Why The 17 Intelligence Agencies Talking Point Matters

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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Mass media’s prolific repetition of  Hillary Clinton’s false claim that 17 different intelligence agencies determined Russia meddled in the 2016 election demonstrates critical gaps of scrutiny within analysis of possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and the Russian government.

Larger media’s inability to parse truth from partisan talking points with respect to Russia’s influence campaign is plainly reflected in retracted stories from CNN, abandonment of basic journalistic practice from the Washington Post, and constant repetition of debunked assertions by some of the most high profile members of Cable news.

The 17 intelligence agencies claim stems from a misunderstanding of what the intelligence community is and two separate reports by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in October 2016 and January 2017.

The October 2016 statement codified the U.S. intelligence community’s “confidence” that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and likely distribution of emails to Wikileaks. The January 2017 unclassified report also definitively assessed that:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

Clinton and supporters extrapolated use of the word “intelligence community” in both reports to claim that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concurred. The number essentially asserts that agencies like the Department of Energy, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and Coast Guard Intelligence were somehow involved in the process.

Why? Well one guess is that to a general electorate, 17 sounds a lot more substantial than three.

Former Director of National Intelligence clarified before Congress in May:

“[T]he [intelligence community assessment] was a coordinated product from three agencies: CIA, NSA and the FBI, not all 17 components of the intelligence community.”

Clapper’s clear explanation did not stop Clinton, The New York Times, or the Associated Press from repeating the assertion anyway. Hardly a month later, Clinton again flexed the stat at a widely televised Recode conference. Her reference in this case was particularly egregious, as she emphasized her experience as secretary to solidify the accuracy. Ironically, as a former secretary of state, she should have known at the time her assertion was false:

“[R]ead the declassified report by the intelligence community that came out in early January.” She continued, “Seventeen agencies, all in agreement – which I know from my experience as a senator and secretary of state is hard to get – they concluded with ‘high confidence’ that the Russians ran an extensive information war against my campaign to influence voters in the election.”

By the AP’s own admission, it ran three separate stories on June 2, June 26 and June 29 saying “all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump.” TheNYT followed suit in a June 26 story with the same claim prompting a June 29 retraction admitting “the assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”

Worse off, the Times did their own fact check when Hillary first made the assertion in a debate in October. That fact check mystifyingly found the “17 intelligence agencies agreed” statement to be true, when an even cursory glance at DNI’s website would raise serious questions.

The inaccuracy finally came to a head, after nine months of repitition, when President Donald Trump stated a simple fact at press conference Thursday.

“I heard it was 17 agencies. I said, ‘Boy, that’s a lot. Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it.’ And we did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17. And many of your compatriots had to change their reporting or they had to apologize or they had to correct,” Trump declared.

Despite clarification from the president, retractions from the AP and TheNYT, CNN’s Jim Acosta and MSNBC’s Ali Velshi continued to spout the claim Wednesday. Acosta, a White House reporter who is supposed to be intimately familiar with the investigation, asked incredulously “Where does that number come from?” with respect to Trump’s claim of “three of four” agencies.

Velshi similarly declared “Vladimir Putin is on the record as saying, he did not direct — despite what the 17 different American intelligence agencies say — he did not direct interference into the 2016 election,” repeating it again “Many Americans need him to confront Vladimir Putin about this issue and put some conditions on the table, and he’s not even agreeing with the 17 intelligence agencies that he’s not sure exist.”

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