“Top Republicans must reject the ridiculous notion that a national election can be ‘rigged,’ ” the New York Times demanded in an Oct. 18 editorial. That was then, this is now: “[President-elect] Trump should be leading the call for a thorough investigation, since it would be the only way to remove this darkening cloud from his presidency. Failing to resolve the questions about Russia would feed suspicion among millions of Americans that a dominant theme of his candidacy turned out to be true: The election was indeed rigged.”
What occasioned the turnabout was the report Friday, first in the Washington Post and then in the Times, that, as the Post puts it, “the CIA has 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, according to officials briefed on the matter.”
The claim that Russia was behind the hacking of email accounts belonging to the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, isn’t new. It was well-aired during the campaign. On Oct. 19 a CNN.com report sought to reassure a public “understandably concerned about the integrity of next month’s election”: “Election officials and cyber experts say it’s virtually impossible for Moscow or some other outside group to influence the election outcome.”
Like the Times, CNN seems to have experienced a dramatic change of attitude. Yesterday on “Reliable Sources,” during a discussion of the Russia news, host Brian Stelter posed this question to Politico’s Julia Ioffe: “Julia, we’re talking about a candidate who has lost in a historic way in terms of the popular vote but clearly won in the Electoral College. Is this something of a national emergency? And are journalists afraid to say so because they’re going to sound partisan?” (The Media Research Center’s Brian Baker has video.)
Ioffe answered that “it does feel like we’re on the verge of something potentially awful,” what with the “chaos sower in chief undermining the validity of intelligence reports, undermining the work of the press, of various government institutions, democratic institutions.” She noted that “we’ve been reporting on this all along . . . but A, people aren’t listening and, B, [they] don’t believe us.”
Could there be a good reason for that? When Mrs. Clinton’s victory seemed certain, media organizations were demanding that Americans accept the election’s legitimacy. Now that Trump has won, those same media organizations are actively trying to undermine it. The inconsistency is glaring, but so is the consistency: Many in the media not only sound partisan, as Stelter suggested in framing his (partisan) question; they manifestly are partisan.
As for the Friday reports, they are confusing and inconsistent. The Post is unequivocal in attributing to the CIA the view that the Russians were trying to help the GOP nominee; it quotes an unnamed “senior U.S. official”: “It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected. That’s the consensus view.”
But according to the Times, it is “far from clear that Russia’s original intent was to support Mr. Trump, and many intelligence officials—and former officials in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign—believe that the primary motive of the Russians was to simply disrupt the campaign and undercut confidence in the integrity of the vote.
The Times also reports that intelligence agencies reached with “high confidence” the conclusion “that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.” But RNC officials “have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked.”
It may just be that the Democrats’ emails were juicier. The Times reports that a site called DCLeaks posted “a collection of more than 200 emails of Republican officials and activists,” but they “have drawn little attention because most are routine business emails.” One of the GOP hacking victims, Chicago venture capitalist Peter W. Smith, told the Times: “I try in my communications, quite frankly, not to say anything that would be embarrassing if made public.” Podesta and some of the other Democrats were not as careful.
Another Post report notes that the FBI isn’t “on the same page” with the CIA. In a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing last week, the FBI was “fuzzy” and “ambiguous,” according to one unnamed official in attendance, whereas the CIA was “direct and bald and unqualified” in asserting the Russians were plumping for Trump. Part of the explanation:
The competing messages, according to officials in attendance, . . . reflect cultural differences between the FBI and the CIA. The bureau, true to its law enforcement roots, wants facts and tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt. The CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior.
“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards—can we prove this in court,” one of the officials said. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”
This columnist does not have sufficient intelligence to form a firm opinion as to whether the FBI is too cautious in its conclusions or the CIA is reckless in its. We would observe, however, that broadly speaking, those who side with the CIA approach here are the same people who favor the FBI method when it comes to foreign terrorists—i.e., treating them as criminal suspects entitled to due-process protections, including the benefit of any reasonable doubt.
Two additional points. First, the Post describes the CIA’s report as “secret.” So how is it that everyone knows about it? The answer, obviously, is that officials who were privy to the secrets improperly provided them to the press. (Here we should note that we do not fault the Post or the Times for having published the information they received, and that we would have done the same.)
Second, according to the Times report, even if the Russians were trying to help Trump, they didn’t expect to be successful:
The Russians were as surprised as everyone else at Mr. Trump’s victory, intelligence officials said. Had Mrs. Clinton won, they believe, emails stolen from the Democratic committee and from senior members of her campaign could have been used to undercut her legitimacy.
So American officials made secret information public with the effect—and, one may surmise, the intent—of raising questions about the legitimacy of President-elect Trump. That’s exactly what they accuse the Russians of having planned to do to Mrs. Clinton.