The reports on the intelligence community’s (IC) alleged conclusion that Russia wanted President-elect Donald Trump to win the election have been, in a word, schizophrenic. They’re also drawing on some odd sourcing.
The Washington Post broke the story, reporting the CIA concluded it was Russia’s “goal” to elect Trump by interfering in the election, rather than a more general plan to undermine the legitimacy of the election. The New York Times followed with reports stating the CIA concluded with “high confidence” that electing Trump was the “primary aim” of Russia’s covert campaign.
These reports fueled the Democrat narrative that Trump is too cozy with Putin and that his win is tainted, and a round of headlines reporting the FBI now “agrees” with the CIA have added fuel to the fire. But a closer look at the reporting shows it’s actually not clear what exactly the CIA concluded regarding Russia’s motives, or what the FBI’s assessment of the motive is. And it’s important to note from the outset that neither the FBI nor the CIA has commented on any of these reports.
The problems and the questions with the storyline fall into three basic distinctions: intent, sourcing and timeline.
The problems with the reporting actually stem from the very first story, when the Washington Post broke news that the CIA thought Russia wanted to elect Trump.
The story cites an account from a “senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators.” So the reporter talked to someone who was literally briefed on a brief, and almost certainly relaying the briefing through political lenses, perhaps a chief of staff for one of the Democrat senators who sat in on the briefing.
“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” this person told The Washington Post. “That’s the consensus view.”
The New York Times report on the CIA’s conclusion cites senior Obama administration officials briefed by members of the IC. Those politically-motivated officials relayed to the reporter that the CIA believes with “high confidence” that Russia wanted to hurt Clinton and help Trump in the late stages of the campaign.
So according to these second-hand accounts, the CIA concluded Russia wanted to help Trump. Whether a Trump win was just one of many goals picked up along the way or the driving factor behind the whole hacking campaign (as some media reports suggest) is not clear from the reporting here.
At this point, we’re playing a game of telephone through what are likely liberal sources.
The most definitive statement so far reportedly came straight from CIA Director John Brennan. He allegedly sent an internal, unclassified memo after he talked with FBI Director James Comey and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to the Associated Press. The memo reportedly included the line, “there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.” The intent, though, is never spelled out. Also, no one in the media has seen this unclassified message. The quote came from an official who had seen the memo and later talked to the Associated Press.
Why didn’t this official just send out the whole memo? Certainly it could be redacted. How come only this incomplete sentence came out? The memo leak appears to be highly targeted and oddly lacks specifics. If the IC concluded “Russia wanted to elect Trump,” strange that we still haven’t seen those words verbatim. So we are left to believe that a Brennan memo detailing a conversation in which the CIA, FBI, and DNI agreed Trump was the goal of the hack didn’t mention Trump by name?
The memo is particularly strange given reports just days earlier the FBI strongly disagrees with the CIA’s assessment. Suddenly the FBI, who had just told House members the agency isn’t sure why Russia acted, is now “backing” the CIA on the point that Russia interfered to help Trump? And that’s based on this memo?
After news broke of the CIA’s assessment given to the Senate Intelligence Committee, a senior FBI official briefed the House Intelligence Committee on the FBI’s view of the hacks. Members of the committee had received a letter summing up the CIA’s assessment. Democrats in the briefing tried to nail down a definitive statement from the FBI on Russia’s intent, but were “frustrated” when the official continuously balked over the course of a nearly two-hour briefing.
“There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,” one person who attended the FBI briefing told The Washington Post.
“It was shocking to hold these statements made about Russian intentions and activities, and to hear this guy basically saying nothing with certainty and allowing that all was possible,” an official who attended the briefing told The Washington Post, referring to the letter from the Senate intel committee summing up the CIA statements.
Even the House members who sat in on the FBI briefing were relying on at least a second-hand account of what exactly the CIA concluded. Officials familiar with the CIA briefing told CNN the assessment wasn’t as definitive as media reports suggested, and that the CIA only “leaned” toward the view that Russia wanted to hurt Clinton and help Trump. That’s a far cry from the “high confidence” level assessment The New York Times reported.
Reuters also reported that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, positioned as the head of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, does not believe there is conclusive evidence to support the CIA’s analysis. “ODNI is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can’t prove intent” a U.S. official told Reuters, one of three who reportedly brought Reuters the story.
Circling back to Brennan’s memo, these accounts raise the possibility that the CIA, FBI and DNI do in fact basically agree on an assessment that is far more cautious than media reports have suggested. What doesn’t make sense is the idea that the FBI and ODNI suddenly agree with the CIA’s assessment, as reported from a third-hand “official” in The Washington Post.
So what exactly did the CIA conclude regarding Russia’s intent? Does the FBI believe Russia set out to elect Trump? Or merely that at some point in the process Russia came to hope Trump would win? What does “strong consensus” actually mean as stated in Brennan’s letter?
A lot is at stake politically in the answers to these questions.
If Russia did in fact shift its intent, when and where did it do so?
One glance at the hack’s timeline suggests that Russia planned the operation when Trump was still more of a media punchline and less of a contender. U.S. intelligence has traced the launch of the hacks as far back as the Spring 2015– months before Trump announced his bid for the presidency — and that launch almost certainly took several months of planning.
Why would Russia plan an unprecedented campaign to help elect someone who wasn’t yet running?
A more likely scenario is that Putin wanted to hurt Clinton, who had been the presumptive Democrat nominee for years. The two have a long history of bad blood, going back to her tenure as secretary of state and as senator. At one point she accused his party of rigging an election, and he accused her of inciting protests against his government.
Even Clinton herself has attributed a grudge toward her as the motivation for the Russian hacks. “Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in this election,” she said in New York following the election.
But again, it’s simply not clear from the murky reporting what exactly the CIA concluded regarding the motive. The New York Times initial report suggests Putin decided late in the game to back Trump because he wanted to defeat Clinton. A follow up report based on the first claims the CIA concluded it was Russia’s “primary aim” to elect Trump, suggesting his win was the goal from the start. Reports from The Washington Post don’t really address the question at all.
Nevertheless, major media outlets and Trump critics have seized on these reports, repeating uncritically that “17 U.S. intelligence agencies” have concluded Russia wanted Trump in the White House, when the fact is no official announcement has been made, and no CIA memo has been produced.
“Trump battles for legitimacy,” blared a Politico headline, with the subhead: “A leaked CIA report backs the president-elect into a corner as Democrats pounce.”
There was no “leaked CIA report.” As noted above, the reports on the CIA conclusion are based only an account from someone briefed on the briefing, accounts from senior Obama administration officials, and a few words from a memo recounted to a reporter by an unnamed official. Neither the CIA nor the FBI has commented on the story.
Here’s what we do know: The CIA briefed the Senate on their assessment of the hacks, and the FBI briefed the House on their assessment of the hacks; Some politically-motivated people leaked their version of the details to the press.
One of the Washington Post reporters who broke the story defended the use of anonymous and second-hand sources as just “the way” national security reporting works.
“We of course would prefer to lay it all out for readers on our website with links to actual documents and whatever, and be able to name these officials, but that’s just not how national security reporting in this realm works,” Greg Miller said on Al Jazeera News. “Trust me, I’ve gotten lots of emails, lots of feedback on social media — ‘Where’s the evidence here? You guys are basing all of this on anonymous sources. I don’t believe it until you can show me the proof’ — and that’s just not how this works.”
Miller’s explanation might make sense for at least two first-hand sources inside intelligence agencies. By primarily relying on what looks to be one source in a Democrat senator’s office, the report falls short of what used to be the standard bar for journalism: two sources with first-hand knowledge of the story.
Yet neither The Washington Post nor other major outlets running similar reports are hedging based on the sourcing, instead hastily fanning the perception that it is a fact the CIA is certain Russia wanted to elect Trump.
“A lot of people thought that it was CIA sources,” blogger Marcy Wheeler said on Al Jazeera regarding The Washington Post story. “But it’s quite likely, I think that Senate sources, Democratic Senate sources, were the ones behind the story.”
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