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Normally Invisible, National Security Figures Assume Prominent Election Role

Oct 14, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 5:04 pm

National security leaders normally lay low to the point of invisibility during presidential election campaigns. Not this year.

Current officials, like FBI Director Christopher Wray, have stepped up to reassure voters, saying they can vote with confidence and expect accurate, timely results. This is in sharp contrast to President Trump, who keeps questioning the integrity of the balloting.

In addition, many former national security officials are publicly taking sides for the first time in a presidential election by criticizing Trump and endorsing Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Wray and three colleagues outlined election security in a recently released nine-minute video.

"We're not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections, or criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote, or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election," said Wray.

Four current national security officials, including Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, appear in this nine-minute video that seeks to reassure voters that this year's election is well protected from foreign interference and fraud.
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Shortly after the video was released, Trump attacked Wray.

"He's been disappointing," Trump said in an interview with Fox Business last week. "He doesn't see the voting ballots as a problem." The president went on to say that Wray should be doing more to investigate voter fraud, though there's no evidence of a widespread problem.

Trump has repeatedly questioned mail-in balloting, predicting this will be "the most corrupt election in the history of our country" and has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.

Another official who appears in the video with Wray is Bill Evanina, head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Agency. Speaking on behalf of the intelligence community, Evanina issued a statement in August saying that "we assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden."

Trump and his team have ignored or downplayed this assessment, and have continued to cast doubt on the intelligence community conclusion about Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign.

Meanwhile, former national security officials are signing letters, making videos and taking to social media to back a candidate, in most cases choosing Biden.

This has raised concerns that the national security community will undermine the nonpartisan reputation it considers critically important.

John Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014, said speaking out against a sitting president goes against the ethos of the intelligence community, where he worked for 28 years. But he says Trump has politicized national security in ways he could not ignore.

"President Trump has created something that we haven't seen before," Sipher said. "I think there's quite a few people, myself included, who by no means would be as partisan or political as we are now. I think this has to do with mostly with President Trump's sort of shredding of the institutions."

Sipher even appears in a campaign ad for Virginia Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who used to work at the CIA. Sipher agreed to do so because he says she's being unfairly attacked by her Republican rival.

Sipher believes he and his former colleagues will be less vocal if a future president handles national security in a more traditional manner. However, others think the discreet neutrality of the past is unlikely to return.

Some former officials are backing Trump, who likes to cite a letter of support signed by 235 retired generals and admirals.

But many more have spoken up in favor of Biden, who received the backing of nearly 500 former officials in a recent letter.

In addition, several former national security officials who were handpicked by Trump for top positions have harshly criticized him and questioned his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.

They include former national security adviser John Bolton, former defense secretary Jim Mattis and the former head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Robert Cardillo.

Recently, retired Army Gen. Stanley McCrystal endorsed Biden. Back in 2010, McCrystal was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he was fired when he was quoted as insulting then Vice President Biden in Rolling Stone magazine. Now he says, "You have to believe your commander-in-chief is someone you can trust. And I can trust Joe Biden."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

National security officials usually keep a low profile during election years - well, not this year. Current officials have spoken up to reassure voters that the election is well-protected. That's in sharp contrast to a president who questions the integrity of the vote. And many former leaders are publicly taking sides for the first time by endorsing Joe Biden. For more on this, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, you know, we're talking about officials who are supposed to be nonpartisan. They're supposed to lay low during elections. What's going on this year?

MYRE: So national security officials are much more visible, though it is important to distinguish here between current and former officials. So let's start with the current officials. Four of them, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, recently put out a nine-minute video to say you can vote with confidence. The results will be accurate and valid. So let's give a listen to Wray here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We're not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.

MYRE: So Wray and the others are saying pretty basic things that you'd expect them to say, but they clearly felt compelled to make all these points in this video. And it's quite striking because it's very much in contrast to President Trump.

CHANG: So what is President Trump saying about all this?

MYRE: Well, Trump called Wray disappointing for not doing more to investigate vote fraud, even though there's no evidence that this is a serious problem. And nonetheless, the president keeps questioning mail-in voting. He predicts the election will be corrupt. He refuses to say that he'll accept the results. And there was another official in this same video that I mentioned, Bill Evanina. He's a senior counterintelligence official. And back in August, he put out a statement on behalf of the entire intelligence community, saying that Russia is trying to undermine Joe Biden. Now, he underscored that the intelligence community is looking for this and is well-prepared to combat it. But as we've seen for years, Trump has ignored or downplayed these talks of Russian interference. And it continues - he continues to be very much at odds with the intelligence community.

CHANG: OK, what about former officials? I mean, normally, they stay out of presidential politics, right?

MYRE: What we're seeing this year really is unprecedented. It is a year like no other. We have hundreds of former military and intelligence officials signing group letters. They're making videos, explicitly taking partisan positions. And it's very important to note that some of these are people that worked in the Trump administration, like the former national security adviser John Bolton, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Now, I spoke with John Sipher, a former CIA officer and now a frequent critic of the president. He said he never expected to be in this position but felt he did need to speak up.

JOHN SIPHER: President Trump has created something that we haven't seen before. I think there's quite a few people, myself included, by no means would be as partisan or political as we are now. I think that has to do with - mostly with President Trump's sort of shredding of the institutions.

CHANG: But are all of these former national security officials speaking out against Trump now?

MYRE: Not all of them - Trump certainly has some support among the national security community, which traditionally tends to lean conservative. The president likes to cite two 235 former generals and admirals who signed a letter supporting him. But many more have come out in favor of Biden, especially more prominent figures. One case in particular worth noting - and that's retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has endorsed Biden. McChrystal was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan back in 2010, but he was abruptly fired when he was quoted as insulting Biden in Rolling Stone magazine. But now McChrystal says, quote, "you have to believe your commander in chief is someone you can trust. And I can trust Joe Biden."

CHANG: That's NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.