On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an updated report on whether or not Russia was responsible for both hacking the Democratic National Committee and aiding in the distribution of the stolen material. The report pulls no punches and argues that, in both cases, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” All of the various intelligence agencies of the United States are in agreement on this point.
Before we dive into the meat of the report, we need to define some terms and clarify exactly what the report does and does not state. It has become common, in both media reports and every day conversation, for people to refer to these allegations as Russia “hacking the election.” This is an extremely inaccurate way to refer to both the events in question and the subsequent investigation of those events. There is no evidence that Russia attempted to hack voting booths or change votes and the ODNI report released on Friday specifically states:
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.
This is an important distinction to draw, given the way partisan attitudes have colored perceptions on the reliability of the intelligence agencies’ collective claims. The ODNI, CIA, FBI, and NSA have not assessed whether or not Russia’s actions impacted the outcome of the US election. The following terms are used and defined within the ODNI report.
High confidence: Judgments based on high-quality information from multiple sources. It does not mean that the government is absolutely and 100% certain of its conclusions.
Moderate confidence: Information is credibly sourced and plausible, but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant higher classification. Based on the government’s descriptions of these criteria, corroboration from multiple sources seems to be a major component of how judgments are rated.
Low confidence: Either the information’s plausibility or credibility are uncertain. It can also mean that the evidence is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to support strong conclusions. None of the assessments in the ODNI report are rated as low confidence.
Findings and evidence:
The report’s key judgments are as follows:
- While Russia has attempted to undermine the US and other liberal democracies in the past, the events of 2016 represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”
- These efforts were ordered by Putin himself and were carried out with the goal of undermining public faith in the US electoral process, to attack Clinton in particular, and to support the election of Moscow’s preferred candidate, President-elect Trump. All of the intelligence agencies expressed high confidence in these judgments.
- That Putin and the Russian government aspired to help Trump and denigrate Clinton, and did so by publicly contrasting her unfavorably with him. The CIA and FBI have high confidence in this position, the NSA has moderate confidence.
- That data gathered by Russian military intelligence (GRU) was disseminated to the public via the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com (Guccifer 2.0 turned over documents to WikiLeaks). All of the US intelligence agencies have high confidence in this assessment. Guccifer 2.0 made conflicting statements and gave different explanations for his actions, and the US suspects multiple individuals may have collectively operated the account.
- That Russia gained access to “elements” of multiple US state and local electoral boards, but that none of these compromised elements were involved in vote tallying (this assessment appears to be solely from DHS and a confidence assessment is not given).
- That Russia chose to leak material through WikiLeaks due to its “self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.” None of the WikiLeaks disclosures appear to have been forgeries.
- That the Kremlin’s principle propaganda outlet (RT.com) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks. RT has partnered with WikiLeaks in the past; Julian Assange has been interviewed by the editor of RT, and Russian media have previously declared that RT.com was “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks. RT’s general coverage and treatment of Assange is described as “sympathetic.”
- That Russia collected information on some Republican-affiliated targets, but made no attempt to release this information or conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.
The report describes Putin as personally motivated to show the US was acting hypocritically after the high-level leak of both the Panama Papers and the Olympic doping scandal, which Russia finally admitted to last month after years of claiming no doping scandal existed. Putin reportedly blames Clinton for protests against his regime in 2011 and Russia has previously suggested that the Euromaidan movement, which toppled the regime of pro-Russian President Yanukovych, was bankrolled by the United States.
The report goes on to detail how the Russian government has made widespread use of troll accounts and waged PR campaigns against various foreign policies or governments, including its own. The use of online influence campaigns is an issue we’ve touched on before — it’s a common technique of repressive governments around the world, and can range from seeding false stories on websites that effectively function as branches of Russian propaganda (RT.com is one prominent example of this) to posters on social media and websites who show up to challenge, belittle, and generally sow FUD on any given topic. These types of campaigns have been used by China and Russia in the past, and the idea that Russia would have deployed such resources in a high-stakes election isn’t difficult to believe. In some cases, trolls accounts previously devoted to arguing in support for Russian actions in the Ukraine suddenly switched gears and began advocating for a Trump presidency as early as December 2015.
In the past few weeks, the US intelligence community has claimed the attacks were organized and ordered by Putin specifically and that they were aimed at improving Trump’s chances of winning the election. Both of these arguments are more specific than previous statements, which merely attested the hacks to Russia and noted they might have been intended to sow chaos more generally.
A solid argument — but not objective proof
The problem with the ODNI’s report is that it contains little in the way of hard proof, even when combined with earlier findings from the DHS and FBI. Members of Congress, who have received their own classified intelligence briefings, have signed on to the government’s findings. President-elect Trump received his own briefing, but has said comparatively little about it, in favor of blasting whoever leaked classified information to NBC.
The government obviously has a substantial interest in protecting its sources and agents from potential exposure that could put them in serious jeopardy. But the ODNI report has been stripped of anything that could reasonably be described as proof. The 25-page report devotes approximately six pages to discussing how RT.com serves as a tool for distributing Russian propaganda and effectively functions as the PR arm of the Russian government. Again, this is not new. When MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, the news media outside of Russia covered the disaster for what it was — a group of Russian-backed Ukrainian militants used Russian hardware to destroy an unarmed civilian plane. Inside Russia, the incident was described as a deliberate attack either by Ukrainian forces or by terrorists attempting to blame Russia (various conspiracy theories about a plane pre-loaded with corpses also made the rounds). It seems likely that the reason the report dedicates such space to describing the cozy relationship between RT and the Russian government is because it’s some of the only information the ODNI felt it could include in its assessment. If you aren’t familiar with the ways that Russian media often function as propaganda arms of the government it makes for interesting reading, but it’s not proof of Russian involvement.
It is entirely possible that the FBI, CIA, DHS, NSA, and other intelligence agencies have slam-dunk proof of Russian involvement and that they have provided this evidence in classified briefings to Congress. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, no friend to President Obama, has released his own statement, saying “Russia has a track record of working against our interests, and they clearly tried to meddle in our political system. I strongly condemn any outside interference in our elections, which we must work to prevent moving forward.”
Meanwhile, NBC reported information from a senior intelligence official claiming that top Russian officials were celebrating Donald Trump’s win in the wake of the US election, as well as claiming that the US government has identified the hackers who penetrated the DNC by name. This anonymous source stated, “Highly classified intercepts illustrate Russian government planning and direction of a multifaceted campaign by Moscow to undermine the integrity of the American political system.” Analysts who spoke to NBC described the classified version of the report as compelling to the point of convincing anyone who saw the full array of evidence, but this evidence has not been made available to the American people. President-elect Trump has called for Congress to investigate how information was leaked to NBC (pictured above), but has expressed no significant concern over the idea that Russia interfered with any facet of the US’ election.
Trump’s stance has put him at odds with other congressional Republicans as well as Democrats. Undoubtedly he’s wary about feeding any narrative that Russia might have had a hand in his election, but the attacks against the US’ political system are significant enough to deserve a bipartisan investigation. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has called for a bipartisan Congressional investigation into the hacks, in the hopes that Congress might release more information to the public. Thus far, support for the intelligence agencies’ conclusions has largely split along partisan lines. This, in our opinion, is a mistake. Tim Kaine’s description of the congressional Watergate investigation at a hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee is timely:
That small event lead to one of the most searching and momentous congressional inquiries in the history of this country. It was not partisan. … It was not an investigation because something affected the election. The 1972 presidential election was the most one-sided the modern era. But it was a high moment for Congress because Congress in a bipartisan way stood for the principle that you couldn’t take efforts to influence a presidential election and have no consequence.
It is critically important that the security of our voting systems not become another weapon in an increasingly partisan political environment. The fact that every US intelligence agency is willing to sign on to this report with high confidence in most of its conclusions is significant. It’s also meaningful that multiple Congressional Republicans have voiced significant concerns following their own classified briefings. It’s not hard to believe that Putin, a former KGB agent who has openly called for Russia to increase its international influence, would orchestrate such a campaign. But as of this writing, nothing revealed by the government rises to the level of formal proof, and the conclusions we’ve been given are vague enough that this most recent document is unlikely to change many minds. As The Intercept points out, a public bipartisan investigation that results in more information being released is important, both in terms of securing our voting system against external threats and for understanding how foreign countries might attempt to interfere in future elections.