There are many obvious reasons for skepticism about anonymous press leaks regarding Russia, but they are no match for partisan needs.
The Washington Post late Friday night published an explosive story that, in many ways, is classic American journalism of the worst sort: The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.
These unnamed sources told the Post that “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.” The anonymous officials also claim that “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails” from both the DNC and John Podesta’s email account. Critically, none of the actual evidence for these claims is disclosed; indeed, the CIA’s “secret assessment” itself remains concealed.
A second leak from last night, this one given to the New York Times, cites other anonymous officials as asserting 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 that NYT story says that “it is also 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.”
Deep down in its article, the Post notes — rather critically — that “there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered.” Most importantly, the Post adds that “intelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin ‘directing’ the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks.” But the purpose of both anonymous leaks is to finger the Russian government for these hacks, acting with the motive to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Needless to say, Democrats — still eager to make sense of their election loss and to find causes for it other than themselves — immediately declared these anonymous claims about what the CIA believes to be true, and, with a somewhat sweet, religious-type faith, treated these anonymous assertions as proof of what they wanted to believe all along: that Vladimir Putin was rooting for Donald Trump to win and Hillary Clinton to lose and used nefarious means to ensure that outcome. That Democrats are now venerating unverified, anonymous CIA leaks as sacred is par for the course for them this year, but it’s also a good indication of how confused and lost U.S. political culture has become in the wake of Trump’s victory.
Given the obvious significance of this story — it is certain to shape how people understand the 2016 election and probably foreign policy debates for months if not years to come — it is critical to keep in mind some basic facts about what is known and, more importantly, what is not known:
There is still no such evidence for any of these claims. What we have instead are assertions, disseminated by anonymous people, completely unaccompanied by any evidence, let alone proof. As a result, none of the purported evidence — still — can be publicly seen, reviewed, or discussed. Anonymous claims leaked to newspapers about what the CIA believes do not constitute proof, and certainly do not constitute reliable evidence that substitutes for actual evidence that can be reviewed. Have we really not learned this lesson yet?
A reminder to take every claim made by unnamed US officials about intelligence conclusions with healthy skepticism.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) December 10, 2016
Many of those incidents demonstrate, as hurtful as it is to accept, that these agencies even lie when there’s a Democrat overseeing the executive branch. Even in those cases when they are not deliberately lying, they are often gravely mistaken. Intelligence is not a science, and attributing hacks to specific sources is a particularly difficult task, almost impossible to carry out with precision and certainty.
Beyond that, what makes claims from anonymous sources so especially dubious is that their motives cannot be assessed. Who are the people summarizing these claims to the Washington Post? What motives do they have for skewing the assertions one way or the other? Who are the people inside the intelligence community who fully ratify these assertions and who are the ones who dissent? It’s impossible to answer any of these questions because everyone is masked by the shield of anonymity, which is why reports of this sort demand high levels of skepticism, not blind belief.
Most important of all, the more serious the claim is — and accusing a nuclear-armed power of directly and deliberately interfering in the U.S. election in order to help the winning candidate is about as serious as a claim can get — the more important it is to demand evidence before believing it. Wars have started over far less serious claims than this one. People like Lindsey Graham are already beating their chest, demanding that the U.S. do everything in its power to punish Russia and “Putin personally.”
Nobody should need an explainer about why it’s dangerous in the extreme to accept such inflammatory accusations on faith or, worse, based on the anonymous assurances of intelligence officials, in lieu of seeing the actual evidence.
Recall that the top echelon of the CIA was firmly behind Clinton and vehemently against Trump, while at least some powerful factions within the FBI had the opposite position.
Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell not only endorsed Clinton in the New York Times but claimed that “Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” George W. Bush’s CIA and NSA director, Gen. Michael Hayden, pronounced Trump a “clear and present danger” to U.S. national security and then, less than a week before the election, went to the Washington Post to warn that “Donald Trump really does sound a lot like Vladimir Putin” and said Trump is “the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.”
Meanwhile, key factions in the FBI were furious that Hillary Clinton was not criminally charged for her handling of classified information; pressured FBI Director James Comey into writing a letter that was pretty clearly harmful to Clinton about further investigating the case; and seemed to be improperly communicating with close Trump ally Rudy Giuliani. And while we are now being treated to anonymous leaks about how the CIA believes Putin helped Trump, recall that the FBI, just weeks ago, was shoveling anonymous claims to the New York Times that had the opposite goal:
One can choose to believe whatever anonymous claims from these agencies with a long history of lying and error one wants to believe, based on whatever agenda one has. Or one can wait to review the actual evidence before forming beliefs about what really happened. It should take little effort to realize that the latter option is the only rational path.
The always-observant Marcy Wheeler last night documented many of those; anyone interested in this story should read her analysis as soon as possible. I want to highlight just a few of these vital contradictions and questions.
To start with, the timing of these leaks is so striking. Even as Democrats have spent months issuing one hysterical claim after the next about Russian interference, the White House, and Obama specifically, have been very muted about all of this. Perhaps that’s because he did not want to appear partisan or be inflammatory, but perhaps it’s because he does not believe there is sufficient proof to accuse the Russian government; after all, if he really believed the Russians did even half of what Democrats claim, wouldn’t he (as some Democrats have argued) be duty-bound to take aggressive action in retaliation?
It was announced yesterday afternoon that Obama had ordered a full review of hacking allegations: a perfectly sensible step that makes clear that an investigation is needed, and evidence disclosed, before any definitive conclusions can be reached. It was right on the heels of that announcement that this CIA leak emerged: short-cutting the actual, deliberative investigative process Obama had ordered in order to lead the public to believe that all the answers were already known and, before the investigation even starts, that Russia was guilty of all charges.
More important is what the Post buries in its story: namely, what are the so-called “minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment”? How “minor” are they? And what do these conclusions really mean if, as the Post’s sources admit, the CIA is not even able to link the hack to the actual Russian government, but only to people outside the government (from the Post: “Those actors, according to the official, were ‘one step’ removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees”)?
This is why it’s such a shoddy and unreliable practice to conduct critical debates through conflicting anonymous leaks. Newspapers like the Post have the obvious incentive to hype the flashy, flamboyant claims while downplaying and burying the caveats and conflicting evidence. None of these questions can be asked, let alone answered, because the people who are making these claims are hidden and the evidence is concealed.
Contrary to the blatant straw man many Democrats are railing against, nobody ever said it was McCarthyite to want to investigate claims of Russian hacking. To the contrary, critics of Clinton supporters have been arguing for exactly that: that these accusations should not be believed in the absence of meaningful inquiry and evidence, which has thus far been lacking.
What critics have said is McCarthyite — and, as one of those critics, I fully stand by this — is the lowly tactic of accusing anyone questioning these accusations, or criticizing the Clinton campaign, of being Kremlin stooges or Putin agents. Back in August, after Democrats decided to smear Jill Stein as a Putin stooge, here’s how I defined the McCarthyite atmosphere that Democrats have deliberately cultivated this year:
So that’s the Democratic Party’s approach to the 2016 election. Those who question, criticize or are perceived to impede Hillary Clinton’s smooth, entitled path to the White House are vilified as stooges, sympathizers and/or agents of Russia: Trump, WikiLeaks, Sanders, The Intercept, Jill Stein. Other than loyal Clinton supporters, is there anyone left who is not covertly controlled by or in service to The Ruskies?
Concerns over Democrats’ McCarthyism never had anything to do with a desire for an investigation into the source of the DNC and Podesta hacking; everyone favored such investigations. Indeed, accusations that Democrats were behaving in a McCarthyite manner were predicated — and still are — on their disgusting smearing as Kremlin agents anyone who wanted evidence and proof before believing these inflammatory accusations about Russia.
To see the true face of this neo-McCarthyism, watch this amazing interview from this week with Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, one of the party’s leading Russia hawks (he’s quoted in the Post article attacking Obama for not retaliating against Putin). When Schiff is repeatedly asked by the interviewer, Tucker Carlson, for evidence to support his allegation that Putin ordered the hacking of Podesta’s emails, Schiff provides none.
What he does instead is accuse Carlson of being a Kremlin stooge and finally tells him he should put his program on RT. That — which has become very typical Democratic rhetoric — is the vile face of neo-McCarthyism that Democrats have adopted this year, and nothing in this CIA leak remotely vindicates or justifies it:
Needless to say, questions about who hacked the DNC and Podesta email accounts are serious and important ones. The answers have widespread implications on many levels. That’s all the more reason these debates should be based on publicly disclosed evidence, not competing, unverifiable anonymous leaks from professional liars inside government agencies, cheered by drooling, lost partisans anxious to embrace whatever claims make them feel good, all conducted without the slightest regard for rational faculties or evidentiary requirements.