The ICA on foreign threats to the 2020 election: An intel assessment for the record books

The ICA on foreign threats to the 2020 election: An intel assessment for the record books
Entrance to IC Campus in McLean VA, where ODNI offices are located along with other agencies like NCTC. Google Street View image

Any credibility the new Intelligence Community Assessment on foreign threats to the 2020 election might have lasts only as long as it takes to remember what we already know.

On some startlingly glaring points, the ICA omits the public information that would essentially delegitimize its claims.

Probably the most glaring omission is the point that President Joe Biden has, in fact, been placed under indictment in Ukraine.  The ICA describes what it considers an info operations campaign by Russia, depicting Biden, son Hunter, and Hunter’s associates as indictable in Ukraine.  But it doesn’t mention anywhere that this wasn’t just an info op.  Joe Biden has actually been indicted.

In February 2020, a case was opened in Ukrainian court stating an unnamed American was a criminal suspect in an effort to fire former chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin.  In May 2020, a Ukrainian judge ruled that the name of the American must be included in the filings on the case.  The name is that of now-President Joe Biden.  John Solomon, reporting at Just the News, stated that the Ukrainian prosecutor had not yet complied with the ruling.  (The judge’s decision, citing Biden’s as the previously shielded name, was available and included in Solomon’s report.)

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But in November 2020, a report from OAN indicated that the prosecutor had complied, and Joe Biden’s name had been included in the prosecution’s case documents.

In July 2020, notably, the court dismissed a lawsuit by Burisma demanding that Ukrainian Andriy Derkach retract his claim that Burisma had paid $900,000 to Joe Biden for lobbying activities, and another $16.5 million to Hunter Biden and three associates, including Devon Archer.

Andriy Derkach, a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, is named in the ICA as an agent of Russia working to defame Biden.  But the Ukrainian court evidently didn’t find that his claim about Burisma’s payments to Joe and Hunter Biden lacked merit.

The blackout on this information in the mainstream media is total, and tech platforms appear set to make it as difficult as possible to retrieve content about it on the Web.  But it should be readily available to agencies of the U.S. government, and is indisputably essential to forming a realistic conclusion about the nature of the Ukrainian case against Biden, and the role of Andriy Derkach.  It’s dishonest not to refer to it and account for its conflict with the premises of the ICA assessment.  The ICA doesn’t mention it at all.

Another point is the ICA’s inclusion of references to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian thought to be an asset of Russian intelligence (apparently the GRU, or military intelligence), who figured in the Paul Manafort saga as a Manafort associate whose connection threw suspicion on Manafort.

The problem with the Manafort link as well as the link suggested in the new ICA is that Kilimnik ran tame in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv for years during the Obama administration.  He was a confidential informant for the State Department.   We have never had a satisfactory explanation of why that either (a) is not suspicious, and therefore undercuts the “Russia-Trump” narrative Kilimnik was used to bolster, or (b) is suspicious, and means the Obama-era embassy has some explaining to do.

Another point is the astonishing ICA statement that “We did not identify China attempting to … provide funding to any candidates or parties.” (Bold in original.)

This statement occurs on page [7] (all citations in brackets are for the pages as marked on the original document).

This utterly defies belief, given China’s uninterrupted history of making such attempts for at least the last quarter century.  If the ICA didn’t find any such thing going on, it would be because the community didn’t look very hard, if at all.

But there was a uniquely compelling reason to look hard in 2020.  Besides the Chinese financial connections of Biden’s son Hunter, other recent revelations like Rep. Eric Swalwell’s relationship with a Chinese spy, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s long employment of an office assistant with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, should at a minimum have prompted a rigorous scrub of all intelligence on what Chinese actors were trying to do, whether related to the Bidens or not.

Image via The Lid, Facebook

Tellingly, however, the whole section on China is written as if the Biden connection to Chinese financial interests, and the other previous discoveries about Congress, don’t exist.  That is a big “tell” as to the nature of this ICA.

The ghost-writer in the machine

Not that such a “tell” was really necessary.  The key judgments at the beginning might as well have been dictated by Xi Jinping.  They serve Chinese interests with unerring precision, undercutting concerns about Biden’s links to China obliquely by attacking the Biden-Ukraine scenario head-on as a Russian disinfo op.  This ruse throws an implicit cloak of “disinfo” over the Biden-China connection too, without ever having to mention it explicitly.

In the section on China, meanwhile, the ICA declares : “Beijing probably believed that its traditional influence tools, primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying key individuals and interest groups, would be sufficient to achieve its goal of shaping US policy regardless of who won the election.”  This is on page [7] just before the sentence cited previously.

China certainly uses those tools to the hilt.  That would be a good place to acknowledge the compromising information mentioned above on U.S. elected officials, including the new president.

But the ICA is careful to leave no impression of a Biden-China or other Democrat-China connection on the brain.

Joe Biden, Xi Jinping

Granting the political sensitivity of mentioning it, that’s not intelligence.  That’s narrative-building.

We’re not talking here about an omission that is immaterial to the conclusion.  We’re talking about an omission the public can plainly see is at odds, in principle, with the conclusion.  Stating the conclusion without acknowledging facts well known to the public looks like special pleading, not intelligence – and that’s because it is.  The use of the “intelligence” brand to build the narrative is thus intelligence-washing a propaganda narrative.

There is no reason to take any of this ICA seriously, once these elements of it are clarified in the light of day.  But besides the point that it resonates perfectly with Chinese interests, there are two other general points to be made about its character.

Prejudice aforethought

One is made by Fred Fleitz in an article at The Federalist on Wednesday.  He points out that in early January 2021, the Intelligence Community’s Analytic Ombudsman, Dr. Barry Zulauf, told Senators Rubio and Warren of the Intelligence Committee that the classified version of the present ICA did not meet all the standards of the IC for sound analysis.

In particular, as Fleitz observes, the ombudsman’s “report found that intelligence analysts who follow China were hesitant to produce an evaluation suggesting Chinese interference in the 2020 election because they disagreed with Trump’s policies and did not want their analysis to be used to support them.”

So we had a preview in January of what has turned out to be the case.  The analysts whose political preferences overcame their analytical judgment won the day.  Fleitz notes the brief dissent inserted as a “Minority View” in the ICA on page [8], but basically decries it as weak sauce – which it is.  Not only is it not allowed to be robust or explicit about why it merits inclusion; it states every point in terms of a mere difference of degree in how it perceives the problem as framed by the “majority view.”

The China problem is in need, precisely, of reframing.  The elliptical, blinders-on framing of the China problem is the corrupt weakness of this ICA, but the Minority View presents no counterpoint to it.  It might as well not even be there.

Finally, an itch scratched

The other point about the ICA is that it’s just a rehash of a political narrative that was being flogged incessantly by members of Congress in 2020.  We met this narrative on a number of occasions last year.  Its gist all along was that the Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens and Burisma was a Russian disinfo op, designed to defame Biden in the run-up to the 2020 election.  (The summary at the last link may be worth a review, as a reminder of all the substance about the Bidens and Ukraine that was known to the public for years before the Democrats, in 2020, suddenly started calling “Biden-Ukraine” a “Russian disinfo op.”)

Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi went to general quarters several times demanding that the IC send briefers to tell them the Biden-Ukraine narrative was a Russian disinfo op.  Now and then a Senate Democrat wandered by to denounce the Trump IC for its failure to do so.  At one point, then-DNI John Ratcliffe intervened to inform Congress that his community would only provide written assessments and responses, basically intimating that he had no intention of seeing closed-door oral interviews be turned into prejudicial “leaks” that actually contradicted the IC assessments.

Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi

Now that the Democrats hold the Oval Office, ODNI, and both houses of Congress, they’re putting out an intel assessment that reflects what they wanted to extract from the IC in 2020.  Following this drama at the time, I had the distinct impression that the impetus for it was coming at least as much from Congress as from the IC – and there was reason to suspect it was more a concoction being pushed from Capitol Hill.

This aspect of the ICA only further discredits it.

Miscellany

A handful of additional thoughts will round this quick-look out.  One relates to a stray reference on page [4] to the Russians’ use in 2020 of apparently “unwitting third-country nationals in Ghana, Mexico, and Nigeria” in the Russian troll-farm operations.

This point dovetails with a prominent feature of a graphic novel on election interference produced by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at DHS in the summer of 2020, seemingly one of CISA’s major efforts to promote election security.  The graphic novel, Real Fake, depicted just such hapless third-country keyboard operatives being exploited by Russians who in their turn seemed to spend their time on escalators in Russia.

The only reason this is worth mentioning is that it highlights what appears to have been a data set of actual intelligence on what the Russians were doing.  The entire rest of the Russia section in the ICA is such a combination of generic bromides about Russian patterns, and laughably political, specific – and selective – use of public information, that it doesn’t qualify as “intelligence” at all.  It’s a long exercise, like the China section, in special pleading.

The actual intelligence peeping out, even if only briefly, has a quaint charm to it, bringing a tear to the eye for career intelligence professionals.

The other category of miscellany is fatuous, even asinine, assessments from the ICA.  A favorite from the Iran section on page [6]:  “Iranian cyber actors sent threatening, spoofed emails purporting to be from the Proud Boys group to Democratic voters in multiple US states, demanding that the individuals change their party affiliation and vote to reelect former president Trump.”

The idea that the Iranian regime wanted Trump reelected is one of the least credible implications of the entire ICA.  But it’s also ridiculous to think the Iranians would be foolish enough to pick the Proud Boys, whom most Americans knew next to nothing about before 6 January 2021, for such an operation, and send emails to (apparently) random voters to make a point.

This looks like narrative-placing.  There exists no world in which the average reasonably-alert American lacked information about the Proud Boys prior to the Capitol riot, while some slew of random Democratic voters knew enough to be effectively intimidated or usefully influenced by receiving fake emails using their organizational name.  This scenario makes no sense, and I frankly don’t buy it.

Maybe it’s placed preemptively to explain what someone else did along these lines.  Who knows what fictions we’ll be treated to in the coming months.

One more pair of assessments for the funny bone.

This is also on page [7]. It’s Atlantic Council-type stuff, sounding plausible and temperate but ignoring realities like the fact that China already regards the U.S. as her most likely opponent in a coming war, is actively arming for a confrontation with us, conducts cyber and economic warfare against us without compunction, and rails frequently against the U.S. in the most contumacious terms regardless of who’s in office over here.  We should expect more realism about China from the intel community, whatever is going on in the think tanks and editorial rooms.

The idea that China thinks Biden will “be more successful [presumably more than Trump] in mobilizing a global alliance against China and criticizing China’s human rights record” is little more than simply dismissible.

It’s a reminder that these intel assessments on foreign election interference are a huge, gaping opportunity to plant partisan influence verbiage for domestic consumption – and the Democrats, who have published the two instances we have of them, for 2016 and 2020, have used them for that purpose in spades.

We could dig further and find more.  But that’s enough.  This ICA should land with a thud and be justifiably ignored henceforth.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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