US Analysis: Russia, Trump, and US Election — 4 Key Points About the Intelligence Report

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PHOTO: Donald Trump — “An uncomfortable position that could quickly become tenuous after January 20” Evan Vucci


See also US Podcast: Trump, Russian Hacking, and the Intelligence Services


1. YES, RUSSIA HACKED COMPUTERS TO AFFECT US ELECTION

The 13-page report is unsparing in its conclusion with “high confidence” about the Russian campaign from the highest levels to influence the election by stealing and disseminating information:

Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.

We assess Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies. In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.

The General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) [Russian military intelligence] probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures. By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC.

We assess with high confidence that the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets….We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimedreputation for authenticity.

There is no wiggle room for Donald Trump here, for this is an issue of raw information and not analysis. To reject the finding, he now has to accuse the intelligence community of lying about the material that it is holding.

2. YES, VLADIMIR PUTIN ORDERED THE ANTI-CLINTON INFLUENCE CAMPAIGN, INCLUDING THE HACKING

The report’s summary begins:

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.

The key words here are “with high confidence”. That means multiple sources — human or electronic — pointing to the same conclusion.

What is interesting, on close reading, is that the campaign was ordered to block Clinton, before the prospect of a Trump victory in the Republican nomination, let alone the general election. It was later that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for…Trump”.

3. BUT A WEAK SECTION ON PROPAGANDA

However, there is a risk that the intelligence community’s key findings may be diluted because much of the report is devoted to a weak exposition on Russian propaganda.

The report assesses:

Russia’s state-run propaganda machine — comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global
audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls — contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.

There is nothing surprising about this. Indeed, there is nothing here — perhaps apart from documenting the extent of the trolling effort — that requires the work of an intelligence community: a daily perusal of the Russian outlets would have established that the intent was to beat home a propaganda message. This is not just about the US election and Trump, but also Ukraine/Crimea, Syria, NATO, US race relations, Brexit: any issue where Moscow needs to defend a position or believes it can seize an advantage against adversaries.

The dedication of a majority of the report to knocking on an open door, including a seven-page annex on Russian State outlet RT, risks the response, “So what?”, with the dismissal that all States carry out propaganda operations. Activists supporting Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his ally, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, will exploit the opportunity to divert from the report’s more important conclusions:

The key link that needs to be made is how the illegally-obtained material from the computer hacking was fed into the Russian State outlets, to Wikileaks, and into social media via trolls, supportive activists, and the unwitting. For all its information, the report does not walk readers through this process.

It is possible that this imbalance in the declassified report is rectified in the classified and top-secret versions, where far more can be said about the sources and methods establishing the Russian hacking and dissemination efforts. But, of course, that does not deal with the matter of establishing the public case.

4. STILL, TROUBLE FOR TRUMP

Nevertheless, the report puts Donald Trump in an uncomfortable position, one that could quickly become tenuous after he assumes the Presidency on January 20.

For weeks, Trump — and indeed the Russians and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — have tried a series of bluffs, diversions, and sometimes falsehoods to cast doubt on the developing claims of election hacking. The President-elect has accompanied this with a personal campaign of intimidation, seeking to quiet the intelligence community.

This past month has seen the firm response to that attempted intimidation. Administration officials and then President Obama gave up their pre-election caution and explicitly set out the claims of Russian interference. The intelligence community reviewed initial findings, with the FBI joining the CIA and other agencies in the assessment of Moscow’s culpability.

As Obama received the top secret report on Thursday, the clearest signal of We Will Not Back Down was given. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee hearing that he was “even more resolute” in the conclusion over Russia’s cyber-attacks, and almost all of the Senators embraced the statement.

The gauntlet has been laid down to Trump: say what you will, we have the information and, with “high confidence”, we will take you on if you and your allies continue to call us inept, lying, or biased for Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps faced with that reality after he was presented with the top secret report on Friday, Trump reversed his recent insults of the intelligence community and spoke of a “constructive” meeting. He limited his Twitter response to:

The tweet is a Trumpian deception — the report clearly states that Republicans were hacked but that, unlike the case with the Democrats, the stolen material was not disseminated for publication — but it is only a peep compared to the President-elect’s past bluster.

Trump has signalled that he could attack after January 20 by trying to gut the intelligence agencies, in the guise of “re-structuring”: his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the new Director of the CIA Mike Pompeo — both of whom share their boss’s fervent denials of Russian wrongdoing — would carry out the task.

But that is a risky proposition. Faced with the difficulties of Watergate, Richard Nixon took out his wrath by slashing budgets and jobs at the CIA in the 1970s. It crippled the Agency for years, but we all remember the outcome for the President, right?

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13 COMMENTS

  1. The 25-page report is unsparing in its conclusion

    But very sparing with regard to evidence. This report offers no more than the DHS report released last week which was ridiculed by cyber security experts not on the government payroll.

    This report is so week in fact that it resorted to citing the claim that the Russian leadership celebrated Trump’s win as evidence they were behind the hack.

    It even delves into events from 2008 where software and hardware were previous generation.

    Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel.

  2. There is no wiggle room for Donald Trump here, for this is an issue of raw information and not analysis.

    Alleged raw information that remains classified and apparently so flimsy that the DHS report released last week included a disclaimer that it was not willing to guarantee it’s legitimacy. The burden of proof remains on the Intel community. Assange has stated that the emails did not come from a state actor. WikiLeaks HAS a proven track record for authenticity (not just claimed) while the US intelligence community does not. Craig Murray has stated that he knows who the leader (as opposed to hacker) was and that the material was handed to him personally by the source.

    William Binney, one of the highest ranking experts on Cyber Security while at the CIA, has debunked the claims based on what has been made public. John McAfee points out that it was not Russia and states that if the evidence leads to Russia, you can be certin it was NOT Russia.

    To reject the finding, he now has to accuse the intelligence community of lying about the material that it is holding.

    Wow, wouldn’t that be a stretch! It’s not like they’ve got a long and sordid track record of lying before right? Oh wait…

    • If you have read the DHS report, you either do not understand it or are distorting it. At no point does it say it will not guarantee the legitimacy of the intelligence; to the contrary, it stands behind it.

      Similarly, you claim that “cyber security experts” have dismissed yesterday’s report is empty generalization (unless of course you are extrapolating this from the always-interesting-but-suspect remarks of John McAfee).

      • At no point does it say it will not guarantee the legitimacy of the intelligence; to the contrary, it stands behind it.

        That would explain the vote of confidence in this statement.

        “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.”

      • Scott,

        The cyber experts I mentioned was in reference to the DHS report.

        From an article on the Dailybeast which is hardly pro Russia.

        As it states, Such was the case last week when the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released a technical exposé of Russia’s hacking that industry experts are slamming as worse than useless—so jumbled that it potentially harms cybersecurity, so aimless that it muddies the clear public evidence that Russia hacked the Democratic Party to affect the election, and so wrong it enables the Trump-friendly conspiracy theorists trying to explain away that evidence.

        “At every level this report is a failure,” says security researcher Robert M. Lee. “It didn’t do what it set out to do, and it didn’t provide useful data. They’re handing out bad information to the industry when good information exists.”

        It goes on to describe what a massive failure this report was. It released a list of suspect IP addresses, which only made matters worse. Most of the addresses and the data was useless.

        The DHS list is none of these things, as Lee, founder of the cyber security firm Dragos, discovered when he ran the list against a stored cache of known clean traffic his company keeps around for testing. The results stunned him. “We had thousands of hits,” he says. “We had an extraordinary high amount of false positives on this dataset… Six of them were Yahoo e-mail servers.”

        The consequences of the over inclusive list became apparent last week, when a Vermont utility company, Burlington Electric Department, followed DHS’s advice and added the addresses to its network monitoring setup. It got an alert within a day. The utility called the feds, and The Washington Post soon broke the distressing news that “Russian hackers penetrated [the] U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont.”

        The story was wrong. Not only was the laptop in question isolated from the utility’s control systems, the IP address that triggered the alert wasn’t dangerous after all: It was one of the Yahoo servers on the DHS list, and the alert had been generated by a Burlington Electric employee checking email. The Post article was later corrected, but not before Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy issued a statement condemning the putative Russian attack.

        So the whole Vermont fake story was the consequence of the bad data released by the DHS report.

        • Andre,

          You continue to misread and exaggerate your sources in this and your previous comments.

          The complaints about the latest report are not — as you strenuously argue — that the intelligence is flawed or absent. It is that the unclassified report did not pressent the intelligence effectively.

          I make the same argument in the analysis. As those who are actually analyzing are noting, the likelihood is that the intelligence community was cautious in presenting technical information so as not to disclose sources or methods in an open report.

          You also misread the DHS report as saying intelligence is flawed. It does not.

          S.

  3. What is interesting, on close reading, is that the campaign was ordered to block Clinton, before the prospect of a Trump victory in the Republican nomination, let alone the general election. It was later that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for…Trump”.

    What is interesting is that even if true, this would be impossible to determine without a source close to Putin and that this very revelation would put that very source in danger or severly compromise them.

    For weeks, Trump — and indeed the Russians and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — have tried a series of bluffs, diversions, and sometimes falsehoods to cast doubt on the developing claims of election hacking.

    The bluffs have been entirely on the part of the US intelligence community. Assange is not bluffing and has an immaculate track record. The intel community is predictably hiding behind their claim that releasing the evidence would compromise methods and sources, so that leaves the public with no option but to take them entirely at their compromised anddiscredited word.

    And speaking of diversion, the report is so flaky that it cited the claim that the Russian leadership “celebrated” the Trump victory as evidence of their complicity. That and the claim that state-funding media outlet RT America “disparaged” Clinton and wanted Trump to win.

    Talk about embarrasing.

    On top of that, you failed to mention that the FBI – the agency tasked with investigating cyber attacks – was denied access to the DNC server by the DNC who opted to outsource the investigation to Crowdstrike, forcing the FBI to rely entirely on their findings.

    As for Clapper, his performance was lame to say the least. Clapper is an admitted liar who used the opportunity to cry on the shoulders of Donald Trump’s assembled enemies: “We’re not perfect,” he burbled, but hey everybody makes mistakes.

    The report was rushed out to try and allay public skepticism over the claims against Russia and the holes and weaknesses in the report are evidence of that. The big news about this report is an acknowledgement that they aren’t providing any evidence of what they are alleging, complete with a disclaimer at the top of every page that as a declassified report it “does not include the full supporting information” that some secret other report might.

    Once again, the report claims the DNC hacker Guccifer 2.0 was actually the Russian military, providing no evidence for this, and claims DCLeaks.com was the military as well. They claimed the military directly gave WikiLeaks the documents because Putin thought WikiLeaks’ history of accuracy was valuable. No evidence for any of this, but the report did at the very least note that all the WikiLeaks documents appear to have been authentic.

    The report notes that Putin did not publicly praise Trump ahead of the election, and then concludes this was a savvy move on the part of the Kremlin because they thought it would “backfire” and hurt Trump’s election chances.

    This is bordering on lunacy.

  4. “Trump, Bannon, Putin, Dugin, Assange, Alex Jones, and the Alt-Right” by @PatrickJFerree https://t.co/gT0yIAUVzU
    https://twitter.com/PatrickJFerree/status/816918672824352770 1/5/2017

    The news media is all a-flutter with headlines about the rise and proliferation of fake news media: “Did Russia Install Donald Trump As the Next U.S. President?” “It’s About To Get Worse!” “Living in a Media Bubble” “Can American Democracy Survive?”
    http://www.joeyskaggs.com/2016/11/29/joey-skaggs-writes-about-fake-news/ 11/29/2016

    People like Joey Skaggs — and others who take a discordian-inspired culture-jamming approach — are attempting to improve critical thinking via fake news.
    https://modernmythology.net/a-qualified-defense-of-fake-news-3a1a31b0168a 11/23/2016

    Placing people in a state of doubt about mainstream, and even alternative, sources will lead them to do their own research OR to give up paying attention to the media (the latter of which cleanses them of their political addiction). This is an old idea in Discordianism, specifically via Operation Mindfuck (which features other methods, including trolling legislatures).
    http://anarchistnews.org/content/anarchist-covert-psy-op-cooridination-center 12/12/2016

  5. This report is turning into a PR disaster for Obama and the intelligence community.

    Moon of Alabama has a great summary,

    John Harwood, who covers “the economy and national politics for CNBC and the New York Times” , conduced an informal on line poll on Twitter asking respondents who they trust more, Wikileaks of the US intelligence community. After 84 thousand votes, the results are devastating

    83% Wikileaks
    17% US Intelligence officials

    Susan Hennessey (Lawfare, Brookings):
    The unclassified report is underwhelming at best. There is essentially no new information for those who have been paying attention.

    Bill Neely (NBCNews):
    Lots of key judgements but not many key facts & no open proof in US Intell. report into alleged Russian hacking.

    Stephen Hayes (Weekly Standard):
    The intel report on Russia is little more than a collection of assertions. Understand protecting sources/methods, but it’s weak.

    Julia Ioffe (The Atlantic):
    It’s hard to tell if the thinness of the #hacking report is because the proof is qualified, or because the proof doesn’t exist.

    @JeffreyGoldberg Have to say, though, I’m hearing from a lot of Russia watchers who are very skeptical of the report. None like Putin/Trump.M/b>

    When you lost even Julia Ioffe on your anti-Russian issue …

  6. Here is an interesting interview on CNN with Michael Hayden and former House Intelligence Chairman, Mike Rogers.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYjAAx5N_LE&feature=youtu.be

    Interesting takes from these interviews

    1. Hayden admits the latest report is weak, unconvincing and lacks any credible evidence and understands why the public remains sceptical
    2. Rogers agrees the report is unconvincing and that the reader is required to simply place their faith in the conclusions from the intel community about their “high confidence”.
    3. Rogers actually disputes that the motivation of the Russians was to help Putin but to sow distrust in the US electoral system.
    4. All Rogers can do to attack Assange’s credibility is to cite unbelievably weaks arguments.
    a) that Assange has been charged with sexual assault and this is the reason he is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy. This is false. Assange has not been charged with anything. The reason he is seeking refuge is because the Swedish government insists he travel to Sweden for questioning and refuse to guarantee he will not be extradicted to the US
    b) That Assange is not credible because he has released information that has harmed US national security. Also a spurious argument. Whether this is true or not has no relevance to his crediblity.
    5. Rogers makes the absurd argument that giving Assange credibility is a bad idea because merely doing so threatens US national security.
    6. Rogers suggests it might be possible Assange didn’t know that the emails came from a Russian source. If this is true, there is would be virtually impossible for the US intelligence community to trace the transfer of the emails from a Russian source to Assange.

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