Anonymous Leaks to the WaPo About the CIA’s Russia Beliefs Are No Substitute for Evidence
Glenn Greenwald, Intercept, Dec 10 2016
Late on Friday night, the WaPo published an explosive story that in many ways is classic Pindosi journalism of the worst sort. The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous boxtops 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 WaPo:
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 Pindosi electoral system. Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails (from both DNC and Podesta).
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 NYT, cites other anonymous officials as asserting:
The Russians hacked the RNC computer systems in addition to their attacks on DNC + Podesta, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks. It is far from clear that Russia’s original intent was to support Trump. Many intel boxtops and former boxtops in 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 WaPo notes rather critically:
There were minor disagreements among intel boxtops about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered…. Intel agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin ‘directing’ the identified individuals to pass the DNC + Podesta 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 Putin was rooting for Trump to win and 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 Pindo political culture has become in the wake of Trump’s victory. Given the obvious significance of this story, which 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:
1. Nobody has ever opposed investigations to determine if Russia hacked these emails, nor has anyone ever denied the possibility that Russia did that. The source of contention has been quite simple. No accusations should be accepted until there is actual convincing evidence to substantiate them. There is still no such evidence for any of these claims. What we have instead is assertions disseminated by anonymous people, completely unaccompanied by any evidence, let alone proof. As a result, still, none of the purported evidence 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?
2. The reasons no rational person should blindly believe anonymous claims of this sort, even if it is pleasing to believe such claims, should be obvious by now. To begin with, CIA boxtops are professional, systematic liars. They lie constantly, by design and with great skill,, and they have done for many decades, as have intel boxtops in other agencies.
As hurtful as it is to accept, many of those incidents demonstrate 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 WaPo? What motives do they have for skewing the assertions one way or the other? Who are the people inside the intel 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, the more important it is to demand evidence before believing it. Accusing a nuclear-armed power of directly and deliberately interfering in the Pindosi election in order to help the winning candidate is about as serious as a claim can get. Wars have started over far less serious claims than this one. People like Lindsey Graham are already beating their chests demanding that Pindostan 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.
3. Quite clearly, an important part of this story is inter-agency feuding, at the very least, between the CIA and the FBI. 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 DCI Michael Morell not only endorsed Clinton in the NYT but claimed:
Mr Putin had recruited Mr Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.
Donald Trump really does sound a lot like Vladimir Putin … 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 was not criminally charged for her handling of classified information. They pressured FBI Director 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 Giuliani. And while we are now being treated to anonymous leaks about how the CIA believes Putin helped Trump, recall that just weeks ago, the FBI was shovelling anonymous claims to the NYT 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.
4. Even just within the leaks of the last 24 hours, there are multiple grounds of confusion, contradictions and uncertainty. 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 another about Russian interference, the White House and Obama specifically have been very muted about all of this. Perhaps that’s because Obama 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 the Democrats claim, wouldn’t he 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 needs to be 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 WaPo buries in its story: namely, what are the so-called “minor disagreements among intel boxtops about the agency’s assessment”? How “minor” are they? And what do these conclusions really mean if, as the sources admit, the CIA is not even able to link the hack to the actual Russian government but only to people outside the government:
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 WaPo 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.
5. Contrary to the declarations of self-vindication by supremely smug Democrats, none of this even relates to, let alone negates, the concerns over their own McCarthyite election-year behavior and tactics. Contrary to the blatant strawman argument 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 the Democrats decided to smear Jill Stein as a Putin stooge, here’s how I defined the McCarthyite atmosphere the Democrats have deliberately cultivated this year:
So that’s the Democrat 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 hackings. Everyone favored such investigations. Indeed, accusations that Democrats were behaving in a McCarthyite manner were and still are predicated on their disgusting smearing of anyone who wanted evidence and proof before believing these inflammatory accusations about Russia, as Kremlin agents. To see the true face of this neo-McCarthyism, watch this amazing interview from this week with Democrat Congress crittur Adam Schiff, one of the party’s leading Russia hawks. He’s quoted in the WaPo article attacking Obama for not retaliating against Putin. When Schiff is repeatedly asked by Tucker Carlson, the interviewer, 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, He finally tells him he should put his program on RT. That has become very typical Democrat rhetoric. It’s 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.