate us from blowback,” the official added. “And Bill has definitely tried to be more forward leaning. But it’s almost like he made things worse.”

The official pointed to the initial statement Evanina released on July 24 outlining threats posed by China, Russia, and Iran 100 days out from the election—a declaration that he and Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community’s top election security official, thought would be perceived as proactive and transparent, according to people familiar with their thinking.

Instead, Democrats immediately lambasted the statement as an attempt to downplay the severity of the Russia threat, and described it as “so vague as to be almost meaningless.” As Democrats saw it, Evanina was seeking to appease his ultimate political master — Trump — in ways that corrupted the intelligence process.

“There was definitely pressure to talk about a broader range of threats,” the national security official said of the initial statement. “But the threat to the election is just so much more acute with Russia. So much more acute.”

After being admonished by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a later all-House briefing, Evanina released another statement that was explicit about Russia’s attempts to undermine Biden’s candidacy, and even named an individual suspected of helping in those efforts.

“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” the statement said. “For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

Publicly, Senate Intelligence Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Warner praised the more detailed release; privately, several of Evanina’s former colleagues expressed surprise at its specificity, noting the naming of Derkach as a particularly bold move.

“In the past, former directors of NCSC announced or publicized the fact that Russia and China were acting against U.S. interests. But Bill has taken it much further — to name someone publicly like that is a big deal,” said an industry security executive who has known and worked with Evanina for more than a decade. “He pushes the envelope to make sure that he can be as transparent as possible, within the boundaries. He takes risks, but they’re calculated.”

But many Democratic lawmakers continued to grumble. The new statement did not explicitly say Russia was trying to boost Trump, as Evanina had acknowledged privately, and was again packaged with an assessment of China’s “public rhetoric” critical of Trump and Iran’s online circulation of disinformation about Trump and anti-America content.

China “prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection,” the statement read. While Beijing “will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues,” it concluded.

Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien called Evanina’s statement “terrific” in an interview with “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “What it did, which has not come out before, is it detailed the influence and efforts of China and Iran to denigrate the president and to make sure that he’s not reelected.” Asked for evidence of that, O’Brien said the administration won’t be releasing “sensitive intelligence.” He told CBS previously that the NSC had been “been putting in hundreds of millions of dollars into election security” and “running a policy coordination process for months and months and months” with the Department of Homeland Security and secretaries of state.

Some Democrats have attributed Evanina’s decisions to a broader wearing down of the intelligence community by a president who has assailed and politicized their work.

“It shows me that 43 months of constant pressure have had some impact,” said Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the seven senators who opposed Evanina’s confirmation. “I think he knows very well that these three examples should not be packaged together. I think he understands full well the important distinctions. That’s why it’s irresponsible to package together. It becomes more of a work of political packaging than providing the American public with important information.”

Another former FBI official who worked with Evanina was similarly critical, describing him as a “salesman” who “can talk the interagency talk but he doesn’t have a deep counterintelligence body of work.”

The former official said he believed the importance of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which Evanina leads, “has always been a little overblown.” But he acknowledged that it now has arguably more influence than ever before, owing to “a curious alignment of the administration wanting more political control of counterintelligence messaging and [FBI Director] Wray wanting to stay the hell out of the CI limelight.”

Boyd, the NCSC spokesman, called Evanina “a relentless advocate for the U.S. counterintelligence and security community, both in and out of government. He has also worked tirelessly to raise awareness about foreign intelligence threats to U.S. industry and research communities and to arm them with information to mitigate these threats.”

Democrats have been urging Wray, though, to regularly brief the House and Senate on ongoing foreign interference campaigns and pressing him to make more information public. The annual worldwide threats hearing, where Wray and other senior national security officials have traditionally testified publicly about the biggest threats facing the U.S., was postponed indefinitely earlier this year—intelligence community officials had requested that the hearing instead be held behind closed doors so they would not be seen publicly diverging from Trump on certain key issues like Russia and Iran.

Most of the officials who spoke to POLITICO agreed, however, that Evanina is a professional who is walking a tightrope. Montoya, the retired FBI special agent, called it “a tactical error to drag this fight out into the open, because you are putting the people trying to do the right thing at a serious disadvantage.”

“If Bill was really just trying to stay out of the line of fire, he could’ve never said anything about the Russians,” Montoya said, pointing to Trump’s repeated signaling that he takes Putin’s word over the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community. “But he is essentially competing with Vladimir Putin directly.”

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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