Is the CIA, or some part of it, angry with Donald Trump? Even before the president-elect perhaps unwisely insulted the agency by citing its failures to assess correctly the status of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program, someone high up at the CIA seemed to have it in for the incoming commander-in-chief.
First, CIA director John Brennan last month publicly warned Trump not to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. Crashing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, said Brennan, would be “disastrous“—“the height of folly.” It’s hardly standard operating procedure for serving American intelligence officials to broadcast their differences with an incoming president over matters of policy.
There are also differences with Trump over protocol. U.S. officials have leaked that Trump sits for fewer intelligence briefings, typically handled by the CIA, than is customary. Trump has gotten the President’s Daily Briefing on the average of once a week since the November election.
The purpose of these two initiatives seems to be to paint the incoming president as a naïf unwilling to learn from the experience of his intellectual betters. The third pillar of the campaign is much more dangerous since it means to identify him as the dupe of a foreign government—Russia. Thus the New York Times and the Washington Post published stories late last week explaining that the intelligence community assesses with “high confidence” that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic National Committee emails in order to tip the election to Trump.
As it turns out, the intelligence community as a whole does not believe this. Earlier, this week, the Office of Director of National Intelligence said that it does not concur with this assessment, which turns out to be the product of the CIA. A Reuters article explained that the ODNI “does not dispute the CIA’s analysis of Russian hacking operations, [but] it has not endorsed their assessment because of a lack of conclusive evidence that Moscow intended to boost Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.”
ODNI said the purported CIA assessment was premised on “a thin reed.“ The fact that “Russian entities hacked both Democrats and Republicans and only the Democratic information was leaked,” does not mean the Russians were therefore promoting Trump.
As I wrote Monday, it was difficult to understand how the assessment that Moscow sought to aid in the Republican candidate’s victory was made with “high confidence.” In order to make that case, the intelligence community would need either signals intelligence or human intelligence from a trustworthy source to prove that Russian officials, perhaps even Russian president Vladimir Putin himself, intended to tip the scales to Trump. The ODNI’s dissent suggests that there was no trustworthy human source on this matter. Nor was there signals intelligence, which means the National Security Agency, responsible for collecting most of the country’s signals intelligence, also disagrees with the CIA’s assessment, as does the FBI, which requires higher standards of proof. The CIA, it seems, was out there on its own.
There are two disconcerting possibilities. The first is that some part of the agency is using a powerful American institution to compromise the president-elect and therefore the legitimacy of an American election. The second is that the relevant parties at the CIA actually believe the Russians waged an information operation against American political institutions because Vladimir Putin sought to help elect Trump.
The second scenario would suggest that the intelligence community has been reading the American press uncritically. It is here we learn that Donald Trump is singularly beholden to Putin—his affection for the Russian president is unlike anything post-Cold War America has ever seen. In reality, Trump is kicking off his first term similar to the way every president since the fall of the Berlin Wall has—Trump wants good relations with a geopolitical rival and sees no reason why we can’t get along with Moscow. I suspect the president-elect will see otherwise in due time, learning that Russia and the United States are rivals because there are many and significant points of disagreement. That’s what happened with the Obama administration.
Things seemed to be going great with the Russian “reset.” Obama felt so good about his relationship with Moscow that he told outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev to relay to Putin that he’d have “more flexibility” to deal with issues like missile defense after the 2012 presidential election. Yes, that’s right—in 2012, the president of the United States offered Moscow a specific quid pro quo: Don’t make it hard on me before my election and I’ll grease the wheels for you guys on vital issues of American national security.
So what happened to Obama and Putin’s bromance? The 2012 elections—not America’s but Russia’s. Putin was convinced that the United States was working to undermine his run for the presidency. The Russian strongman even accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of sending protestors into the street. Of course nothing of the sort happened, but the State Department, via the National Endowment for Democracy, had spent millions of dollars funding non-governmental organizations, promoting human rights, press freedom, rule of law, accountability, etc. Think of how an effort like this must look to an authoritarian leader like Putin: The United States is organizing internal opposition in order to topple your regime. In return, the Putin government drafted legislation defining NGOs as “foreign agents,” labeled the NED an “undesirable organization”, and forced it to shut down its offices in Russia.
And here we have the simplest and therefore likeliest explanation for the Russian hack of the DNC—the purpose was not to elect Trump, a detailed operation that was more likely to fail than succeed. Russia’s purpose rather was simply to exact some revenge on the secretary of state who distributed millions of dollars in what they saw as a campaign to remove Putin from power. Whether Clinton lost or won, as nearly everyone in the world expected, she’d at least have a taste of her own medicine.
So why was this likely, and obvious, motive not accounted for in the CIA’s assessment, or the over-excited reporting of journalists who’d conveniently forgotten Obama’s overtures to Putin while reporting Trump’s ostensible affection for the Russian president? The problem is only partly political, that parts of the intelligence community and large swaths of the American press are still campaigning for Clinton.
Nor is the problem solely that these vital American institutions—the intelligence community and the press—are incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of our rivals and adversaries. That is, to Putin, the American promotion of freedom looks like political subversion. No, the real problem is that we don’t truly understand the nature of our own policies. Promoting freedom in authoritarian regimes is subversive of authoritarians.
The NED was part of President Ronald Reagan’s initiative “to foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities.” It was born in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, which is to say that it was understood to be an instrument in the free world’s war against communism. In the last 30 years, that fundamental insight has been lost, and now scholars and policymakers distinguish “hard” power, like military might, from “soft” power, like democracy promotion. The Clinton team even crafted their own term for it—“smart power.”
What was not smart was the naïve conviction that democracy promotion is nothing but an innocent exercise in advancing global freedom. The Obama administration took a shot at Putin and missed. He fired back and drew blood.