The Washington Post has unflaggingly stirred up hysteria over so-called “fake news,” so it’s extra-ironic that the media giant is one of the country’s foremost purveyors of the same. In the Post’s world, a bunch of guys with Dorito-stained fingers who blog in their parents’ basements have done everything from manipulating the election to provoking a nutcase into an attack on a D.C. pizzeria. Meanwhile, the Post’s banner headline on Saturday was the innuendo-filled and poorly sourced announcement “CIA: Russia favored Trump,” which sounds like fake news, too.
If it’s true that the CIA concluded that Russia deliberately intervened in November’s election to tilt it toward Donald Trump, that ought to worry Americans, but not because Trump is a Russian mole or Vladimir Putin’s agents stuffed electronic ballot boxes. Rather, it is cause for concern that American intelligence analysts are either not very bright or politically corrupted enough to really believe such poppycock. Meanwhile, the Post and much of the mainstream media, in their mania to discredit Trump, will publish almost any sort of “news” nowadays, even if it’s as fake as the nonsense that makes up much of the blogosphere.
The source of the Post’s “scoop” is unnamed: “officials briefed on the matter.” In the story, the damning evidence is vaguely traced back to a September briefing of congressional leaders by a trio of Obama appointees: FBI director James Comey, Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, and counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. Alert readers will note that none are actual intelligence professionals, while all are practiced political hacks. Comey’s pre-FBI experience was mostly as a government lawyer, and his corruption in favor of Obama during the Clinton email scandal is well known. Johnson, like Comey, is a lawyer, but with close ties to the Democratic Party, who did turns in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Monaco is yet another Democrat lawyer who maneuvered her way into political appointments within the intelligence community.
Republican and Democrat lawmakers were apparently largely split over the conclusions of the Obama administration triumvirate. Obviously, politicians on both sides reasonably sensed that the briefing was as much about politics as it was hard intelligence.
This meeting was followed up according to the Post by a CIA briefing of key senators in early December in which the agency revealed that it was “quite clear” (whatever that means) that getting Trump elected was “Russia’s goal.”
Fellow patriots, please listen to this short, inspiring message from General Flynn. General Michael Flynn exemplifies patriotism, courage, and love of God and country - despite some of his own countrymen relentlessly attacking him. Donations for his defense are greatly appreciated. If you can only give $5.00, please do so - every little bit helps. Thank you so much, and God bless. Letter from General Flynn.
In fact, the Post article admits there is no hard intelligence that ties alleged Russian hacking to orders from Moscow. The conclusions of the CIA analysts appear to be based on a kind of gestalt that combines allegations about Russian hackers, WikiLeaks, and past Russian intelligence use of “middlemen” to hide involvement in intelligence operations.
Like Comey, Johnson, and Monaco, I am not an intelligence professional, but I do have a bit of intelligence experience regarding the Russian government, having worked long ago in the then named Department of Soviet Internal Affairs in the Intelligence and Research branch of the State Department. My boss, Donald Graves, was one of the nation’s foremost Kremlinologists at the time. While I was a lowly intelligence clerk, I did get a good sense of just how hard it was to unearth the intentions and direction of Russian policy makers and intelligence operatives.
As an adjective, Byzantine means complex or convoluted, and the Russians are the direct heirs to the actual Byzantine empire. Trying to divine Russian intentions and motivations is notoriously difficult, and the analysts I worked with, though among the best in the business, were frequently wrong and quite conscious of their limitations. Not only that, but the Russians are masters of espionage and disinformation, making the job of figuring out real, as opposed to manufactured, intentions all the more difficult.
But beyond the simple evidential difficulty of linking alleged Russian hacking to a provable Russian intention to throw the election are the logical and operational problems that have to be reasoned away before an analyst, even going out on a limb, can get there.
Attempting to clear the path for one foreign leader or another, particularly that of a critical rival, is an endeavor fraught with both practical and professional difficulties for intelligence operatives, and thus likely avoided. This country’s own history of attempting to influence foreign changes of leadership is not distinguished and more often than not proves counter-productive.
In pursuing such an operation, the Russians would have to have concluded that they would be on the right side of three contingencies: first, that Trump would be more amenable to Russian goals than Clinton; second, that failing that contingency, Trump would be easier to outfox, manipulate, or coerce than Clinton; and third, that Trump would be more predictable than Clinton. Quite obviously, unless Putin and the Russians are idiots – which they very clearly are not – they could not reasonably draw these conclusions.
As to the first proposition, there is precious little evidence other than Trump and Putin have said nice things about each other. Trump stated it clearly: “If he says nice things about me, I’ll say nice things about him.” That both men are clever, insincere, sophisticated operators makes their mutual blandishments almost meaningless.
As to the second, as I noted here, there is little the Russians could conclude from eight years of dealing with Obama and Clinton that would suggest that Trump would be an easier mark than Hillary. From the abortive and ridiculous Russian “reset” to the failure to put defensive missiles in eastern Europe to the Crimean annexation plus additional aggression in Ukraine to the Iran nuclear agreement and the practical rout of American interests in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, operating against Obama and Clinton has been a veritable boon. What could possibly make the Russians think they could do better than batting 1,000?
Finally, there is the critical issue of predictability. Trump has been excoriated on the left and also by some on the right already for his unconventional decisions while still president-elect. Domestically, say many Trump critics, the decisions regarding Carrier and Boeing will create an unpredictable business climate, which might be bad for the economy. Similarly. say others, Trump’s decision to take a call from the president of Taiwan upends decades of accepted policy and could lead to unforeseen results.
Whether the risks are as Trump’s critics claim or not, there is no question that Trump’s approach so far has been both unconventional and difficult to prognosticate. This is exactly what rival intelligence agencies do not want to deal with. Hillary Clinton, if nothing else, is a known quantity and utterly predictable. That is the bread and butter of foreign intelligence. Why on Earth would the Russians prefer the unpredictable Trump? Because they want a challenge?
What most likely happened is that the Russians ran a sophisticated and smart disruption operation during the presidential campaign – not to promote Trump or defeat Clinton, but to undermine the legitimacy of the election, which is a classic and fitting objective for the Russian regime, which faces its own legitimacy issues. The icing on the cake was to convince the gullible Obama administration through its toadies within the intelligence bureaucracy that Russia indeed prefers Trump to Clinton, thus further undermining the election results. It’s a fine consolation prize for Putin, who probably really did not much care much who won – but in his heart of hearts, he had to prefer Clinton.