Disclosure of embarrassing information should not be confused with disinformation.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's Campaign Chairman John Podesta. © Drew Angerer / Getty Images / AFP
There is a word missing from the non-classified report issued Friday, in which three intelligence agencies assess “Russia’s Influence Campaign Targeting the 2016 US Presidential Election.” The FBI, CIA, and NSA elide any mention of . . . “Podesta.”
Seems like a pretty significant omission — not just because of how the 2016 campaign played out but also in light of the intelligence community’s recent history of politicizing its analyses.
The report is replete with references to Russian “cyber espionage,” “covert intelligence,” “false-flag,” “propaganda,” and “influence” operations by which Vladimir Putin is alleged to have tried to put his thumb on the electoral scale. Very sinister stuff, to be sure. But when the public hears these terms, it thinks of spies, misdirection, disinformation campaigns — i.e., schemes intended to deceive the target audience. People don’t instantly think, “Oh, you mean an effort to publicize true but embarrassing information”; they don’t read “covert operation” and say to themselves, “That must mean they subjected only one side of a political contest to a high level of scrutiny.” That’s the kind of behavior people associate with the American media, not the Kremlin.
The three intelligence agencies’ report pointedly declines to tell us what specific information gives them such “high confidence” that they know the operation of Vladimir Putin’s mind. They plead that the nature of their work does not allow for that: To tell us how they know what they purport to know would compromise intelligence methods and sources.
Fair enough. The problem, though, is that if you’re essentially going to say, “Trust us,” you have to have proven yourself trustworthy over time.
Here, we are talking about a community whose own analysts have complained that their superiors distort their reports for political purposes. In just the past few years, they have told us that they had “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons programs in 2003; that the NSA was not collecting metadata on millions of Americans; and that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, “largely secular” organization. We have learned that the Obama administration intentionally perpetrated a disinformation campaign — complete with a compliant media “echo chamber” — to sell the public on the Iran nuclear deal (and the fiction that Iran’s regime was moderating). We have seen U.S. intelligence and law enforcement complicit in the Obama administration’s schemes to convince the public that “violent extremism,” not radical Islam, is the explanation for terrorist attacks; that a jihadist mass-murder attack targeting soldiers about to deploy to Afghanistan was “workplace violence”; that al-Qaeda had been “decimated”; that the threat of the ISIS “jayvee” team was exaggerated; and that the Benghazi massacre was not really a terrorist attack but a “protest” gone awry over an anti-Muslim video.
I can attest that the intelligence agencies overflow with patriotic Americans who do the quiet, perilous, thankless work that saves American lives. We can acknowledge this incontestable fact and still observe that, on this record, the intelligence community as an institution cannot very well expect that “Trust us” is going to get them very far.
Which brings us back to what the new report studiously avoids mentioning.
The vaporous assertion that Putin’s regime was up to “espionage” and “covert ops” in order to “denigrate” Mrs. Clinton might naturally be presumed to imply that Putin was promoting smears. Such an impression — if that’s what the agencies were aiming to create — would have been contradicted by mentioning “Podesta,” as in John Podesta, the top Obama White House and Clinton-campaign official whose private e-mails were hacked. To bring up Podesta might remind the public that this was not a disinformation campaign. What was revealed here was true information that Podesta and his correspondents would understandably have preferred to keep private.
As President Obama likes to say, let me be clear. I am not endorsing hacking, cyber-theft, and the publication of private information. Unlike some conservatives now infatuated with scoundrels like Julian Assange (and even Putin!), I continue to regard enemies of the United States as, well, enemies of the United States. They are not to be trusted, regardless of whose ox they happen to be goring as their allegiances and calculations twist and turn.
My point is that Putin did not plant a slanderous story that top Clinton aides were, say, spouting anti-Catholic bigotry. What he did was orchestrate the release of authentic e-mails, in one of which top Clinton aides were in fact spouting anti-Catholic bigotry.
I will give Democrats the benefit of the doubt that, if the shoe were on the other foot, they would condemn the theft — a benefit they probably do not rate given their praise of Edward Snowden and their historic efforts (the Carter administration, Ted Kennedy) to seek Soviet interference in the American political system when it stood to help their electoral prospects. But I am quite certain Democrats would have no sympathy for Republicans over any political damage if the latter were caught saying unsavory things. In such an instance, victorious Democrats would not tolerate a suggestion that the “the election had been hacked”; they’d say, “Republicans got caught being Republicans.”
The new report may be entirely right — I think it is — that Putin tries to meddle in American and European elections and that he has preferences about the outcomes. Yet it is written in a way that enables the Left to spin it as support for the fallacy that Putin “hacked the election.” It gives Democrats ammunition to continue prattling about how the Russians used “espionage” and “covert operations” “aimed at the US election” in order to “influence” the result; and that Putin wanted Trump to win, according to our “highly confident” agencies. The Left can even cite the agencies’ intriguing but inchoate conclusion that the Kremlin “accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards” — a conclusion that a cynic, believing the intelligence community might be just a teensy bit political, might figure was included in the report to undercut Trump’s refrain that the hacking had nothing to do with the electoral process.
The agencies, of course, would deny any political agenda. And perhaps they don’t have one — personally, I don’t have “high confidence” that I can read their minds as well as they can apparently read Putin’s. Nevertheless, when you read the report carefully, it is like a media report: It feeds the “hack the election” theme, but it does not actually say Putin hacked the election.
Indeed, when you look for the fire under all the smoke, you find the agencies saying, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” And while the report repeatedly asserts that Russia wanted to “influence” the election, it elaborates that Russia’s main aim is to “undermine the U.S.-led democratic order” and “faith in the US democratic process” (an unremarkable finding that, by the way, is of a piece with the contention of Trump national-security adviser Mike Flynn that the Russian regime is anti-American principally because it opposes democracy).
The report concludes that while Putin appears to have been rooting for Trump, the Russians assumed Clinton was going to win and were mainly trying to undermine the effectiveness of her anticipated presidency, not swing the election to Trump. And even the conclusion that Putin was rooting for Trump is partially based on speculation (“Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because” he blames her for protests against his regime), along with heavy doses of hypothesis (Putin is said to have: liked “Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia”; seen Trump’s election as a potential pathway “to achieve an international coalition against the Islamic State”; “had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia”; etc.).
Note: all this agency guesswork appears to be based on publicly available information that you and I — without any access to super-secret intelligence sources and methods — could have done on our own. It doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, or couldn’t already have surmised.
And what about those dark suggestions about Russian penetration of “multiple state or local electoral boards,” and that “since early 2014, Russian intelligence has researched [ooh!] US electoral processes and related technology and equipment”? Well, if you read on, you find that the report is at pains to concede that the Department of Homeland Security “assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying.”
In other words, Putin did not hack the election.
In light of the report’s emphasis on Mrs. Clinton as the “espionage” victim, it is worth noting a couple of other nuggets. The agencies acknowledge that Kremlin spies “conducted cyber operations against . . . targets associated with both major US political parties” (emphasis added). In fact, Russia “collected against” anyone and everyone “viewed as likely to shape future US policies” — including “US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups.”
In making the concession that “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets,” the agencies are quick to caveat that, whatever Putin may have done to Republicans, it was not “comparable” to his “disclosure campaign” against Democrats. But is that necessarily because he wanted the Republicans to win?
Again, reading the report closely, we learn that while the Russians apparently “targeted” the Republican party, they actually succeeded in “gain[ing] access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks” — access they maintained for about a year. And note that, just as the agencies refrain from any discussion of the Podesta motherlode, they also choose not to tell us anything about the quantity or quality of the information obtained from Republicans. We’re just vaguely told that Russia’s Republican disclosures were not “comparable” to its Democratic disclosures. But that might be indicative of a motive only if the information acquired from each party was comparable. Isn’t it possible that the disclosures were not comparable because the stuff Putin got on the GOP was not nearly as copious or juicy as what he got on the Dems?
Or . . . let’s assume for argument’s sake that the information Russia acquired was comparable — let’s assume that they have something on Trump, or on some Republican as relatively high-level as Podesta, that would stoke the same kind of press frenzy as the tens of thousands of Podesta e-mails. If the report is correct that Putin was convinced Hillary would win and wanted to cripple her presidency from the start, wouldn’t it be logical that he’d more heavily disclose what he had on the Dems? What would be the point of trying to cripple the anticipated Republican loser? Wouldn’t Putin keep his powder dry on the GOP — hold whatever he’s got for future damage or blackmail purposes, save it for a time when it would be more useful?
I’m speculating about Putin’s motives, and I don’t have “high confidence” that I know what they were. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Before the agencies’ report was issued, most of us knew that Russia is an adversary obsessed with America, that it aggressively spies against us and endeavors to influence any aspect of American affairs that could advantage it. We also knew Russia did not “hack the election.” The underwhelming intelligence report on Russia’s meddling in our election changes none of that.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.