Since Ambassador Ric Grenell was announced as the new Acting Director of National Intelligence, we’ve seen a flurry of reports on how his tenure – projected to be a brief one – will be used. The focus in those reports has been “draining the swamp”; i.e., removing some officials in key positions whose postures or personalities are incompatible with reforming the intelligence community.
There’s another urgent need, however, and we saw it play out in technicolor over the last four days with the ever-shifting “Russian interference” theme. The urgent need is for coherent messaging about actual intelligence on topics of significance to Americans.
The integrity of our elections is such a topic. And now is none too soon to get ahead of the information problem that comes with it. Fighting this fight is indispensable. If there is a “question” about the integrity of the 2020 election, however specious and politicized that question is, a judge will be found somewhere who will take to heart the themes systematically deployed in the media throughout this year.
The operative meaning of “integrity in the election” won’t just be about the sentiments of the American people. It could well be about whether a court can be railroaded by one-note, smoke-and-mirrors themery on the “Russia Russia Russia!” model.
The latest “bombshell” on the “Russia!” theme was detonated on Friday, when the media reported that Bernie Sanders had been briefed by intelligence officials that Russia was working to boost him in the 2020 sweepstakes.
But Friday’s was actually a third different version of the “Russia!” theme so far in 2020, as we headed for home plate on Julian day 52. And on Sunday, day 54, we’re being treated to yet a fourth version.
A tale told by idiots
Here’s my count of the versions.
Back in January, the IC’s lead official for the election security problem, Shelby Pierson of ODNI, confirmed in an interview with NPR that “we don’t know what the Russians are going to do in 2020,” as regards special targeting of or support to candidates in the presidential election.
That interview aired on 22 January, and according to the host took place on 21 January. That’s version one: “we don’t know.” The assessment was made in the context of Russia already doing the same general things Russia had done in 2016; namely, bot-trolling and posting themed political material on social media.
Version two erupted last week (link above) when the New York Times ran with a “leak,” probably from Adam Schiff, that the same ODNI official – Shelby Pierson – briefed the House Intelligence Committee on 13 February. Her thrust, according to the leak: sure enough, suddenly we do know what Russia is going to do in 2020. Russia’s going to back Trump and try to get him reelected.
In reviewing that report, I gave Pierson the benefit of the doubt. I pointed out that it would be oddly unprofessional for Pierson to garble her message and produce two conflicting assessments in such a short span of time. Perhaps what she told the House committee was not as categorical as it was said to be in the leak to the media.
I also highlighted an apparent glaring omission of process by ODNI; that is, ODNI had failed to brief POTUS on Russia’s intentions toward him, before going to brief Congress. According to the Washington Post, the first Trump heard of this supposed IC assessment was when Devin Nunes told him it had been briefed on the Hill.
Within hours, Nunes forcefully refuted the report that he had told the president about the Hill briefing, stating that it was simply made up, and that he would be suing the Post for publishing lies about him.
That said, he didn’t address what the president did or didn’t know beforehand. In the interview, he pointed out that no one from the House committee was supposed to be talking about it outside the briefing room.
That, of course, is a severe problem for public understanding: all the public gets is slanted leaks, and statements that nothing will be clarified for us because the congressmen aren’t supposed to talk about it. EPIC FAIL, as they say.
By midday Friday, version three was upon us. Friday was 22 February. On that date, the Washington Post announced that Bernie Sanders had been told the Russians were backing him. Sanders said shortly afterward, in answer to media queries, that he had been briefed along those lines one month before.
A month before puts the brief to Sanders somewhere in the 22-25 January range. In other words, the brief that “the Russians want to back Sanders” was delivered at the same time Shelby Pierson was telling NPR “we don’t know what the Russians are going to do in 2020.”
This doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does it inspire confidence that the Washington Post article indicated Trump had been briefed on the information about Sanders, implicitly at the same time Sanders was; i.e., in January.
It doesn’t inspire confidence because on Sunday (23 February), Trump told the media at an impromptu presser on the White House lawn that he was not briefed on the assessment about Sanders.
Pres. Trump this morning on whether he believes that Russia is trying to help Bernie
"I think what it could be is the Democrats are treating Bernie Sanders very unfairly & it sounds to me like a leak from Adam Schiff because they don't want Bernie Sanders to represent them." pic.twitter.com/yOJVO3bwBx
— The Columbia Bugle 🇺🇸 (@ColumbiaBugle) February 23, 2020
Now we’re up to version four. The new, late-breaking word today is that what ODNI has been briefing was oversold as intelligence about which candidates Russia wants to back in 2020. In short, it’s a backpedal.
The story, as told at CNN, echoes the tweet thread Jake Tapper posted on Friday after the “leak” about the House Intel briefing was published. Tapper is one of the reporters credited.
A national security official I know and trust pushes back on the way the briefing/ODNI story is being told, and others with firsthand knowledge agree with his assessment.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 21, 2020
The story’s bottom line:
The US intelligence community has assessed that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election and has separately assessed that Russia views Trump as a leader they can work with. But the US does not have evidence that Russia’s interference this cycle is aimed at reelecting Trump, the officials said.
“The intelligence doesn’t say that,” one senior national security official told CNN. “A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that they have a preference, it’s a step short of that. It’s more that they understand the President is someone they can work with, he’s a dealmaker.”
Chickens, meet roost
Now, as nice as it is to have that seemingly sorted out, it leaves the public (a) hanging (what did all the other stuff mean, and what will they throw out there next?), and (b) increasingly cynical and suspicious about why we’re being told things – every bit as much as whether or not they’re true.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve been conditioned to accept these weird bread-crumb trails as information updates, but they’re a relatively recent phenomenon, becoming dominant only in the last 15 or so years.
The American public had only a dim understanding during the Obama years that the Obama administration actually did most of its messaging through tailored “leaks” to the media. We didn’t get much affirmative articulation of policy and posture from the administration itself, starting with Obama. The media willingly carried the Obama administration’s messages for it, and were a great convenience for a governing executive that didn’t want to speak too clearly and accountably on most topics.
That should have seemed odd to the people. But the Bush II years set us up for that conditioning, through the media’s practice of baffling and obstructing the president’s messages.
We got accustomed to not hearing what the president said, but rather hearing what the media accused him of saying. The accusations, couched as critical renderings of his messages, were invariably just false enough on the margin to make President Bush look foolish. But their longer-term, more insidious effect was to corrupt our expectations about presidential communication. We were being trained, in effect, to not realize that it wasn’t actually the president we were hearing from.
Now the media are reduced, in the Trump years, to carrying “leaks” from hostile “leakers” who don’t really have ground-truth information. Trump and his actual inner circle know they can’t count on truthful reporting by the media, so they communicate with the public in different ways.
But it’s been a pick-up game for three years and counting. And nowhere has that been as true as in the realm of packaging intelligence for the public, so that the people understand what the U.S. intelligence community really thinks, and have confidence that intelligence is being given and used wisely.
There is, of course, a limit to what can be accomplished with a hostile media always ready to go on the attack (no matter how irrational – indeed, idiotic – the terms of the attack may be). Draining the government swamp won’t fix that aspect of the problem.
But what I have noticed in the last four days is the void that could be filled, and needs to be – one that also represents a void Mr. Grenell is uniquely qualified to fill.
Against the mangled, incoherent series of non sequiturs we’ve received this year about “Russia!” and the supposed support to 2020 candidates, there is no competing narrative.
A better way
And there should be. Not because every fictional narrative concocted by the Left needs a competing narrative, but because this is the 2020 U.S. election we’re talking about, and part of holding it with integrity and confidence is telling the people important things in advance.
On the matter of Russia, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It sounds to me like this is what we know: Russia is doing the same things with social media that Russians did in 2016. There have, meanwhile, been no detected attempts so far to intrude into voter information systems in the states.
So say that, and then freaking write it down and remember you said it, and make sure everyone says it when the topic comes up. Tell the president that’s what you’re saying. Keep him fully briefed, and satisfied as to what you’re doing, because it is, after all, his call, his responsibility, and his message.
Vow to the president that that is what will be said. Expect to be accountable if media coverage suggests something else was said. But when media coverage makes such a suggestion, know who said what when, and refer back to it in addressing the media. “This is what we told you on 21 January, and nothing has changed since then. Our intel folks are being very diligent about this. You might want to re-interview your sources.”
Don’t argue with the media’s straw men. Have your own narrative to refer back to, and just keep referring back.
Keep putting the best truth as you know it before the public, and keep a record. Those records come in handy when complaints are filed. But also, of course, be proactive about potential threats to the election, and make sure you’re telling that story too.
There’s nothing wrong with watching the Russians with a jaundiced eye, or the Chinese, or other foreign actors. But for my money, the biggest threats to election integrity are illegally registered voters, inadequate voter ID requirements, and the pernicious practice of ballot harvesting. There are millions of voters who would perk up tremendously if they knew something was being done about that.
That’s not an intelligence issue, to be sure. Nor is it something for the federal government to intervene in directly. But in 2020, we are nicely oversupplied with a federal advisory infrastructure to help the states prioritize it and recognize the concerns about it. What’s lacking is an effective messaging strategy to frame these points for ready mental reference by a busy public.
Ambassador Grenell knows how to lead cavalry charges for information campaigns. He could achieve a lot by turning an unhealed source of informational vulnerability – intelligence and the “Russia!-election” theme – into a topic on which the administration has information dominance. As long as Team Trump is silent, the “deep state” and the media can keep throwing rocks at random and hoping one hits a target. By November, that could also make them the only ones with a record of quasi-formal allegations.
As a problem of national security and survival, it would be better for the administration to establish the record of a consistent, memorable, accountable narrative – a narrative as faithful as possible to the truth as we know it, starting with the threat intelligence – long before November. Make intelligence produce; make it work for American security, the way it’s supposed to. Grenell could jump-start that. I hope he will.