Trump and the Hack: Whose Witch Hunt?

January 6, 2017–Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee and, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s jibes at U.S. intelligence, said “I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” As Clapper said that you could see Robert S. Litt, the DNI’s general counsel, sitting behind him. Litt has been referred to here as a consigliere, and also sat at Clapper’s side when the Fearful Leader perjured himself, swearing to a different Senate committee a few years ago that U.S. intelligence had no collection programs aimed at masses of American citizens. This time around you could see Litt let his head fall, hold it in his hand, and shake it “no.” His gestures suggested the consigliere had a bad feeling about what was happening around him.

Today that is confirmed. General Clapper and the mavens of the intelligence community made their pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York and presented their detailed findings on the Russian hack to the incoming president. I had thought Trump would give them the courtesy of at least pretending to think over their brief for a day or so but, no, hardly were they out the door when Mr. Trump disparaged the spooks’ findings on Russian hacking as a witch hunt.

Trump looks set to win the public relations contest. Not only have his spin doctors–and the president-elect himself–hammered constantly to repackage a question of a covert influence operation from an historical adversary as a mere case of political sour grapes, but U.S. spooks have left themselves vulnerable to that tactic. The DNI has now had three runs at this affair: a joint statement he issued with the Director of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016; a joint report with DHS last week, and yesterday’s Senate hearing. In all three instances Clapper chose to go with anodyne pronouncements that gave hardly any detail regarding the Russian hack that affected an American presidential election, buried those details released among a mass of generic B-S regarding protective measures against hacking, or submerged it among descriptions of hacking by other states and entities. On top of that DNI Clapper failed to restrain FBI director James Comey from the related action of calling in the computers of the ex of a senior Hillary Clinton aide which, apart from anything else, served to muddy the waters about charges of a Russian hack. All of these actions exhibited exaggerated fears for secrecy–and show why here we call the DNI a Fearful Leader. The effect of Fearful Leader’s actions and omissions has been to leave daylight for Mr. Trump to manipulate this matter as an artifact of politics rather than national security.

Donald Trump’s stance of stiffing those he regards as witch hunters now requires him to point out the real enemies. Top of the list has to be U.S. intelligence. You can see the purge coming.

 

Part 2

January 7, 2017–In his Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell write, “Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency surprised me, but they shouldn’t have.” Precisely. This space has been commenting on the attacks for many weeks now. The president-elect chose to make intelligence a political football as an alternative to accepting a serious objection to his simplistic attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. The head-in-the-sand obtuseness of U.S. intelligence under Fearful Leader Clapper helped make Trump’s maneuver feasible.

Yesterday we commented on the shortcomings of previous releases and reports from Director Clapper that were so bland and uninformative they permitted Mr. Trump to dance away from their implications. Yesterday DNI Clapper and his agency directors had their detailed briefing with the president-elect. Afterwards the DNI released an unclassified background paper that purported to detail the charges against Russia for hacking the U.S. election. The news commentaries today, Mr. Morrell’s article, and many other speculations, are based on that summary paper.

Unfortunately the DNI presentation again illustrates the same deficiencies already noted here. Barely more than one quarter of the 25-page “intelligence community assessment” is actually substantive. There is almost as much blank paper (cover and back covers, contents, title pages) as that. Five more pages are given over to explanations of what is an intelligence report, a scope note, and tabulations of the probability levels the spooks attach to judgments that range from “remote” to “almost certain.” By far the meatiest element in this report is an only tangentially-related paper–years old we are told, and as lengthy as the entire substantive hacking report–of the way the broadcast outlet RT Television essentially functions in the same fashion as the Voice of America.

The substantive report contains three “key judgments.” These were by nature assessments, not facts. The only real factual statements were that Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking campaign, and that the Russians did not target or compromise systems involved in vote tallying. The analysis underlying these conclusions lies in a five-page paper jointly produced by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, labeled “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment . . . [that] does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the [Russian] influence campaign.” Aside from such public record details as when various Russian outlets, including RT Television, began their coverage of the U.S. election, and characterizations of the content of Russian media coverage and the statements of notables, there is very little in this report. In terms of the massive hacking, the most substantive elements say that Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee networks in July 2015 and maintained that access at least through June 2016. Russian military intelligence (GRU) joined in by March 2016, compromised personal email accounts of officials and party figures, and within two months “had exfiltrated large volumes of data.” That’s it.

“Scope Notes” are of little value when their purpose is to disguise lack of content. U.S. intelligence understandably wanted to safeguard its sources, and wished to preserve a step-level distinction between the depth of the information it provides top officials versus the public, but General Clapper again failed to make his case to the public, and to Donald Trump the issue is politics, not intelligence. Trump’s response was to declare he will order an investigation of how NBC News found out about some things in Clapper’s report. He referenced hacking by outsiders (including, but beyond) Russia, and said he will seek a report by late April 2017 regarding general countermeasures against hacks. The only Trump statement recognizable from the U.S. intelligence report is his insistence no voting machines were tampered with.