U.S. Names Official to Counter Foreign Election Interference

WASHINGTON — The director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, has appointed a new officer to oversee threats to elections, filling a critical role in the nation’s efforts to counter foreign election interference, her office said on Friday.

The new officer, Jeffrey Wichman, who has worked at the C.I.A. for more than three decades, will take over as the election threats executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence next week, said Nicole de Haay, a spokeswoman for the director of national intelligence.

Individual intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have already begun stepping up election threat monitoring ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But without a new election threats executive, some on Capitol Hill had feared progress had stalled, coordination had diminished and important analytical differences had been left unresolved.

Mr. Wichman’s appointment came after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was forced to delay plans to create a foreign malign influence center that would oversee efforts from abroad to influence elections and American politics more generally. Creation of that center has been slowed by disagreements on Capitol Hill over the size of the effort and its funding.

Mr. Wichman is currently the director of analysis for the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence mission center, and he previously served as a senior cyber analyst in the agency’s directorate of digital innovation. In addition to roles focusing on counterterrorism and the Middle East, he also held a leadership role at the C.I.A. school that trains analysts.

Once Congress approves funding for the broader malign influence center, the election threats team led by Mr. Wichman will be folded into the new group.

“While we work with Congress to get funding for the center, the intelligence community remains focused on addressing foreign malign influence,” Ms. de Haay said.

Chief on the agenda for the new executive is creating a common view of what constitutes malign election influence. In 2020, both Republicans and Democrats lamented that the intelligence agencies used different standards to judge Russian and Chinese efforts. Some analysts were reluctant to classify attempts by China to push its views as influence operations and suggested that the intelligence agencies needed a common standard.

Warnings this week in Britain and Canada about Chinese efforts to influence lawmakers in those countries have made questions about malign influence and election threats more acute.

Government intelligence analysts are still assessing how foreign threats are shifting ahead of this year’s midterm elections. But a senior intelligence official said that businesses were increasingly conducting campaigns for foreign nations, efforts “that include information manipulation and the laundering of disinformation narratives.”

The growth of those efforts, the senior official said, threatens to make the public more vulnerable to manipulation. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operations of intelligence agencies, much of whose work is classified.

Before the announcement of Mr. Wichman’s appointment, some former intelligence officers and Capitol Hill aides had raised questions about whether the Biden administration had done enough to build up an election defense team.

Shelby Pierson was appointed as the election threats executive in 2019 after working on security issues surrounding the 2018 midterm elections. But because of President Donald J. Trump’s sensitivity to discussions of Russian interference in the elections, the job quickly became fraught.

Ms. Pierson led a February 2020 briefing to Congress that accurately reported that Russia’s election influence campaign was continuing. But Mr. Trump’s anger about the briefing ultimately led to the firing of the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire. The Trump administration subsequently blocked Ms. Pierson from briefing Congress.

Ms. Pierson stayed on through the beginning of the Biden administration until the end of her assignment. In September, she took a senior post at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Intelligence officials said that even in the absence of Ms. Pierson, whose exit was reported earlier by The Associated Press, work at coordinating various agencies and submitting reports to Congress had continued.

But some congressional aides said that leaving the position empty for four months was a missed opportunity to quickly undo the damage to the office that occurred at the end of the Trump administration, when Ms. Pierson was blocked from briefing Congress.

Other former intelligence officers said that the leadership vacuum had caused much of the coordinating operation to go on hiatus. Without an election threats executive, sharing information among several intelligence agencies has proved difficult.

Part of the reason the job was not immediately filled was that intelligence officials had intended to expand the election threats executive’s team into a wider malign foreign influence center. While the annual defense policy bill that Mr. Trump signed into law in 2019 created such a center, Congress has not yet funded it.

The malign influence center was originally the idea of Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The center, he said this week, would address both foreign efforts to influence elections and “counter the full spectrum of these threats, which continue to evolve.”

It would focus on a range of countries trying to influence the United States, not just China and Russia.

While various intelligence agencies are trying to fight malign influence campaigns, Mr. Reed said there was not enough coordination across departments. As the midterm elections approach and other countries seek to use information warfare to undermine infrastructure, the economy and the military, it is critical to get the center running, he said.

Last year, Ms. Haines, the director of national intelligence, proposed reallocating positions to create a small center of up to 15 people without adding new jobs, congressional aides said.

But Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee raised questions about whether a new effort could legally be funded with such a maneuver, according to congressional aides. And the House Appropriations Committee posed a series of questions to Ms. Haines’s office.

“The initial D.N.I. request lacked important details on the operations, size and scope of the center, and I had questions that were not answered,” said Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

For now, with the federal government operating under a stopgap spending bill, the new center cannot be created, and it is unclear if Congress will pass long-term spending bills before the end of the fiscal year in September. Ms. McCollum said she had included funding for the center in this year’s defense spending bill, but without agreement between the House and Senate, the legislation remains stalled.

“Clearly disinformation and misinformation is a serious national security threat,” she said, “and I will continue to work with D.N.I. to fund appropriate solutions.”