Lawmakers fret over who will report foreign election interference 

When the U.S. government has credible evidence of a foreign nation interfering in an American election, who is responsible for sounding the alarm and what processes are in place to ensure it’s done in a responsible, nonpartisan manner?
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 2, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When the U.S. government has credible evidence of a foreign nation interfering in an American election, who is responsible for sounding the alarm and what processes are in place to ensure it’s done in a responsible, nonpartisan manner?

That question was top of mind for Senators on both sides of the aisle at a Wednesday hearing, when they sharply questioned Biden administration officials about their plans for notifying the public about a foreign power meddling in U.S. politics. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that when a hurricane is headed toward the United States, the National Hurricane Center takes the lead to issue warnings “and people — Republicans, Democrats no matter who you’re going to vote for — are going to take the appropriate steps.”

How that notification process works for foreign interference efforts is less clear, and the potential for political blowback in the heat of a national election is vast.


“I don’t think I have a clear understanding of who’s in charge, and how we would respond, who would take the lead,” Rubio said. “I think no matter who puts it out there, the candidate or issue on the other side of it, their followers are going to question whether it’s the government interfering in the elections themselves.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., sounded similar concerns as his Republican counterpart at the hearing focused on threats to American elections, which did not provide a clear answer on exactly how Biden administration officials would handle public notification of foreign interference. 

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that in many circumstances, she would be one of the principal conduits for conveying the existence of foreign interference efforts to Congress and the public but added that the political sensitivities of revealing political meddling means that won’t always be the case. 

“There may be certain circumstances in which, for example, a state and local official or other basically public authorities is in a better position to make the public statement initially,” which can then be backed up by the intelligence community, Haines said.

Concerns regarding political blowback echo the findings of a Department of Homeland Security-led task force that convened to consider disinformation in 2018, when one official concluded that “we are fairly certain that in a lot of contexts, we are not the right messenger” to deliver warnings about information operations.


Haines said when the U.S. government “when relevant intelligence is collected concerning a foreign influence operation aimed at our election” there exists a “notification framework” that ensures that “appropriate notice is given to those who are being targeted so that they can take action.” Haines said most of these notifications are not public but added that there are “scenarios in which public notifications are appropriate,” including when “doing so would render the foreign influence operation less effective.” 

The concerns about how best to notify the public about foreign information operations comes as the U.S. government has broadly grown more aggressive in making public information about such operations that previously might have been kept classified. 

At the RSA Conference in San Francisco earlier this month, Warner praised the Trump administration’s speedy public notification of an influence campaign linked to the Iranian government in the lead-up to the 2020 election, and told reporters he believes the Biden administration will be more proactive this cycle if evidence emerges that a foreign nation is executing a similar campaign targeting the 2024 vote.

“I would not expect, if we find this and it can be documented, pushback from the administration revealing it,” he said.

Other national security officials have expressed similar sentiments. Chris Inglis, former national cyber director and deputy director at the National Security Agency, told CyberScoop that proactive sharing of intelligence about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine in 2022 helped significantly blunt Moscow’s efforts to shape early narratives around the war and helped to marshal international support for Ukrainian defense.


There is a broad desire from national security leaders in both parties to head off a repeat of the 2016 presidential election, when the Russian government executed a multi-pronged strategy to hack and leak high-level political communications, and flood social media with propaganda from troll farms.

As the scope of that operation became clearer, the Obama administration considered notifying the public. The White House ultimately held off after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to sign onto a statement condemning the efforts, worrying that anything less than a unified response would be perceived as a partisan effort to influence the election outcome. Joe Biden, who was Vice President at the time, has since expressed regret that the administration was not more forceful in calling Russia out ahead of the election.

That experience could serve as motivation for the administration to act more decisively this time around and create space for a collective response.

“This actually creates a situation where you put the adversary on their backfoot, because you’ve now stolen the march and what their initiatives might be,” Inglis said.  “They’re less capable because you’ve actually deployed this across the coalition that then acts on that.”

At the same time, some experts are increasingly questioning the way policymakers, researchers and the media talk about disinformation, arguing that evidence around its impact on the human mind is murky and inconclusive, that coverage of such campaigns can actually amplify their effect and that they offer politicians a convenient excuse to brush off genuine domestic sentiments as a nefarious foreign plot.  


As an example of how domestic politics can complicate efforts for consensus around this issue, the Senate hearing broke down at several points as Republicans and Democrats relitigated a public letter sent by more than 50 former intelligence officials in the lead-up to the 2020 elections decrying the spread of emails, text messages and other data belonging to Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son.

The ultimate origins of that data remain shrouded in mystery, and forensic experts told CyberScoop at the time that the cache of emails delivered to news outlets was not in its original form and showed signs of tampering. Initial investigations by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post did validate the authenticity of some of the material, but did not substantiate larger claims of public corruption by the elder Biden.  

But the letter from intelligence officials, the reticence by some in the mainstream media to cover messages of unknown provenance and a subsequent blackout of the story by social media platforms continues to be a sore subject for Republicans. At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, characterized the treatment of the Hunter Biden story as “deplorable” and cast it as an effort by partisan national security officials to suppress a damaging story and sway the election in favor of Democrats.

“I’m as concerned with this sort of thing as I am with foreign interference in the election process,” Risch said.

Derek B. Johnson

Written by Derek B. Johnson

Derek B. Johnson is a reporter at CyberScoop, where his beat includes cybersecurity, elections and the federal government. Prior to that, he has provided award-winning coverage of cybersecurity news across the public and private sectors for various publications since 2017. Derek has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hofstra University in New York and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia.

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