US Analysis: Russia, Trump, and US Election — 4 Key Points About the Intelligence Report
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:
When democracy gave them Trump, what did they do?
They blamed Russia.
Russia Today @RT_com coverage
— Bassem (@BBassem7) January 7, 2017
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:
Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place.The Republican National Committee had strong defense!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2017
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?