A message for establishment Democrats: Stop politicizing U.S. intelligence
By Kent R. Kroeger (February 27 ,2020)
The evidence is indisputable. There is no subtle way to say this: The establishment wing of the Democratic Party and the anti-Trump news media, by politicizing U.S. intelligence community (USIC) analyses, are unwittingly working in the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How else can you explain the February 20th and 21st New York Times articles alleging the Russians are working to help the presidential campaigns of President Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT)?
I say ‘alleging’ because the New York Times offers no detailed evidence showing the Russians are again interfering in our presidential election. Instead, they quote anonymous sources with direct knowledge of a U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) February briefing U.S. House committee members on the subject of Russian activities in advance of the 2020 election.
This paragraph from the February 20th article summarizes the basic evidence marshaled by the Times:
“In a February 13 briefing, intelligence officials warned House lawmakers that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get Trump re-elected, five people familiar with the matter said.”
After three years of biased and sloppy reporting on the Trump-Russia collusion story (Russiagate), Sanders Democrats and Trump Republicans can be forgiven if they are skeptical of this new reporting by the Times. Some Trump and Sanders defenders have even suggested the USIC, news media, and establishment Democrats are running an on-going influence operation meant to discredit Trump and Sanders — both viewed by many within the D.C. establishment as palpable threats to the political status quo.
As tempting as it is to jump on that bandwagon, it presumes an unprecedented level of dishonesty by the USIC and establishment Democrats. Are the sources for this Times story — probably Democratic House members or staff — actually lying? I doubt it. Were the USIC briefers lying when they suggested intelligence showed the Russians are meddling in another U.S. presidential election? Even less likely. Was the raw intelligence itself in error, perhaps part of an elaborate Russian denial and deception (D&D) effort? Always a possibility, but still unlikely.
If we assume USIC analysts and House Democrats aren’t lying about new Russian interference — and I don’t think they are — the Times story has powerful implications: We can’t trust any information we see or hear on social media (or any information platform) supportive of Trump and Sanders or negative information towards their opponents.
That conclusion is particularly convenient for establishment Democrats trying to regain the presidency by means of any Democrat not named ‘Bernie’ — a bit too convenient, for my comfort level.
Something deceptive is probably going on in the Times story about 2020 Russian election meddling, but this deception does not require labeling USIC analysts, House members or the news media liars.
Instead, it requires an acknowledgement that, for all the effort the intelligence community puts into minimizing the influence of partisan politics on its work products, it is nearly impossible to completely separate politics from intelligence analysis.
Beyond that, USIC analysts must also contend with the many cognitive biases that may prejudice their conclusions. And if that wasn’t enough, we also have adversaries (like the Russians) who can employ sophisticated denial and deception (D&D) techniques meant to deceive USIC analysts.
In my almost five years working within the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Office of the Inspector General (DIA-OIG), I studied numerous intelligence failures — the 9/11 attacks, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, 1973 Yom Kippur War, 2000 U.S.S. Cole attack, 1993 World Trade Center attack, etc. — and the after-action-reports (AARs) describing those analytic breakdowns.
There were three factors common to these failures: (1) various forms of confirmation bias (i.e., the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories), (2) the ability of our adversaries to disguise their intentions and (3) political pressure.
The first two factors can be overcome with training. The third, not so much.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Intelligence analysts don’t lie. And, generally, our intelligence agencies do not lie to Congress or the President.
[My Trump-voting friends and anyone that remembers the George W. Bush administration are jumping out of their seats about now. Their disagreement is duly noted. I do consider the last three years an outlier, however. And the Iraq WMD failure was not predicated on lies, but on bad analytic tradecraft and political pressure. We can argue these points at different time.]
In my own study of U.S. intelligence failures, I didn’t see lying. I did see numerous times when the significance of narrowly-defined intelligence findings (i.e., person X did A, B and C) were inflated to fit some larger, preexisting narrative — usually a political narrative being advanced by the president’s administration at the time (e.g., the Iraqis have an active WMD program). Analytic leaps of convenience, I call them.
The underlying intelligence wasn’t necessarily wrong (though that happened too). More frequently, it was the interpretation of the intelligence — often by political appointees or senior intelligence officers — where the analyses went off the tracks. Intelligence analysis is particularly vulnerable when the raw intelligence fails to provide the full context behind the analytic interpretations.
Let us use the Times story on alleged new Russian election meddling as our example.
Almost since Facebook’s inception in February 2004, the world’s intelligence agencies have used the social media platform as a virtual playground for their intelligence activities, such as intelligence collection and influence operations. The same is also true for Twitter and Instagram.
It also must be remembered that these are open platforms — open to everyone, including Russian, Chinese, Israeli, British, Iranian and U.S. (etc.) intelligence operatives. These operatives are breaking no law by spreading disinformation within and across these platforms.
Today, over 13 million Russians use Facebook. Undoubtedly, some of those accounts are associated with Russian intelligence (FSB, GRU). I’d be shocked if the Russians weren’t exploiting these platforms. And, of course, Russian operatives are more than capable of opening Facebook or Twitter accounts from anywhere in the world. It is not hard for intelligence services to disguise their activities on social media platforms.
What makes the Times story on Russian meddling limited in value is that it offers no context by which to judge the story’s importance.
Did Russian operatives post one pro-Trump meme? Or two hundred? Did their bot-amplified Tweets reach a thousand people? Or a million?
Without context and detail, saying the Russians are trying to help Trump and Sanders in the 2020 election is pointless and probably counterproductive. If anything, the popularity of Trump and Sanders may go up because of these smears. [Americans don’t like to be told they are easily duped.]
Worse, leaking such a nebulous summary of U.S. intelligence — as was done for the Times article — merely empowers the Russian effort to sow division among Americans. By not offering specific characteristics of the Russian disinformation campaign, The Times gives readers no ability at least mitigate some of the Russian meddling.
The intelligence leaks supporting the Times story was for partisan political gain. Nothing else.
I cannot imagine a more reckless use of USIC work products — and the damage to the integrity of the USIC may be immeasurable. We may someday be to the point where the Republicans will have their intelligence analysts and the Democrats their own. If that day comes, for all intents and purposes, U.S. intelligence will be nothing more than an extension of the two parties.
For the sake of future U.S. elections, this misuse of U.S. intelligence must stop. And the source of this problem is not the Russians or Trump. The crime against the U.S. electoral system is being perpetrated by the Democratic Party establishment. It’s not treason, but its pretty damn ugly.
If voters reward this partisan faction at the voting booth in the Democratic primaries and in the general election, we will see this negligent use of USIC intelligence products only get worse.
Frankly, the Democratic Party establishment deserves a Trump versus Sanders election. Through their implying pro-Trump and pro-Sanders content on social media is potentially tainted by the Russians, the establishment Democrats are not just politicizing U.S. intelligence, they are doing tremendous damage to the American political system.
There is a reason the public’s respect for the news media hovers near all-time lows, according to the Gallup Poll. After years of the anti-Trump media (including the Times and Washington Post) publishing thinly-sourced stories insinuating the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russians in 2016, Robert Mueller’s investigation found no grounds for conspiracy indictments against anyone associated with the Trump campaign.
But how does Trump or any person tainted by the new media’s deeply-flawed reporting on Russiagate regain their reputation? After three years of saying every day that Trump was a Russian agent, the feeble, half-hearted coverage of his exoneration barely lasted a week.
As things stand today, at best, our electoral system is too partisan to be as functional as we need it. At worst, it is doing significant harm to the political consensus originally forged by the Founding Fathers over 200 years ago.
And now we have a new wave of the news media declaring The Russians are coming!; and, like Russiagate, the news stories are richly populated with anonymous sources but sparse in their useful details — filled more with speculation than relevant facts.
The American people do need to know the scope and intensity of the alleged Russian election interference. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the news media, our politicians, or our intelligence services to the extent we need them if we are to understand these activities.
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