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Declassified US Intelligence Report on Russia: a Critical Review

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released a declassified report concerning Russia and the 2016 US presidential elections.  The report is titled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” The report is the joint effort of The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA).

It’s an easy read (25 pages). I suggest reading the entire report and forming your own conclusions. I was originally going to dissect the report line-by-line, but instead decided a quick overview would be more useful. Plus, most of the report is redundant and provides virtually no new information, let alone evidence or sources.

Background

The report suggests that this “assessment” was “highly classified,” which again, I find quite amusing as this report reveals nothing new:

The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise basis for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.

Thus, while the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods (2).

In other words, the public is supposed to take the intelligence community’s word at face value and accept the conclusions reached in this report with no evidence.

Scope and Sourcing

The report reads, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion” (i).

Here, an important distinction must be made because many Americans, particularly liberals and Democrats, assume that Russian influence had a direct impact on the 2016 US election results. Right now, even the US intelligence community suggests there is absolutely no evidence for such a claim.

Sourcing

“Many of the key judgments in this assessment rely on a body of reporting from multiple sources that are consistent with our understanding of Russian behavior” (i). One might ask what, exactly, is the intelligence community’s “understanding of Russian behavior?”

Here, the US intelligence community, either knowingly or unknowingly, is making the same mistake it made during the Cold War, where the US not only overestimated the projection of Soviet power, but also miscalculated Soviet intentions.

The report goes on, “The Russian leadership invests significant resources in both foreign and domestic propaganda and places a premium on transmitting what it views as consistent, self-reinforcing narratives regarding its desires. . .” (i). Here, again, it’s important for Americans to recognize that all state apparatuses around the world, including and especially the US, do the same thing to varying degrees.

Key Judgements

The wording of the report, especially in this section, leads one to believe that Putin had a profound role in the operation, “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” (ii). This is quite the claim. The notion that Putin directly ordered the campaign will be difficult, if not impossible to corroborate if the public is provided no evidence.

Furthermore, the report suggests that Russia’s “activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations” (ii). Again, difficult to prove without adequate and available evidence. Let’s assume this is true. How would one go about determining whether or not this is true? If the public isn’t allowed the details and evidence, can we at least get clarification about the methods used to examine the evidence?

The fundamental judgement is not only that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, or portions of the Russian government, preferred Trump over Clinton, but that these entities also “aspired to help” Trump win. The CIA and FBI have “high confidence” while the NSA has “moderate confidence” this is true.

On a side note, I would warn that the Russian government, like all governments, is not a homogenous entity. It doesn’t hold one party line. Even in the most dictatorial governments opinions vary and internal disputes and conflicts of interest are inherent in governmental processes.

The report suggests that Russia used, “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'” to discredit the Clinton campaign and “unfavorably contrast the two candidates” (ii).

While the report insists that the “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards,” it also clearly notes, “DHS [Department of Homeland Security] assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying” (iii). Again, this is important to note as many liberals and Democrats have hinted that the Russians tampered with the actual vote totals, which is an entirely different charge.

Russia’s Influence Campaign Targeting the 2016 US Presidential Election

The main charge in this section, once again, is that Putin directly ordered an “influence campaign,” whose primary goals were to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (1).

First of all, the US public doesn’t need the Russians to “undermine” our “faith in the [so-called] US democratic process.” Americans are already quite cynical about their so-called “democratic processes.” Further, Secretary Clinton’s personal baggage and neoliberal-hawk legacy “denigrated” her campaign more than any supposed Russian interference could ever dream of accomplishing. As many people have pointed out, Secretary Clinton’s campaign was a complete disaster – both ideologically, but also organizationally.

The report also suggests that Putin used the Panama Papers and the Olympic doping scandal as a way to “defame Russia” and cast the US as hypocrites. Again, even if these claims are true, is one to believe that such efforts were necessary? Doubtful. The world already recognizes American hypocrisy – they live it. Many Americans recognize their government’s hypocrisy, without the help of Russian propaganda.

This section also contains one of the most important statements in the report: “Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him” (1).

This sentence is typical of the way the US government uses language as a propaganda tool. In other words, the public is led to believe that Putin and the Russian government make political decisions primarily based on Putin’s emotions and interpersonal disputes as opposed to their very real national interests. This is a very important rhetorical/ideological tool. The lesson, for the US audience at least, is that foreign leaders are emotional and childish, whereas US leaders are reasonable and rational.

Most importantly, the report suggests that Putin preferred Trump over Clinton because of Clinton’s aggressive stance on Ukraine and Syria. Once again, this makes sense not only from the Russian perspective, but also from the perspective of someone who seeks to live in a decent world. Some commentators have downplayed the risk of a new Cold War, while others, such as Stephen F. Cohen, insist that the US and Russia are currently engaged in the most dangerous set of relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Russia Campaign Was Multifaceted

“By their nature, Russian influence campaigns are multifaceted and designed to be deniable because they use a mix of agents of influence, cutouts, front organizations, and false-flag operations. Moscow demonstrated this during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when Russia deployed forces and advisers to eastern Ukraine and denied it publicly” (2).

Here, again, it’s important for Western audiences to realize that the US, UK and various other governments have also used “agents of influence, cutouts, front organizations and false-flag operations,” to a much greater degree, and with much greater success. That being said, the public is once again supposed to take the intelligence community’s word at face-value. The report, as noted above and admitted by those who wrote it, does not provide any specific information, evidence, sources, facts, etc.

Cyber Espionage Against US Political Organizations

According to this section, “In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016” (2). In addition, “The General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures. By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC” (2). Again, these claims are unsubstantiated.

Public Disclosure of Russian-Collected Data

This section of the report claims that Russia used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, Wikileaks and DCLeaks.com to release data about the DNC and broader US electoral process (3). The US intelligence community claims, “with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks” (3).

The remainder of this section seeks to tie RT (formerly Russia Today) to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, primarily because Assange had a program on RT (hardly a substantial relationship to the Kremlin).

Russian Propaganda Efforts

“RT and Sputnik—another government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content in a variety of languages for international audiences—consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment,” the report states (4). While this may be the most truthful portion of the report, this section still doesn’t provide any evidence showing how these efforts are directly ordered and/or coordinated by the Kremlin.

It’s unquestionable that RT consistently aired anti-Clinton propaganda and disinformation, but the question remains: to what extent, exactly, did the Kremlin play in disseminating such information? These are questions we will return to in the Annex A section which will be listed below.

Influence Effort Was Boldest Yet in the US

The report claims, “Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections” (5). Yet, the evidence is missing. This section goes on to note that Russia has learned from the success of Wikileaks and thus seeks to utilize the leaked material on a more regular basis and in a more effective manner.

Election Operation Signals “New Normal” in Russian Influence Efforts

This section claims that “Russia has sought to influence elections across Europe” (5). While this statement is most likely true, the report lacks the evidence necessary to back up such a claim. What elections? When? How? And with what intent? Those are the questions the public should ask when confronted with such claims.

ANNEX A: Kremlin’s TV Seeks To Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in US

This section primarily deals with the media entity commonly known as RT, or Russia Today:

RT America TV, a Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States, has substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties. The rapid expansion of RT’s operations and budget and recent candid statements by RT’s leadership point to the channel’s importance to the Kremlin as a messaging tool and indicate a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest. The Kremlin has committed significant resources to expanding the channel’s reach, particularly its social media footprint. A reliable UK report states that RT recently was the most-watched foreign news channel in the UK. RT America has positioned itself as a domestic US channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian Government (6).

The report claims that RT escalated its critiques of US policies just prior to the 2012 US presidential election, and added shows that were extremely critical of US political systems and “liberal democracies.” This section of the report also notes that “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham'” (6). In this case, RT is simply reporting what US media outlets should be reporting: namely, the truth.

Interestingly, this section of the report finds a way to not only badmouth Russia and Putin, but also Occupy, as the report asserts that RT aired documentaries about the Occupy movement and other “revolutionary” movements in an attempt to stir violent resistance to the US government (7).

RT Conducts Strategic Messaging for Russian Government

The report notes, “RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan recently declared that the United States itself lacks democracy and that it has ‘no moral right to teach the rest of the world’ (Kommersant, 6 November)” (7). Indeed, Simonyan is correct: the US lacks credibility. Again, in this section the US intelligence community seeks to cask Occupy in the same light as the Russian government and in some dubious way tie its actions to RT: “Simonyan has characterized RT’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement as ‘information warfare’ that is aimed at promoting popular dissatisfaction with the US Government. RT created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media. In addition, RT featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies (“Minaev Live,” 10 April; RT, 2, 12 June)” (7).

The report continues:

RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use (RT, 24, 28 October, 1-10 November).

RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse (RT, 31 October, 4 November) (7).

It’s almost as if RT is attempting to tell the American public the truth, as opposed to the sensationalist nonsense regurgitated by US media outlets on a daily/nightly basis. The fact that these sections were even incorporated in the report is a clear indication of not only who the report is meant to be read by, but also whose interests the report reflects.

This continues as the report goes on to question RT’s anti-fracking programming, as well as its programming highlighting Western military intervention in Syria (8). “In recent interviews, RT’s leadership has candidly acknowledged its mission to expand its US audience and to expose it to Kremlin messaging. However, the leadership rejected claims that RT interferes in US domestic affairs” (8). Such statements indicate that the US intelligence community isn’t only, or even primarily interested in Russian meddling in the internal affairs of the US – its primary concern is the expansion of Russian influence vis a vi social media and alternative media outlets such as RT.

RT Leadership Closely Tied to, Controlled by Kremlin

The main claim is that, “RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has close ties to top Russian Government officials, especially Presidential Administration Deputy Chief of Staff Aleksey Gromov, who reportedly manages political TV coverage in Russia and is one of the founders of RT” (9). Again, while this may be true, it’s no different than the sort of connections Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner enjoy with top US officials.

RT Focuses on Social Media, Building Audience

Like any media outlet, “RT aggressively advertises its social media accounts and has a significant and fast-growing social media footprint. In line with its efforts to present itself as anti-mainstream and to provide viewers alternative news content, RT is making its social media operations a top priority, both to avoid broadcast TV regulations and to expand its overall audience” (10).

The section notes that, “RT’s website receives at least 500,000 unique viewers every day. Since its inception in 2005, RT videos received more than 800 million views on YouTube (1 million views per day), which is the highest among news outlets [higher than CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC]” (10). Unsurprisingly, the report goes on to note that social media (commonly demonized by mainstream press and political elites) helps expand RT’s coverage, and that the Occupy Wall Street movement helped boost RT’s numbers (10).

Without question, RT is a growing media empire, with “the most rapid growth (40 percent) among all international news channels in the United States over the past year (2012)” (10). Moreover, “RT states on its website that it can reach more than 550 million people worldwide and 85 million people in the United States” (10). Clearly, the issue is RT’s influence on public opinion, not the Russian government’s actual influence on US election results.

Formal Disassociation From Kremlin Facilitates RT US Messaging

According to the report, “RT America formally disassociates itself from the Russian Government by using a Moscow-based autonomous nonprofit organization to finance its US operations” (12). The remainder of this section is, for the most part, concerned with media licensing and financing. Like most media outlets,”RT hires or makes contractual agreements with Westerners with views that fit its agenda and airs them on RT” (12).

Toward the end of the section, however, the report manages to take one more crack at activists and social movements in the US, “Some hosts and journalists do not present themselves as associated with RT when interviewing people, and many of them have affiliations to other media and activist organizations in the United States (‘Minaev Live,’ 10 April)” (12).

Conclusions

As mentioned above, this recently declassified US intelligence report tells us very little, and virtually nothing new. Any geopolitical analyst, professor, activist or conscious person already knew what the US intelligence community’s claims. The primary task of this report is to reinforce existing assumptions about Russia and Putin, and to mislead the public.

The reason I methodically went through the report is so average folks can understand what they should be thinking about when reading such reports. These reports, like legalistic language, are meant to confuse people. The average person becomes intimidated when they see a report by the CIA, FBI and NSA. My review hopes to challenge those assumptions and provide an accessible and critical review.

Vincent Emanuele writes for teleSUR English and lives in Michigan City, Indiana. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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