The Basic Problems with the New Intelligence Report on Russia

Politics Features Russian Hacks
The Basic Problems with the New Intelligence Report on Russia

Today is ODNI day on Paste. Check back later for more analysis on the intelligence report that came out late last week, and what it says about state-sponsored Russian hackers influencing the 2016 election.


BOMBSHELL! A newly declassified intelligence report claims that the Russian government, on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, embarked on an evolving campaign to undermine confidence in U.S. elections, and help Donald J. Trump in his race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The report reads:

“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 report reads. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The reason for these actions, the report asserts, is a grudge held by Putin against Clinton for comments she made back in 2011, which he saw as the cause of protests against his administration. Another development, it is claimed that Russia was Wikileaks source contrary to the claims of Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange.

Predictably, these inflammatory 25 pages have been the main topic discussed in this news cycle by mainstream media outlets like MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Equally predictable has been the reverence with which these Clinton-friendly outlets have been treating the sources of the report, and the incredulity with which Donald Trump’s inevitable reluctance to accept the narrative, has been met with. Mother Jones went so far as to question with mock exasperation, what it will take to get Trump to accept the ‘truth.’ “Can Trump Ever Be Convinced That Russia Is Behind Election Meddling?” their headline asked.

There is a danger here in the media’s treatment of this latest release. As with previous reports, there is a distinct lack of evidence made public—specifically evidence tying the hacker groups to Russia’s government, and its Main Intelligence Agency, the GRU. In light of the recent troop build-up by NATO by Russia’s border, this is a serious omission.

And yet, thus far this connection has been taken for granted by the media, but remains conspicuously absent. And that is shocking given the stakes, and the intelligence community’s long record of costly errors which include, most notably, the faux reports of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, called a “slam dunk” by then-CIA Director George Tenet. Of course, there are other reasons to doubt the intelligence community when it comes to cyber warfare. As intelligence expert James Bamford pointed out in a commentary for Reuters this November:

By now, Obama should also be wise enough not to trust the advice of his spy chiefs when it comes to cyber conflict. At the start of his first term, he authorized the Stuxnet cyberattack that destroyed about a thousand of Iran’s centrifuges used for enriching uranium. This was an illegal act of war, and the first instance of cyberwar.

Obama was told that the computer viruses would not escape the facility, would not affect any other computers if they did escape, and would never be traced back to the United States in any case.

All three claims turned out to be incorrect. The viruses did escape, they infected tens of thousands of computers in many countries and they were quickly traced back to the United States. The operation was also a bust: It destroyed a small fraction of the intended centrifuges and only slightly delayed Iran’s enrichment. It also caused Iran to create its own cyber command and retaliate by destroying 30,000 computers belonging to a U.S. oil supplier. U.S. banks were also attacked.

Blind acceptance and willingness to build on the story is the equivalent of erecting a skyscraper without a foundation.

However, even if one accepts that Russia was behind the leaks of the DNC and Clinton campaign emails, this new report gives reason for pause.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

What a fascinating revelation! According to Bamford, the NSA is the “A team” of cyber warfare. That the nation’s top experts are only moderately confident that Russia intended to influence the election in favor of one candidate over the other is a huge blow to the entire narrative. ”[T]here is little doubt about Russian cyber fingerprints in various U.S. campaign activities” he wrote. “Moscow, like Washington, has long spied on such matters…The question isn’t whether Russia spied on the U.S. presidential election, it’s whether it released the election emails.” Without motive, the media’s narrative becomes less authoritative.

But the most problematic part of the report isn’t its lack of evidence or acknowledgment of its own shortcomings, it is the tone with which it deals with voices of dissent within the United States. The latter half is dedicated to detailing the nefarious activities of Russian linked media outlets like Sputnik and especially RT.

And what do those activities include?

1) Covering Occupy Wall Street.

RT aired a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement on 1, 2, and 4 November. RT framed the movement as a fight against “the ruling class” and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations. RT advertising for the documentary featured Occupy movement calls to “take back” the government. The documentary claimed that the US system cannot be changed democratically, but only through “revolution.” After the 6 November US presidential election, RT aired a documentary called “Cultures of Protest,” about active and often violent political resistance

2) Criticizing the government for its domestic spying programs.

RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a “surveillance state” and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use (RT, 24, 28 October, 1-10 November).

3) Calling out the fact that policy outcomes are generally determined by the demands of the economic elite over the popular will.

RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse (RT, 31 October, 4 November).

4) Calling for an end to fracking, a process that poses serious environmental risks, and is linked to increased seismic activity.

RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability (5 October).

5) Advocating for less interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

RT is a leading media voice opposing Western intervention in the Syrian conflict and blaming the West for waging “information wars” against the Syrian Government (RT, 10 October-9 November).

The intelligence community has a long record of taking an oppositional stance when it comes to social justice. Over the years, labor and civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been targeted for political reasons. It is appears that the Obama administration’s intelligence community is continuing that trend. This newly declassified report reads like something out of the Red Scare.

RT and Sputnik may hire journalists based on their ideological leanings, but it is worth remembering that the individuals working for their American branches are, generally speaking, Americans. Many are young, and in the worst job market in generation, many take work where it is available—especially progressives who cannot find it at establishment-friendly publications. Speaking personally, discrediting the work of anyone based on where it is published is unfair.

After finishing its 25 pages, you cannot help but get the sense that either the intelligence community’s case is flimsy at best—built on circumstantial evidence, inference based on the history of the Soviet Union, and a profound mistrust of social progress—or we are being kept in the dark at a time when we should not be. Given that this was report was only partially declassified, we cannot know for certain either way. This is not to say that Russia was not behind the hacking of the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign, but Americans need more information before we commit ourselves to action against Russia.

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