Historical & Structural Reasons for Skepticism of CIA Claims: Remaining Agnostic on Claims of Russian Hackers
Just in time for the American weekend news cycle, last Friday evening we learned from the Washington Post that Central Intelligence Agency issued a secret report concluding that Russian hackers were responsible for hacking Democratic computers and leaking stolen documents as an effort to determine the outcome of the American presidential election. We learn that a preliminary CIA report before the election indicated concerns of Russian involvement in the hacking of DNC email accounts, a hack which produced emails embarrassing candidate Hillary Clinton and members of her staff.
The Washington Post reported that the CIA “concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.” Soon after the Post story was published, the New York Times produced its own unnamed CIA source claiming that Russian hackers had also hacked the Trump campaign’s email servers, but that the Russians chose to not leak these files because Russians backed Trump in the election.
The resulting flurry of reactions by talking heads on weekend news shows has led many Clinton supporters on social media to suggest that this anonymous CIA leak could form the basis of undermining the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. There has been an eruption of hopes that the CIA had found the desired talisman to wake us all from the nightmare of the coming Trump years. Suddenly, many on the American left now embrace notions of a CIA led coup against a rogue President-elect; with little discussion of the CIA’s long history of interfering in elections, covertly undermining candidates not of their liking. Now we have US liberals cheering for a possible CIA coup here at home.
Truth is, we know nothing about the veracity of this leaked information from the CIA. As to the truth of these reports, I remain agnostic in these matters and highly recommend others do too. While we know nothing about the truth of these reports, we know a lot about the messenger delivering this news, and what we know should give us pause before accepting news of a Russian electoral coup here at home.
As a scholar with two decades of academic research studying the CIA, I think many on the American left are letting their dire fear of the damage Trump will surely bring to not fully consider how the CIA is playing these events. Many on the American left misunderstand what the CIA is and isn’t. It isn’t some sort of right wing agency, it is an agency filled with bright people with beliefs across the mainstream political spectrum—many of the CIA’s anti-democratic coups have occurred under Democratic presidents, carried out by liberal CIA operatives; but most significantly the CIA is part of the deep state.
The CIA backs American hegemony—it is what former CIA agent Philip Agee described as “the secret police of American capitalism”; it doesn’t like instability and craze on the homefront, and as an Intelligence agency many of its employees naturally are worried about a coming president who relishes being seen as ignoring intelligence briefings and behaving erratically. While Trump has certainly shown disturbing signs of being unstable, some of the CIA’s specific worries are no doubt misplaced; I think we can assume that once installed as president, Mr. Trump will ask the CIA to produce the sort of intelligence findings he seeks, and if the history of the Agency is any guide, it will produce such reports to suit their new master. Or who knows, the tilts of President Trump’s announced cabinet may well favor a decline of the power of the Central Intelligence Agency, with a rise in the Executive’s reliance on the Defense Intelligence Agency, whose rapid rise in covert activities raises this possibility.
To understand the CIA’s anonymous “leak” claiming proof that the hacking of Clinton’s email was a Russian job, one must first come to grips with the fact that the CIA is a tool of the executive branch. This finding was the punchline of the Pike Commission’s report (the Senate’s Church Committee, mistakenly concluding the agency was a rogue elephant) back in 1976, and has remained true from Sept. 18, 1947 until today. If you are new to the idea of fake news (because you somehow missed Judith Miller’s years of war mongering at the New York Times), then you probably need to get up to speed on the long history of the CIA’s role in cooking intelligence reports to align with presidential policy.
The CIA is no doubt as displeased with the outcome of the election as their current President is, as I am, as most of the rest of the world is. But cherry picking anonymous leaks about a rumored CIA report supposedly claiming to have proof of a Russian hack to call for Trump’s electoral votes to not be counted is a dangerous stance. It betrays a fundamental distrust of democracy, and places a dangerous amount of faith in letting the CIA determine electoral outcomes. If history teaches us anything about the CIA, it is that its analysis cannot be trusted when they are the sole possessors of intelligence, especially when this analysis aligns with the desires of the President it serves.
Again, I have no idea whether or not Russia was behind the hack of Clinton’s email. What I do know is that accepting the CIA’s word on this is dangerous foolishness. I’ve read Thomas Rid’s excellent Esquire piece, laying out arguments for the Russian hack, much of what he writes makes a good case for the Russian job; but as one who has worked on untangling some historical mysteries of the CIA, untangling the partial threads of clues remaining from the hack raises inevitable questions about which of these are accidentally left behind and which are planted; questions which rapidly lead to a familiar wilderness of mirrors which collapses into more questions than certainties.
Reports of Mitch McConnell and others in the senate’s pre-election silence after learning of the CIA’s claim that it was a Russian hack are disturbing; McConnell’s silence is disturbing as he and his family appear as recipients of an apparent political favor. But what of the silence of the White House and the Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee? Why did they also remain silent? A question with increased significance after the FBI director tried to take down Clinton. We don’t know why President Obama remained silent on this, but we can speculate that the CIA report he saw at the time presented all possibilities, including the possibility that the hack was carried out by a small cell of independent hackers, or other non-Russian actors. After the fact, it becomes convenient to blame Putin for Clinton’s many shortcomings as a candidate. Maybe Russia leaked the documents, maybe they didn’t, but we know who would have done this in a Russian election—because they’ve helped try and throw plenty of foreign elections to elect right wing goons: the Central Intelligence Agency.
We do know that Obama has to be thinking about what remains of a crushed Democratic Party, and this may have influenced the timing of Friday’s CIA leak; or maybe there really is good CIA evidence of Russian involvement; we just don’t know. What we do know is that the CIA has a sordid history of being an unreliable source in these politically seeped issues. There obviously are some clues relating to the hack, and I would assume that the NSA is the source of the best clues, but given the large questions surrounding a CIA investigation, we’d be much better off having staff researchers at Government Accounting Office sifting through the evidence and extant reports; letting the CIA go further with any of this creates real problems of trust.
We need to see the CIA’s report. But we also need to see the CIA’s Red Team report that uses the same data as the main report, but argues against Russians as the hackers destined to undermine the Clinton campaign; but I doubt this minority report will see the light of day under Obama, but it may well be leaked under Trump. That’s how the intelligence game is played.
It strains credulity for the CIA to complain about a foreign intelligence operation undermining fair democratic elections; this has been their business around the world, from its early days helping throw elections in post-war Europe to Cold War campaigns in Central and South America. The CIA’s own history of electoral shenanigans makes them an untrustworthy character in this drama.
Maybe our overbearing security state has left us with a few limited choices: one where we let the FBI use discretionary investigative innuendo to undermine the election of Clinton, or one where we let the CIA, ex-post-facto, undermine the legitimacy of a Trump Presidency. Though if the key hacking evidence is held by the NSA, they will be the intelligence agency holding all the Trump cards.