Mere hours after its release, there’s already a lot of admirable commentary on the “obstruction” portion of the Mueller Report. Although it may be useful to add to it in the coming days, I don’t feel the need to do so tonight.
I want to focus instead on the extremely under-inspected aspect of the “Russiagate” saga: the case that Russia interfered in the U.S. election in such a fashion that we should all be preoccupied with the matter, and buy into whatever the government authorities may want to do about it. The “whatever” has most notably encompassed “preempting U.S. government business for the last 22 months with an ‘investigation’ that mostly had nothing to do with actual ‘election interference.’”
But it may encompass more in the near future, as the fate of our liberties on social media and the Internet in general will very possibly be held hostage to themes and narratives about election interference.
This will be a short treatment, merely laying out the broad strokes. The impetus for it is reading Volume I of the Mueller Report, and being reminded anew of how weak the case is – starting with its inability to settle on a central premise.
What is the central premise of the election interference case? It’s not that the Russian operation affected the vote in some way. That is not alleged in the Mueller Report, nor has it ever been asserted by the government officials charged with asserting such things.
What does the Mueller Report say about that question? Nothing. It says the following in the introduction to Volume I (p. 1):
The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.
It then goes on to briefly discuss the “hacking” of Democrats’ emails. Further down the page, it mentions the Russian social media campaign. In neither case – emails or social media – either in the introduction or the full discussion in subsequent sections, does the report construct a premise for how this constituted interference in the election.
It appears we are to believe that the Russian activities interfered in the election because the Russians intended them to. The Mueller Report cites the national intelligence statement from the fall of 2016 on that head (pg. 1 again):
That fall, two federal agencies jointly announced that the Russian government “directed recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including US political organizations,” and , ” [t]hese thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.”
The first and most important question remains unanswered. Interfere how?
Note this too: the intelligence assessment citing Russian intent relates to the email operation. It has never been asserted that the “intelligence” about Russia’s intent to interfere by pilfering and disseminating emails applied to the social media campaign as well.
The heart of the matter: The actual impact of the “election interference” theme
This is as good a place as any to make an extraordinarily important point. Neither the email operation nor the social media operation succeeded in interfering in the election, in any demonstrably traceable way.
But – here’s the extraordinarily important point – they have succeeded in interfering in the Trump presidency. The one prerequisite for achieving that effect was that they be known about.
If they had never been known about – i.e., as Russian operations – they would still have had no definable effect on the U.S. election.
But they also would have had no follow-on effect on the Trump presidency.
Along these lines, and getting back to what the central premise is, we have had it stressed to us repeatedly in mainstream media reporting that what the Russians were really after was undermining our confidence in our democratic systems. That, it is said, was the purpose of the email operation and the social media memery and themery: sowing doubt about our democracy.
There are two gigantic logic problems with that proposition, however. One is that nothing in the email or the social media operation was actually designed to do that.
Releasing a bunch of John Podesta’s emails is hardly a method of “sowing doubt about democracy and undermining our confidence in democratic systems.” It’s mainly a method of (a) sending right-wing bloggers into a weeks-long frenzy; (b) getting everyone talking about the eye-glazingly common problem of cyber-intrusion for a few more minutes; and (c) making Podesta look like kind of a schmo for falling for a phishing scam.
Certainly, it’s bound to be embarrassing for any group of political operatives to have its internal emails exposed to the public. But no case can be made – none – that anything revealed through the Democratic email dumps affected either the election or the American public’s view of our democratic systems. To the extent that anyone was paying attention, the view that was affected was people’s view of the Democrats who composed the emails.
The social media operation had quite as little hope of affecting anyone’s view of democracy. If the Russians were trying to undermine our confidence in democratic systems, they chose an extremely peculiar and ineffective method for it. They mimicked themes already being propagated on social media by Americans; they purported to be Americans organizing little rallies; and apparently in one case they got some guy to put on a Santa suit and a Trump mask and walk around New York City (p. 32).
I’m sorry to put it indelicately, but you have to be an idiot to buy the vague implication that a social media operation of that kind is designed to undermine confidence in democratic systems.
For that matter, you have to be an idiot to imagine that such a social media operation would affect the vote.
But. The second gigantic logic problem is the same point made in boldface above. The only way for such operations to even get in the same Zip code as affecting our confidence in “democratic systems” is for us to know about them as Russian operations.
If we don’t think there was a Russian operation behind it, all we know is that there were a lot of silly memes on Facebook during the 2016 campaign – which there would have been anyway – and that maybe 20 people in Florida, who would have shown up for a real Trump rally anyway, showed up for one that we didn’t understand at the time was shadow-organized by a Russian twenty-something working a 12-hour shift in St. Petersburg.
That knowledge – there were memes, there was a rally – has zero impact on our confidence in democratic systems. The hand of the Russians must be known about, if there’s to be an impact on our confidence in political systems.
It might have been diabolically clever of the Russians to mount these operations and count on them being ferreted out by our crack intelligence and law enforcement agents, so that the operations could then have the desired effect on the American public. But it would also have been ridiculous. At the least, it was leaving an awful lot to blind chance.
On the other hand, the more straightforward proposition doesn’t work any better. The Russians may be dumb, but they’re not stupid. They’re like Americans that way. If they mean to affect our confidence in democracy, using social media themes, they’ll target our confidence in democracy – not our view of race relations, immigration issues, or individual political candidates.
The Mueller Report makes no case that the Russian social media operation targeted our perspective on democratic institutions. The report asserts that the social media operation repeated and amplified divisive topical themes that were already popular among American users, and that it tried to string-pull the organization of a few rallies. (It cites three rallies by date and place.)
Here is the same extraordinarily important bottom line again. The Russian operations did not undermine our confidence in democratic systems. Our knowing about them as Russian operations has, however, been a means of attacking the people’s confidence in the Trump presidency.
There is one more broad stroke to address.
Analytical transparency and bona fides
We have no reason to accept at face value anything we have been told about what the Russians did. There are two prominent and decisive reasons for that. One, the narrative outlining what it was all about doesn’t make sense. That’s the set of points made above.
Two, there has been no transparency regarding what it is we actually know, and how we know it. We’ve been given a clutch of impressive-sounding numbers from testimony by Facebook and Twitter representatives, and the names of a few user accounts. We’ve been accorded a tiny handful of anecdotal examples. We’ve been told U.S. intelligence is 100% certain from here to Saturn and back that the Russians not only pilfered the Democratic emails but handed them to WikiLeaks.
But it has not been demonstrated how the broad, sweeping conclusions about the scope and nature of the Russian operations were arrived at. None of the primary source data has been subjected to any outside scrutiny. The only scrutiny is being certified to us, sight unseen, by the same people who can’t tell us what exactly the damage was, but who are very, very sure we ought to fear that our current president was involved in somehow making this social media-and-emails deluge into a democracy-doubting goad of epic proportions.
For that matter, and speaking as a career intelligence officer, I am skeptical of the use to which this data point about the Russians “intending for the email thefts and disclosures to interfere with the U.S. election process” has been put.
I can think of at least three ways we might have gained genuine intelligence to this effect; that’s not the point of skepticism (although likelihood is another matter). What looks wrong to me, from a professional standpoint, is the repeated, metastasizing public insistence that it explains and/or underlies so much.
That’s not a careful, proportionate use of the kind of intelligence it appears to have been. There is still that yawning gulf between what the Russians may have intended, and what they (a) could reasonably bring about, (b) actually, provably did, and (c) did actually bring about. It looks from here like magical dot-connecting.
At most – if we do take everything outlined in the Mueller Report at face value – the Russians were experimenting with two methods of close to zero effectiveness, which they might want to employ as part of a far, far larger operation, if it were their intention to literally affect the outcome of a U.S. election. That is something to be taken seriously, mainly because of the intent behind it.
But it should imply nothing about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. It is not a pretext for introducing doubts about that, or purporting to inquire into it. It is a bad, illegitimate use of intelligence to make such a leap.
Intelligence versus proving a crime
The inherently conjectural aspect of intelligence has been exploited to the hilt in the Russiagate drama. Intelligence doesn’t have to wait for a crime; intelligence is about our own, affirmatively established interests and priorities. Based on those interests and priorities, we use disciplined conjecture as much as we use unsought, spontaneously appearing information to decide what we need to be on the lookout for.
With intelligence, that conjectural aspect is a feature, not a moral bug. It even has a name – “collection” – and a whole branch of intelligence dedicated to it.
But conjecture is a moral bug for taking action as if someone may have committed a crime – or as if our freedoms are a problem setting us up for bad outcomes.
Conjecture about what intelligence may mean is a great tool for intelligence. It’s not a constitutional tool for inflicting the punishment of process on people, using the law enforcement apparatus – just as it’s not a smart tool to use for directing fires on a battlefield. If you’re going to spend shells, expose your position, and endanger people, you want to be very sure what your target is. Conjecture isn’t good enough, unless all hell has already broken loose.
The whole Russiagate drama has been one prolonged exercise in conjecture – an exercise purportedly based on intelligence. Yet it has yielded nothing that is logically related or proportionate to the intelligence supposedly lying behind it. Even the indictments of Russians for Internet fraud and money-laundering remain shrouded in mystery and are unlikely to ever amount to anything tangible.
This requires rigorous, respectful, transparent explanation to the people. We have borne enough with the wholesale disruption of our political environment and the assault on the Trump presidency. Any additional use of the intelligence themes of Russiagate needs to be firmly shelved until we’ve been accorded the opportunity to inspect and fully understand how the intelligence conclusions were arrived at. As of now, they don’t add up, and yet they are being used for too many purposes, with too much urgency and strong evidence of biased intention.