Is There Really a Spook Consensus About Russian Meddling?

The lesson of Iraq: Don’t be so quick to dismiss “minor disagreements.”

Putin / Clinton
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 8, 2012.

Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday afternoon, the White House made a vague announcement that it had ordered an intelligence review of election-related hacking, to be completed before President Obama leaves office. The review will focus on the hacks of Democratic organizations this year, which the intelligence community has formally blamed on Russia, but it would also look back at hacks targeting candidates in 2008 and 2012.

That announcement set off a flood of leaks that reveal that people have been fighting about how to treat the Russian hacks since at least September.

By the end of the day Friday, thanks to the anonymous leaks, we already knew the likely conclusion of a review that hadn’t even happened: Russia had hacked targets associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Washington Post reported, relying on anonymous sources familiar with some CIA briefings to the Senate, “to help Donald Trump win the presidency.” Russia’s goal of helping Trump was “quite clear,” said those anonymous leaks.

But how clear? The story itself was muddled on this point, and the unresolved questions reminded me of another time anonymous sources touted intelligence that was supposedly quite clear—when claims about aluminum tubes helped get us into the Iraq war.

That Russia hacked Clinton to elect Trump was now “the consensus view,” a source quoted in the Washington Post story claimed. Consensus is a term the intelligence community uses to describe a belief with which everyone agrees. But a few paragraphs later, some doubt about that claim of consensus had appeared. A “senior U.S. official” described “minor disagreements … in part because some questions remain unanswered.” The CIA’s belief that Russia affirmatively supported Trump “fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies.” In spook-speak, claiming something is a consensus view while admitting disagreements is a contradiction, which suggests the story was nowhere near as settled as some of the Post’s sources made out. That view was all the more curious in that the story by all indications was told through the perspective of senators—“senior U.S. officials” in newspaper cloak-and-daggerese—who’d been briefed by the CIA.

Even with the hints of disagreement, the story about the CIA’s new assessments not only pushed a certain conclusion for the president’s review; it also raised the urgency surrounding it, with people, including some presidential electors, even demanding that it be completed before electors finalize the election on Dec. 19.

On Saturday, a flood of follow-up leaks made it clear what some of the doubts were about the “consensus” view. There were different opinions about Russia’s motive: Russia intervened to undermine confidence in our elections, which is what the public explanation has been since the summer. There was no one reason Russia intervened. Russia intervened to affirmatively support Trump.

There were different opinions about the quality of evidence. The CIA believed the case was solid, going off inferences presumably based on past Russian operations in Europe. The FBI believed it lacked the kind of evidence it would need to prosecute such a case.

There were even curious details suggesting that the CIA’s new conclusion wasn’t based off any new intelligence. Rather it reflected new analysis done on previously collected intelligence, analysis conducted after Clinton had lost the election and President-elect Trump had publicly dismissed the CIA’s intelligence.

Oddly, no intelligence community–sourced leaks thus far have backed the most obvious explanation, one that has been publicly offered by former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and by former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden. Both have suggested that Russia hacked Clinton in retaliation for what Vladimir Putin considers similar attacks on Russia and its interests. Those attacks might include the 2011 election protests in Russia, which Putin has claimed were incited by Clinton’s criticisms; the 2011 U.S.-backed regime change in Libya; covert action starting in 2012 to help CIA-backed “moderate rebels” oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria; and the 2014 ouster of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine.

The CIA might have reason to want to avoid the conclusion that Putin approved a covert operation targeting the former secretary of state in retaliation for either confirmed (Libya and Syria) or Putin-claimed (Russia and Ukraine) covert agency operations against Russian interests. Among other things it might raise questions here about the wisdom of those covert operations in the first place.

Amid this flood of leaks, we did learn a few new details, in addition to the CIA’s new gloss on existing intelligence. The agency has now apparently filled in what had been a missing piece of the puzzle: the identities of the people tied to but not employed by the Russian government who delivered the hacked files from the hackers to WikiLeaks to release in bulk. (Unsurprisingly, these identities were not revealed.) One reason the CIA believes Russia wanted Trump to win, said one story, is that it didn’t leak materials hacked from Republican servers. (The Republicans insist the Republican National Committee was not hacked, though it’s not clear how they could be certain of such a thing.) The CIA also “identified individual Russian officials they believe were responsible.”

Some of us watching these leaks accumulate are left with a grim historical echo—one emphasized by CIA sources in still another article. On Friday, the president called for a formal assessment. That assessment would lay out the evidence supporting the various claims from different agencies. It might produce footnotes where agencies record more formal objections to an otherwise consensus claim. The general public learned about this intelligence review process once before. In the years following the Iraq war, serial intelligence reports disclosed details of the National Intelligence Estimate that had been provided before Congress authorized the Iraq invasion. Later, when it was too late to matter, reports revealed that some analysts had objected to key claims made to support the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In particular, while most agencies agreed that aluminum tubes Saddam Hussein had purchased were intended for a nuclear enrichment program, the Department of Energy, a key player in intelligence on nuclear weapons, believed they were intended for rocket motors. At a time when agencies were still fighting it out, someone leaked to the New York Times. “American officials believe,” the Times wrote, that the tubes “were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice then pointed to the story in an interview with CNN: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she said. Those anonymous leaks about what the intelligence community believed pre-empted a real assessment of the intelligence.

If Congress had paid more attention in 2002 to the reasons some analysts weren’t convinced about the aluminum tubes, to those nagging unreconciled questions, the U.S. might have waited longer before starting a war, perhaps even avoided war altogether. Today, the lesson of Iraq demands real scrutiny for these competing claims and disagreements about Russia.