A newly-out memo containing the Obama admin’s talking points about “Russian hacking” in the 2016 election reveals how US spy agencies attributed email leaks to Kremlin by saying it’s “consistent” with what they think Russia does.
The seven-page document was contained within the 49 pages published on Friday by BuzzFeed, which obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in late October. At the root of it is a November 29 letter by several Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, asking then-President Barack Obama to declassify documents concerning “Russian Active Measures.”
The claim that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections – by first hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta, and then releasing them through DCLeaks, WikiLeaks and the hacker known as “Guccifer 2.0” – was all the rage in Washington at the time, as Democrats sought to explain the fact that Clinton just lost to Donald Trump.
Obama did not declassify the documents. Instead, he apparently instructed DNI James Clapper to respond to the senators. Moving at the speed of government, the ODNI responded on January 27 – a week after Trump’s inauguration – saying that their inquiry resulted in the January 6 release of the intelligence community assessment (ICA) on “Russian activities and intentions.”
This ended up as the infamous report making all sorts of claims and accusations but offering no evidence – and prominently featuring an annex about RT dating back from 2012.
The talking points memo sent by ODNI to the Senate Democrats has not been previously published. Reading through it, one is struck by the circular reasoning of the US “intelligence community” – or rather, Clapper’s hand-picked group of CIA, FBI and NSA people charged with coming up with the assessment.
The US intelligence community is “confident” that the Russian government was behind the “compromises” of emails, because their release is “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the talking points say. In other words, this fits what US spies believe are Russian objectives, therefore it had to be the Kremlin doing it!
“We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” the memo goes on to say. Again, inference based on assumption, not evidence.
Blaming Russia for the hack of the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCC) was based on “the forensic evidence identified by a private cyber-firm” – meaning CyberStrike, a DNC contractor led by Atlantic Council fellow Dmitry Alperovich – and the spies “own review and understanding of cyber activities by the Russian Government.”
In plain English, the evidence CrowdStrike gave the intelligence community fit its preconceived notions about Russian cyber operations, which sounds quite convenient.
Remember the accusations that several state election systems were also “hacked” by the Russians? Here is the ODNI, saying that they “are not definitively attributing the intrusions into state elections systems to the Russian Government.” But “the fact that they are consistent with Russian motivations and intent behind the DNC and DCCC intrusions, strongly suggests that Russia is responsible.”
Answering its own question whether Russia is trying to alter the outcome of the election, the ODNI says: “The Kremlin probably expects that publicity surrounding the disclosures will raise questions about the integrity of the election process and would undermine the legitimacy of the President-elect.”
At this point, any TV legal drama would have a charming courtroom lawyer shout out “Objection, speculation!” Except that passage is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t the disclosures of Democrat emails, however, that sowed doubts about the legitimacy of US elections, but rather the absurd conspiracy theory about Trump’s “collusion” with the Kremlin and “Russian hacking,” which the ODNI memo reveals was based on nothing more than the spies wanting to believe it was true.
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