The most important thing to know about the Friday evening news theme – that Obama wants this Russians-and-the-election thing reviewed – is that it’s based on nothing more than what we’ve already known for weeks.
In that regard, in fact, the Obama administration has done an about-face. The administration had exactly the same information in late November, when it said “we stand behind our election results, which accurately reflect the will of the American people.” At the time, the White House acknowledged concerns that Russia had tried to launch cyber-attacks on the election, but it suggested the goal was to “raise questions about the integrity of the election process.”
On Friday, the Washington Post published a lengthy article on a CIA briefing given to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which makes it sound as if there’s something new behind the decision announced by the White House on 9 December.
But the only thing new is the headline that a “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House.”
This would be the first we’ve heard of that particular conclusion, by that particular agency.
But when you read through the whole story, it turns out that it’s not based on anything that hasn’t been reported before.
The old news
The WaPo article cites the same pieces of evidence we’ve been talking about since late September. It cites the hacking of the Democratic Party email accounts, from which files were then handed over to WikiLeaks.
Although WaPo doesn’t highlight that Republicans’ accounts have also been hacked, a New York Times article does, framing the point as proof that Russian intentions were one-sided, since they supposedly didn’t hand GOP files over to WikiLeaks (an unproven conclusion reportedly drawn by unnamed U.S. officials). The hacking of Republicans, too, we have known about for more than two months.
And WaPo cites the reported Russian intrusion into two states’ voter registration databases.
If there’s more than that, the article doesn’t say so. It’s not just that the story doesn’t give any new specifics. It doesn’t even claim or suggest that there are any. Apparently, the CIA has thought about the same information long and hard, and finally decided that it’s evidence Russia wanted to get Trump elected.
The bad news
If WaPo’s account is accurate, this is uncareful and overly conclusive analysis on the part of the CIA. Those long-known data points don’t establish that Russia’s actions were taken with the very specific design of getting Trump elected.
For one thing, although it’s not improbable that Russia was behind the dump of Democratic email files to WikiLeaks, there remains legitimate doubt about that. (Julian Assange has been adamant that it wasn’t the Russians.)
But for another, hacking the Democrats’ accounts, and turning their emails over to WikiLeaks, would have been one heck of a long shot at getting Trump elected. Talk about taking the long way around the barn, for no reliable payoff. The premise here is basically absurd.
Something similar can be said of hacking the voter registration databases of two U.S. states (Illinois and Arizona), neither of which was even a key swing state. DHS said in September that hackers made attempts to penetrate at least 20 states’ voting-related websites – but the Russians were fingered only in the two cases.
The only way to affect the election by hacking the voter databases would be to use those databases to cast false votes. That can’t be done over the Internet. Even where electronic machines are used for balloting, they aren’t connected to the Internet. It would require a tremendous infrastructure of ground operatives using false credentials to vote, or manipulate the vote on-site, at the state level or below – by multiple means, electronic and old-fashioned, in hundreds if not thousands of precincts across the country.
It’s not a scenario that makes sense. In fact, there really isn’t a realistic scenario that we could imagine the CIA having other forms of evidence for.
News you can use
No matter what CIA’s got, it can’t be evidence that a Russian plot against the U.S. election actually had a material effect on the election. Remember, the CIA collects against targets outside the U.S. If the CIA has evidence of successful tampering with the election inside the U.S., somebody at CIA needs to go directly to jail.
There’s not even any justification we know of for the FBI to have looked into something like that. It’s the states’ jobs to look into voting irregularities.
Get all that straight in your mind, and you realize there actually can’t be evidence for the very heroic proposition being suggested: that Russia had some as-yet-undefined but traceable effect, trying to swing the election for Trump.
In light of that, WaPo’s brief, casually offered point that not all 17 agencies of the national intelligence community agree with the CIA assessment takes on particular significance.
The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered.
If I were in one of the other agencies, I sure wouldn’t agree with it.
Moreover, it’s not clear what Obama wants to accomplish with a review by the intelligence community (apparently, another review) of what we already know.
The word “review” would be used carefully, and for a reason. There is no path for the national intelligence community to “investigate” this problem. That would be the FBI’s province, if anyone’s – but there’s no place to start. The sense of random Democrats that they just don’t like the results in particular states or counties isn’t probable cause.
It’s certainly not a guide to what to do with national intelligence assets.
But Lindsey Graham is taking this seriously, even though Mitch McConnell reportedly has had reservations all along, and continues to. Graham has joined with Democrats in Congress to demand action of some kind. So Obama has ordered a review.
It can’t be non-political that he has told the intelligence community to report back to him before he leaves office. While Obama is still in the Oval Office, he can decide how the findings are presented to the public. He’ll have the opportunity to try to taint the Trump administration with an odor of illegitimacy, just as he himself is on the way out the door.
A big segment of the American public will put no credence in what comes out of this review. But it would certainly give Obama’s follow-on organization, and the anti-Trump media, a rallying cry.
The good news
All of that said, I don’t give the “Russians targeting the election” narrative even a 50% chance of actually harming the Trump administration.
It’s more likely – you know this by now – to vindicate Trump and expose Obama and his supporters even further. They do seem to be slow learners in that regard.
In any case, these are the facts, in summary. The supposed “CIA assessment” is misplaced and ill conceived. There can’t be evidence for the assessment as it’s been phrased. And in practical terms, there is nowhere for this “review” to go, other than straight to the media’s narrative-propagating machine.