By Kent R. Kroeger (July 16, 2018)
The election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, was the culmination of the greatest influence operation campaign in modern espionage history.
Regardless of whether Russia’s interference in the 2016 election changed the outcome (and I do believe it had an impact, though not decisive, based on my research found here), the mere fact that U.S. lawmakers continue to obsess about Russian meddling — at the expense of other major problems facing the country— is testament to the Russian influence operation’s…well, influence.
The Mueller investigation’s conspiracy indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence (GRU) personnel for hacking Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta emails only highlights the long-established ability of the Russians to do more with less. When the U.S. builds a $17 billion aircraft carrier, Russia responds with a nearly-unstoppable $3 million missile to destroy it. That’s how Russia stays in the game.
According to the Mueller indictment, using relatively inexpensive hacking tools at their disposal, the Russian’s attempted to alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. And what is startling is that the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and senior Obama officials knew generally of the Russians’ covert efforts but were still debating the scope and nature of those efforts right up until election day.
Apart from Obama directly telling Vladimir Putin in September 2016 to stop the election interference, little else was done to stop it. In fact, it appears the FBI and the other intelligence agencies were more focused on catching the Trump campaign colluding with the Russians than impeding Russian interference.
So why haven’t people in our intelligence community (IC) and executive branch been admonished for their role in failing to stop this Russian attack on our electoral system, perhaps the most vital component of the American democracy?
The U.S. did not lack the resources or capabilities to stop the Russians
The U.S. intelligence community’s (IC) budget is larger than the defense spending of every nation except the US, China, and Russia, and it has been this big for a long time. Yet, apart from tracking Russia’s cyber activities leading up to the Nov. 8th election, the IC did little to inform anyone of this meddling other than sharing intelligence with only high-ranking Obama officials — who failed to act on the information beyond opening a counter-intelligence investigation against the Trump campaign and President Obama’s private scolding of Putin. Even congressional leaders were largely in the dark up until the final month of the campaign when the Steele dossier was leaked to the press and the Clinton campaign issued instructions to their friendly media outlets to only mention the hacked emails in the context of Russian hacking.
Regardless of whether it was the decisive factor, the Russian influence operation achieved its ultimate goal: a Trump presidency. Given the $70 billion this country spends on intelligence each year, how do we explain this outcome?
Well, very easy. There are at least two reasons this happened.
First, the Obama administration let political considerations outweigh the larger national interest. By the administration’s own admission, they decided a confrontation with the Russians during an election season would likely appear partisan and benefit the Trump candidacy, and that was a risk they weren’t willing to take. As long as the administration thought Clinton would win, Russia’s threat to the integrity of our national elections was acceptable and could be cleaned up diplomatically on the election’s back-end.
Even after the hacked DNC and Podesta emails were released on the DCLeaks and Wikileaks websites, the substantive impact on the presidential race appeared minimal, according to the aggregate polling data widely available at the time. Post the party conventions, it was only after a media obsession over Clinton’s health and the Clinton Foundation in September that Trump began to appear like a viable candidate in the polling data. And that surge faded after his debate debacles.
In the graph below, derived from RealClearPolitics.com’s 2016 election forecasting model, the impact on the election by the release of the DNC emails through DCLeaks (in late June) and Wikileaks (in mid-July) is confounded by other events, particularly the party conventions. While it is tempting to blame the DCLeaks and Wikileaks email releases for Hillary Clinton’s 20-point drop in her probability of winning, such a conclusion ignores the likely impact of the Republican National Convention during this period.
Furthermore, the strong bounce Clinton received coming out of the Democratic National Convention in late July far surpassed the decline she experienced immediately after the DNC emails were released.
The next major release of hacked emails were in mid-October when Wikileaks started a timed release of the Podesta emails. Again, immediately after the Podesta emails started appearing, Clinton’s win probability went up, not down. Similar to the national convention period in July, the impact of the Podesta emails is confounded by the three candidate debates in which Clinton was generally viewed as the clear winner. Clinton’s poll numbers (and win probability) didn’t start declining until the release of the news on premium hikes for Obamacare on October 23rd and the James Comey letter about a week after that.
This visual analysis of the RealClearPolitics’ win probability data does not rule out the possible impact of the hacked DNC and Podesta emails on the final outcome. The hacked emails may have acted as a cumulative drag on Clinton’s polling numbers such that her popularity surges after the convention and the debates were not as strong as they otherwise would have been.
But the graph does support the contention that the Obama administration may not have been in a panic over the DNC and Podesta email releases given the polling data they possessed at the time.
Why screw up Clinton’s likely election victory with an aggressive, anti-Russian counter campaign that might backfire? Even a covert effort to shut down probable Russian trolls could become public and inspire a significant backlash. The Obama administration reasoned: Why take the chance? She was going to win anyway.
The second reason the IC failed to recognize the severity of the Russia cyber attack may have been its over-reliance on classified intelligence, such a signals intelligence (SIGINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT); when, in reality, the evidence of Russian interference was readily available through more mundane open source intelligence (OSINT) channels.
Journalist Dana Priest, in an excellent article for The New Yorker, spells out the OSINT problem with examples of open source researchers who had identified the Russian cyber-threat years before the 2016 U.S. election:
The Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a NATO-affiliated organization based in Riga, Latvia. issued a public report in 2014 on Russia’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine in which it identified themes that Russia would use against the U.S. two years later. The report even detailed the specific methods Russia used in spreading the disinformation, including creating falsely-identified Facebook and Twitter accounts controlled by Russian intelligence operatives.
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab in Edinborough, Scotland identified Russian intelligence-sourced social media accounts during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
The cyber-threat research being done by the Atlantic Council and the Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, among many others, is in the public domain, yet, we have been told repeatedly by former Obama officials that the U.S. was caught by surprise at the scope and intensity of the Russian election interference.
According to Priest, the IC’s bias against OSINT blinded “U.S. intelligence officials to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s evidence (in 2002) that Iraq did not actually possess weapons of mass destruction. In 2010, it blinded them again to the Arab Spring revolutions brewing across the Middle East.”
In her view, the systematic devaluation of OSINT by the IC is an even graver problem at a time when Russia and China actively use social media as a major platform for their disinformation operations.
“Unless FBI agents and American intelligence officers get over this bias, they will continue asking for special powers to snoop on Internet users in ways that should not be allowed,” warns Priest.
What have we learned?
Ironically, the joint congressional inquiries into the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq WMDs issued similar admonitions when they concluded U.S. intelligence failures are more likely to occur when (1) intelligence is politicized, and when (2) the IC becomes too reliant on classified intelligence sources when more cost-effective open source material would have revealed similar information. This preference for classified intelligence creates a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ atmosphere in the IC where critical information gets excessively sheltered and kept from policymakers and law enforcement officials that actually need the information.
Did the Obama administration and the IC learn anything from ‘Curveball’ and the Iraq WMD mess? Apparently, the answer is ‘no.’
Politicized intelligence kept from the people that needed it most, including the American people, is the real tragedy of the 2016 election.
What should be done?
Starting with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. has arguably experienced 12 major intelligence failures, including Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The list includes: Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Tet Offensive, the Yom Kippur War, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Indian nuclear bomb test, the 9/11 attacks, the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
What do most of these intelligence failures have in common?
With the exception of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, all of these intelligence failures prompted internal inquiries into U.S. intelligence’s processes with the specific goals of understanding why these failures occurred and how they can be avoided in the future. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t always share those critiques with the American people.
In the case of the most egregious intelligence errors, such as Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks and the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq, joint congressional hearings have been conducted resulting in the public release of key findings and recommendations.
But in the case of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation conducted at the beginning of John F. Kennedy’s administration, an investigation led by General Maxwell D. Taylor at the behest of the president was initiated on April 22nd, only three days after the end of the CIA’s failed invasion of Cuba. The classified Taylor Commission Report was issued on June 13th; however, the unclassified version was not publicly released until December 1984 — almost 24 years after the invasion.
We now know with Rachel Maddow-like certainty, the CIA really f**ked up.
But do we really need a 9/11-style inquiry to understand what really happened in 2016? Priest suggests the answer is ‘no.’
“To avoid long drawn-out investigations and the wasting of even more time, the IC should remember two of the most important lessons that emerged after 9/11: it is unwise to conceal the truth and to pretend that all is well,” writes Priest. “Instead, the director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, one of the few members of the Trump Cabinet whose reputation for independence is still intact, could commission educational materials, like those on StopFake’s Web site, that help the public spot online disinformation. He could disclose to Congress the weaknesses in the IC capabilities, and make the case for rearranging resources to combat this not-so-new threat.”
As worthwhile as Priests’ suggestions are, they come up short in one respect: with an intelligence failure on this scale, people and agencies must face the public. Call it a public flogging without any actual flogging. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing in an entrenched ‘deep state’ bureaucrat like seeing their reputation maligned in a public forum.
The seeming ubiquitousness of former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on cable news shows since Trump’s inauguration may not be merely for patriotic reasons. From what the Mueller investigation has revealed so far with respect to Russia’s covert activities in the 2016 election, the IC was not blind to what the Russians were doing (amplifying fake news through social media; disseminating hacked emails through third-party websites such as Wikileaks, etc.) and how they were doing it (creating falsely-identified social media accounts; cyber attacks on email servers).
Yet, apart from only the most senior Obama administration officials, this information was largely kept secret.
In July 2017, while speaking at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado, Brennan said there was no way for U.S. intelligence officials could have known the scope of Russian election meddling in 2016. “People have criticized us and the Obama Administration for not coming out more forcefully in saying it,” he offered the audience filled with defense and intelligence experts. “There was no playbook for this.”
Was he kidding? The U.S. wrote the playbook on cyber attacks. Brennan should know that. Certainly the man to his immediate left on the Aspen stage, James Clapper, should have known given he was the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2007 to 2010 at a crucial time when the U.S. began standing up its own cyber operations command.
The U.S. invented and perfected cyber warfare’s core methods: phishing attacks, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, malware, automated password attacks, drive-by downloads, “man-in-the-middle” attacks, and many more.
But in 2015 and 2016, Brennan and Clapper couldn’t envision the Russians stealing sensitive emails and disseminating them across the internet to the embarrassment of select U.S. political figures? Or creating fake social media accounts to spread disinformation to American voters?
So far, none of the techniques used by Russia in their election interference campaigns (which include attacks on Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, among others) are outside the U.S.’s own cyber capabilities.
And the laundering of hacked emails through friendly journalists and third-party websites like Wikileaks has a long history that could not possibly have been a ‘surprise’ to Brennan and Clapper.
The Panama Papers, the leaking of 11.5 million documents in 2015 disclosing financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities, mirrors the DNC/Podesta email hacks.
Coincidentally, close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin were personally embarrassed by the Panama Papers and Putin’s own spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said their being leaked to the public were part of a conspiracy against Russia orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency and hinted the Russians would reply in kind.
Yikes! Maybe Brennan and Clapper should have been reading more transcripts from Peskov media interviews in 2015?
That Brennan could say with a straight face that the Russians were using a new playbook in their 2016 election meddling is preposterous. He is either incompetent or lying. Or both.
If there ever is a full inquiry into the mistakes made by the Obama administration during the 2016 election, it is a fair bet much of the blame will lay directly at the feet of Brennan and Clapper, along with a president so intimidated by Putin that he choked when there was still time to expose the Russian meddling before the Nov. 8th election.
Don’t mistake this criticism of the Obama administration as a blanket exoneration of the amateurish deering-dos of the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s campaign was a whirling dervish of a mess from beginning to end. And they still won.
That fact gnaws at my attempts to explain the Trump victory. How could such an incompetent crew of New York real estate turds beat the most powerful political machine in the world?
The 2016 election notwithstanding, I continue to believe winning presidential elections requires competent people. Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page don’t fit the profile. At least Paul Manafort and Roger Stone brought with them presidential campaign experience, though in a kind of skeevey and thievey sort of way. And I will always respect Kellyanne Conway’s expertise in strategic communications and marketing. She was a competent woman air-dropped into a moronic frat boy culture and proved she is capable of directing a winning presidential campaign.
But, in my heart, I still believe the Trump campaign had outside help to pull off what they did. And I am not at all convinced it was anything the Russians did. As noted earlier, there is no evidence that the hacked DNC and Podesta emails changed many votes in the aggregate. Furthermore, the Russians spent peanuts compared to the other big players in the 2016 election. Their social media memes were amateur-looking and violated nearly every aesthetic standard in print and digital advertising.
If Russia efforts made Trump president, then it is way too easy to become president.
I am far more inclined to believe Trump’s win was determined by two other sources: (1) the billions of dollars in free media given to Donald Trump throughout the campaign by the major news outlets, and (2) Cambridge Analytica’s big data and social media operations that targeted ‘weak’ Republican and Independent party identifiers who initially were ‘soft’ Trump or Clinton supporters. Trump’s social media campaign drove Hillary Clinton’s negatives through the roof with this voter segment, even as they were distrustful of Trump as well. [Again, my own research using 2016 post-election survey data lends support to this thesis.]
The Russians, at best, augmented Cambridge Analytica’s efforts in the margins; though, as yet, no hard evidence exists to suggest Cambridge Analytica was linked to the Russians. Jared Kushner might know. Someone should ask him.
Hopefully, once the anti-Russia hysteria generated by the mainstream media’s coverage of the Mueller investigation dies down, serious journalists and intelligence analysts will ponder the far more important questions: Why was U.S. intelligence so tardy in discovering and impotent in stopping the Russian election meddling in 2016? And what can we do in the future, without compromising free speech, to avoid this happening again?
As Roger Stone might say, it soon may be John Brennan and James Clapper’s ‘time in the barrel.”