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Intel community to stand up center addressing foreign malign influence

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will establish a new center tasked with tracking overseas efforts to wage disinformation and influence campaigns in the U.S., a spokesperson said Monday.   

The Foreign Malign Influence Center will focus on “coordinating and integrating intelligence pertaining to malign influence, drawing together relevant and diverse expertise to better understand and monitor the challenge,” the ODNI spokesman said in a statement.  

The official said that plans for the center arose in response to congressional demands and in light of “evolving threats.”  

While foreign efforts to interfere in U.S. elections are not a new phenomenon, Russia, at President Vladimir Putin’s direction, in 2016 waged a sweeping, multiprong campaign designed to denigrate the candidacy of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and boost the chances of then-candidate Donald Trump. Moscow again targeted the U.S. midterm elections in 2018 and the 2020 presidential election, according to statements and assessments from U.S. intelligence officials.  

Other actors, including Iran, are since known to have carried out similarly targeted, covert campaigns to undermine public confidence in the country’s democratic processes. An ODNI assessment of threats to the 2020 election said the intelligence community tracked “a broader array for foreign actors taking steps to influence U.S. elections than in past election cycles.”  

But U.S. intelligence officials have warned consistently that foreign efforts to sow discord and spread disinformation will not be limited to election cycles, and are instead likely to represent a new normal. Two intelligence forecasts released this year warned that foreign disinformation efforts targeting the U.S. were likely to continue and that new technologies could exacerbate them.  

“Emerging and disruptive technologies, as well as the proliferation and permeation of technology in all aspects of our lives, pose unique challenges,” the intelligence community’s 2021 worldwide threat assessment said. “Cyber capabilities, to illustrate, are demonstrably intertwined with threats to our infrastructure and to the foreign malign influence threats against our democracy.” 

A longer-term threat forecast released by the National Intelligence Council said manufactured or synthetic media could, in the coming decades, “further distort truth and reality, destabilizing societies at a scale and speed that dwarfs current disinformation challenges.”  

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month that countering foreign influence operations was a “critical issue” for the intelligence community.   

A committee official said reviews of the most effective structure and size for the center were still “in progress.” ODNI did not offer a timeline for the center’s official launch. Politico first reported plans for its creation.  

Last year’s Intelligence Authorization Act required ODNI to establish a body specifically tasked with coordinating intelligence from across the 18-member community on hostile foreign influence campaigns from the likes of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, and providing policymakers with relevant assessments.  

“I believed this provision was critical to the effort to coordinate our response to the disturbing increase in foreign influence by hostile actors, and the recently released Intelligence Community Assessment on foreign interference in the 2020 election demonstrates why this remains an urgent priority,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, said in a statement.  

“I know that Director Haines considers the assimilation of this intelligence a critical need, and I look forward to working with her to ensure we can accomplish the mission Congress intended,” Schiff said.  

“While the [intelligence community] has dramatically improved its game since 2016, it makes sense to have one location within it to integrate all of the various threat streams in one place,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said.   

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