Skip to main content
What Game Is Russia Playing?
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L),Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller (2nd L) and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (3rd L) at the gas compressor station 'Portovaya' outside Vyborg, September 6, 2011. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

What Game Is Russia Playing?

Lee Smith

Reports Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump have sown precisely the kind of confusion that American adversaries must have hoped for with their actions. In an effort to reach some sort of clarity, let’s break the matter down into two separate questions—Was it Russia that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers? Did the culprits hack the servers in order to secure a Trump victory?

Of course it’s vital to defend our political institutions against cyber-attacks, which should perhaps be best understood as military campaigns. As House Speaker Paul Ryan explained in a statement released earlier today, “any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable. And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”

Some commentators have argued there’s no evidence Russia is behind the attack, and that the New York Times and Washington Post articles that broke the story Friday have failed to make a convincing case. The sources in the two articles are anonymous and described not as members of the intelligence community, but as senior U.S. officials, or senior administration officials who were briefed on the matter.

As far as the first question, it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to believe that Moscow is behind the hack. Russia has a long history of interfering in the political processes of foreign countries, especially throughout Europe where it has reportedly supported various parties, left and right, and has funded France’s National Front and perhaps other parties as well. The American intelligence community has believed for some time now that Moscow was responsible for the DNC hacks but, as the Post reports, was “cautious for months in characterizing Russia’s motivations, reflecting the United States’ long-standing struggle to collect reliable intelligence on President Vladimir Putin and those closest to him.”

So what changed? Or, to move to the second issue, how is it that, according to the Post and the Times, the intelligence community now believes Russia was trying to get Trump elected? The problem with the assessment is not just in collecting intelligence on targets like Putin but is rather about the nature of information operations. These are blunt instruments. Competent intelligence services know not to task information operations with too much detail because they take on a life of their own regardless of what their authors intended. For instance, if the purpose of leaking Clinton’s emails was to embarrass her and throw the presidency to Trump, the follow-on effect has served the opposite purpose.

Much of the U.S. media now operates under the assumption that Trump’s favorable statements about Putin signal that the president-elect is uniquely Moscow friendly. Unlike every other American president who has come to office since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Trump does not simply desire a “reset” with Moscow, but is singularly eager to partner with the Russians. But here’s the sticking point: If the Kremlin wanted Trump in the White House as a patsy, then the interference of a foreign power in boosting his victory compromises the legitimacy of his presidency and will limit his ability to work with Russia by raising the suspicion of Democrats as well as Republicans. If the hack and leak helped elect Trump, it has also served to discredit him in key corners of the American political system.

That is, if the Post and Times reports are to be believed, Russia’s information operation to empower the Republican candidate at the expense of Clinton is a failure of the first order, and we can soon expect to see heads rolling in Moscow. No, it is more likely that the U.S. intelligence community’s earlier assessment, that Russian hacking was intended to sow general confusion in the American political process, is the more logical interpretation of Russian actions.

But let’s play along for a moment—let’s imagine that Russian intelligence services are incompetent and unserious institutions that do not understand how information operations may backfire. What did the American intelligence community learn in the last few months that has led it to change it previous assessment? Or how is it, as one source told the New York Times, that American intelligence have now “concluded with ‘high confidence’ that Russia acted” covertly to promote Donald J. Trump.

“High confidence”, “moderate confidence”, and “low confidence” are technical terms the intelligence community uses to rate its assessments. “High confidence,” according to this somewhat useful primer, “means the intelligence community generally thinks a judgment is based on high-quality information or that the issue is one that allows for a solid judgment.”

These terms describe the quality of a judgment, not levels of truthfulness. “High confidence” doesn’t mean that something is true, just as “low confidence” does not mean that something is false. For instance, former CIA director Michael Hayden told President George W. Bush that the Al Kibar facility in Syria that Israel bombed in 2007 was “part of a nuclear weapon program.” However, he explained that he had “low confidence” in that assessment. Why? Because, as he wrote in 2011, the CIA “could not identify the other essentials of a weapons program (a reprocessing plant, work on a warhead, etc.), we cautiously characterized this finding as ‘low confidence.’”

That is, the CIA knew the Syrian regime had a nuclear weapons program but its evidence for proving its case did not meet the standards for rating an assessment with “high confidence.” To assess with “high confidence” that Russia worked to elect Trump community must indicate U.S. intelligence has a lot of solid evidence. Perhaps there is signals intelligence showing how senior officials or Putin himself said or wrote that efforts should be directed to getting Trump elected. Maybe a high-level source walked into the CIA to provide human intelligence on Putin’s gambit.

However, that seems unlikely. As the Post reports, “intelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin ‘directing’ the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said.” So if American intelligence has no “specific intelligence” on that matter, how does it rate with “high confidence” that Putin wanted Trump as the commander-in-chief?

Because, one source told the Times, Russia “‘hacked the D.N.C. and the [Republican National Committee] and conspicuously released no documents’ from the Republican organization.”

Is this really the evidence on which the intelligence community has based a “high confidence” assessment? Unless it has radically changed its standards, evidence based on nothing but inference should not merit a finding of “high confidence” that Putin tilted the election for Trump. That’s not evidence, it’s barely conjecture.

Maybe the Post and Times just confused the two issues—one, who is responsible for the D.N.C. hack, which would not be difficult to assess, and two, the intention behind the attack, which would be much more difficult to assess.

In any case, someone has some explaining to do—either the intelligence community or the Washington Post and the New York Times, or some combination thereof. Because what it looks like right now is much worse than a Russian information operation—it appears that at least one American institution is intent on compromising the legitimacy of a government elected by the American people.

Related Articles

Transcript: Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick on America's Foreign Assistance Leadership

Blaise Misztal

Following is the full transcript of the May 21st, 2020 Hudson online livestream event titled Bonnie Glick on America's Foreign Assistance Leadership...

Continue Reading

The World Waits Out Trump

Walter Russell Mead

As a beleaguered Trump administration struggles with an unprecedented surge of domestic challenges, foreign leaders friendly and otherwise are recalib...

Continue Reading

India Is a Natural U.S. Ally in the New Cold War

Walter Russell Mead

It’s been an interesting week in India. A heat wave took temperatures up to 117 degrees in the sweltering north. An earthquake shook the northeaster...

Continue Reading