Russia, Trump & Flawed Intelligence

After months of anticipation, speculation, and hand-wringing by politicians and journalists, American intelligence agencies have finally released a declassified version of a report on the part they believe Russia played in the US presidential election. 

When the report appeared, the major newspapers came out with virtually identical headlines highlighting the agencies’ finding that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to help Donald Trump win the presidency, a finding the agencies say they hold “with high confidence.”

A close reading of the report shows that it barely supports such a conclusion. Indeed, it barely supports any conclusion. 

There is not much to read: the declassified version is twenty-five pages, of which two are blank, four are decorative, one contains an explanation of terms, one a table of contents, and seven are a previously published unclassified report by the CIA’s Open Source division. 

There is even less to process: the report adds hardly anything to what we already knew. The strongest allegations, including about the nature of the DNC hacking, had already been spelled out in much greater detail in earlier media reports.

But the real problems come with the findings themselves. The report leads with three “key judgments”:

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”; 

“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations, such as cyber activity, with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’”;

“We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”

It is the first of these judgments that made headlines, so let us look at the evidence the document provides for this assertion. 

This evidence takes up just over a page and contains nine points. The first four make the argument that Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. 

1.    Putin and the Russian government aimed to help Trump by making public statements discrediting Hillary Clinton.

2.    The Kremlin’s goal is to undermine “the US-led liberal democratic order”.

3.    Putin claimed that the Panama Papers leak and the Olympic doping scandal were “US-directed efforts to defame Russia,” and this suggests that he would use defamatory tactics against the United States.

4.    Putin personally dislikes Hillary Clinton and blames her for inspiring popular unrest in Russia in 2011-2012.

None of this is new or particularly illuminating, at least for anyone who has been following Russian media in any language; some of it seems irrelevant. 

The next set of points aim to buttress the assertion that Putin “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump over Secretary Clinton.” The following is an exact quote:

Beginning in June, Putin’s public comments about the US presidential race avoided directly praising President-elect Trump, probably because Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire in the United States. Nonetheless, Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.

The wording makes it sound as though before June 2016 Putin had been constantly praising Trump in his public statements. In fact, though, Putin had spoken of Trump exactly once, when asked a question about him as he was leaving the hall following his annual press conference in December 2015. At that time, he said,

Well, he is a colorful person. Talented, without a doubt. But it’s none of our business, it’s up to the voters in the United States. But he is the absolute leader of the presidential race. He says he wants to shift to a different mode or relations, a deeper level of relations with Russia. How could we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it. As for the domestic politics of it, the turns of phrase he uses to increase his popularity, I’ll repeat, it’s not our business to evaluate his work.

Nothing in this statement is remarkable. At the time, Trump, who was polling well in the Republican primary race, was the only aspiring presidential candidate to have indicated a willingness to dial back US-Russian hostilities. The topic was clearly judged not important enough to be included in the main body of Putin’s more-than-four-hour press conference but deserving of a boilerplate “we hear you” message sent as Putin literally headed out the door.

The Russian word for “colorful”, yarkiy, can be translated as “bright,” as in a “bright color.” That must be how Trump came to think that Putin had called him “brilliant,” an assertion that the US media (and, it appears, US intelligence agencies) failed to fact-check. 

In June 2016, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, American journalist Fareed Zakaria, moderating a panel, asked Putin, “The American Republican presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, you called him ‘brilliant,’ ‘outstanding,’ ‘talented.’ 

These comments were reported around the world. I was wondering what in him led you to that judgment, and do you still hold that judgment?” Of the epithets listed by Zakaria, Putin had used only the word “talented,” and he had not specified what sort of talent he had seen in Trump. 

Putin reprimanded Zakaria for exaggerating. “Look at what I said,” he said. “I made an off-hand remark about Trump being a colorful person. Are you saying he is not colorful? He is colorful. I did not characterize him in any other way. But what I did note, and what I certainly welcome, and I see nothing wrong with this, Mr. Trump has stated that he is ready for the renewal of a full-fledged relationship between Russia and the United States. What is wrong with that? We all welcome it. Don’t you?” 

Zakaria looked mortified: he had been caught asking an ill-informed question. Putin, on the other hand, was telling the truth for once. As for the American intelligence agencies marshaling this exchange as evidence of a change of tone and more, evidence of Russian meddling in the election, that is plainly misleading.

The next two points purporting to prove that Putin had a preference for Trump are, incredibly, even weaker arguments:

5.    Putin thought that he and Trump would be able to create an international anti-ISIS coalition;

6.    Putin likes to work with political leaders “whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Number 5 is puzzling. Nominally, Russia and the United States have already been cooperating in the fight against ISIS. 

The reference is probably to Putin’s offer, made in September 2015 in a speech to the UN General Assembly, to form an international anti-terrorist coalition that, Putin seemed to suggest, would stop the criticism and sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Obama snubbed the offer then. 

Then again it seems the report contains no elucidation of this ascertainment of Putin’s motives. 

The final two arguments in this section of the report focus on the fact that Russian officials and propagandists stopped criticising the US election process after election day and Russian trolls dropped a planned #DemocracyRIP campaign, which they had planned in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s victory. 

That is the entirety of the evidence the report offers to support its estimation of Putin’s motives for allegedly working to elect Trump: conjecture based on other politicians in other periods, on other continents, and also on misreported or mistranslated public statements.

NYBooks:          Vladimir Putin & Donald Trump: Relationship Counselling:
 

 

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