Election Day this past November 8th delivered at least two surprises so far. First there was Donald Trump capturing enough electoral votes to win the Presidency over Hillary Clinton, when polling showed she was going to prevail. Then in the weeks following the election we have all learned through leaks to the Washington Post, New York Times and NBC News that the CIA “assesses with high confidence” that Russia, with the direct involvement of President Vladimir Putin, was cyber hacking with the purpose of defeating Hillary Clinton. And I thought we dodged a cyber bullet on Election Day because there was no massive infra-structure attack aimed at either making it difficult for people to get to the polls or to cause the wall to wall news coverage to question whether or not votes were being accurately recorded.
In retrospect Russia’s hacking and apparent intentions should not have been a surprise since the FBI warned the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in September 2015 that it was being hacked. Then a month before Election Day on October 7th DHS and ODNI issued the following joint statement about Russian interference with our elections.
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
Clearly the Intelligence Community both detected and warned in sufficient time that Russia was using cyber techniques to interfere with our Presidential Election. However, other than President Obama privately telling President Putin at a G-20 Conference in September 2016 to “cut it out” we have learned at a Presidential Press Conference on 15 December no actions were taken to either stop the Russian hacking or to better inform the US electorate what was known about the purpose of the hacking. Given the amount of information leaked to the media post-election about the purpose, intensity, and Russian leadership involvement it seems fair to ask why was not more done before votes were cast to at least “name and shame” Russia for its interference with our Presidential election? Two juxtaposed answers come immediately to mind: the intelligence was more circumstantial than direct or the intelligence was so solid there were concerns about compromising useful sources and methods.
For reasons opaque to me someone at the CIA has decided now that the votes have been counted and certified that they should unofficially and anonymously share with the American people that there is direct intelligence confirming Russia’s hacking of the DNC with Putin’s knowledge to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Russia has responded that without proof these accusations are “unseemly” while Donald Trump has tweeted he does not believe what the CIA is providing informally to friendly journalists. Many are characterizing this as the President Elect throwing the IC under the bus to protect Putin.
I am not sure which infuriates me more: Vladimir Putin trying to affect the outcome of our Presidential election or learning about it from leaks to the media by the CIA. I understand Putin’s motives in terms of pursuing Russian national interests, but what are the CIA’s motivations? Perhaps concerns that it not be seen as at fault for the failure of policy makers to respond earlier to Russia’s election hacking? Or could it be the IC wanting to distance itself from Secretary Clinton’s failure to achieve the Presidency? What about frustration with the reality that former DIA Director LTG Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor will be filtering intelligence and blocking IC leadership’s daily access to the President?
No matter what the reasons are, the results of these CIA press leaks about Russian election hacking are proving to be toxic for the IC, if not the nation at large, for the following reasons:
- The IC actions look partisan and to Trump voters as trying to delegitimize their candidate’s election
- There is an inference without evidence that the Russian hacking materially contributed to Hillary Clinton losing the election, i.e. the hacking worked
- Not wanting to brief the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate or the Electoral College on the specifics of the Russian hacking raises doubts about how definitive the intelligence is regarding Putin’s involvement and intentions to defeat Hillary Clinton
- Because of the leaking of intelligence strongly indicating Russian interference with the 2016 election, there will be both Executive Branch and Congressional investigations into the validity of the intelligence developed as well as investigations into who was responsible for leaking this information and for what reasons
- Using the media so it can control the narrative on Russian election hacking deepens and steepens Donald Trump’s already well developed distrust of the IC
With President Obama looking ineffective, President Elect Trump being openly contemptuous of intelligence, and the IC appearing to be deviously partisan, Vladimir Putin comes out of all this with a “twofer.” Besides achieving his strategic aim of undermining confidence that votes cast for President reflected the will of the American people, the subsequent fallout from the political debate about Russia’s election hacking has widened the trust divide between Donald Trump and the IC.
Of course the bigger story here is the continuing systemic cyber vulnerabilities of the United States, which is amplified by the lack of both a coherent strategy and effective capabilities to protect our government institutions, our national security, our financial stability, and our sensitive personal information.
That’s what I think; what do you think?