I read the whole document delivered to the Senate and to the President-elect on January 5/6 2017 that describes the main intelligence agencies’ case for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It was rough going because of the document’s numbing repetitiveness. The author of the report is referred to grandly in several places as “The Intelligence Community.” I think there is no such creature. The real authors appear on p. 6 :
“This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies.” (Bolding mine.)
I find the report plausible by and large but it contains nothing (0) constituting proof or evidence. I am aware of the fact that there may be good reasons rooted in concerns for national security why evidence must not be included in the document. Yet, of course, this deprives it of credibility to a great extent. And, nothing at all could be included? Hard to believe.
The credibility of the report resides entirely, it seems to me, in the fact that the heads of three main American intelligence agencies presented a consensus of what they affirm are findings. Left with nothing else, it’s fair to try and assess the worth of this consensus.
The consensus is more than nothing but it’s not much. It’s more than nothing because the three partners are in a position to watch each other, even to suppress cheating by one of their number. (I hold firmly to the view that conspiracy is unlikely because it’s dangerous and costly. But see below.)
My reservations are as follows: First, each one of these signatories, the people under whose names the report was published, is a political appointee. I don’t deplore this fact, it’s pretty unavoidable. I don’t have a better suggestion. Yet, each of the three directors is a member of the D.C. establishment and probably (probably) shares this elite’s revulsion about Donald Trump, the person, and disbelief about his election. This does not describe a conspiracy but a shared cultural understanding which requires no consultation.
And then, the Directors’ terms are coming to an end at the new president’s whim. They may (may) be interested in future appointments, including with lobbyists. One might see them as top-ranking swamp dwellers. I am awaiting leaks from inside the three agencies to confirm or disconfirm the political appointees’ report. If there is not any in the next month, my skepticism will decrease.
One of the three, the FBI Director, gave us recently a demonstration either of intellectual corruption or of irresolution, on the occasion of his report on the Clinton’s email scandals. If memory serves, he substituted himself for the Attorney General (herself compromised) to recommend that Mrs Clinton not be prosecuted in spite of massive evidence against her. His presence in the relevant trio detracts from its collective credibility, as far as I am concerned. Other might think that he betrayed Clinton by making any public pronouncement at all on the erased emails. This interpretation of recent events would also detract from the trio’s collective credibility.
So, I must return to the intrinsic value of consensus, a topic I brushed on above. As I go there, personally, I get a strange sense of déjà vu. When I was a young man and a young scholar, every French person I knew who was anybody was some kind of Communist (Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyst, you name it), or a fellow traveler, or even to the left of the Communist Part (très chic this). It was so bad that I often stood alone denouncing the obvious crimes and failures of communism; I was ostracized, I was persecuted in my career by contributors to and supporters of the consensus. (I can think of only two honorable prominent French intellectuals never joined he consensus at all: Raymond Aron and Jan-Francois Revel.) Few of those Communists were monsters, few believed in the virtuousness of mass deportations, or of concentration camps, or of any of the other catalogued horrors. Many of those whose hostility I was then facing would readily agree now that communism was a bad mirage. They should have known better but they did not. Yet, none has apologized. “Let bygones be bygones,” they think. The fact that they are so numerous facilitates self-forgiveness.
They were all victims of a collective delusion, in spite of their intellectual credentials. For many, the delusion lasted twenty or thirty years. This personal experience induces me to assign limited value to the consensus of those who are in the know. Incidentally, I flatter myself that thanks to this same experience, I have developed a good nose for hoity-toity totalitarianism. I smell a rat here.
But those of you who are old enough can dispense with my personal views. We remember well how the US went to war and invaded Iraq in 2003 under the guise of removing Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. An even broader consensus than the one about the present report supported the view that such objects existed within Iraq. The consensus then included not only the main American intelligence agencies* but the intelligence services of several major powers.** It even included the French service although the French government was resolutely opposed to the invasion. Well, it turned out, after a dedicated thorough search that there were no weapons of mass destruction to speak of in Iraq, consensus be damned!
Annex B of the report explicates the measurement devices behind the judgment of degree of certainty expressed on diverse questions. It’s a potentially useful tool. In principle, any smart newspaper intern could go through the whole report and scores its various assertions for credibility as reported. This might lead to an overall assessment of credibility for the whole report. I think no one will bother. The major newspapers don’t care or don’t want to. The TV channels are not much better. (Fox Business, might be an exception.) Nevertheless, I credit the report authors for including this technical annex. Incidentally, Annex A spends six pages and even a graph exposing the anti-American contents of RT television channel, which no one watches. That kind of futility does not inspire confidence in the whole endeavor. It creates the impression that the authors are straining to satisfy outgoing President Obama’s wishes.
And then, finally, ignoring all my grounds for skepticism, we are left with the question of how Russia – Russia – would ever have so much traction. How would a second-rate country be able to disturb so deeply an American political process that has survived for nearly 250 years through war, civil war, economic crises, etc. ? It’s worth remembering in this context that Russia’s population is less than half the American. That it was in steep demographic decline from 1990 until last year. That it has a fragile national economy dependent on the export of oil and gas, an economy the size of California’s, or Italy’s. That Russia’s GDP per person is less than half the American. And – by the way – why wouldn’t the Russian oligarchs worry that anything they do to us, we could do to them, and much worse?
I think we have better things to do than obsess about Russian hacking. Concern about Russian military adventurism – unchecked for 8 years of Obama administration – would make more sense.
* The CIA retracted a little but that was several days after the invasion had been launched.
** Donald Rumsfeld asserts this for Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, China, France, and Germany. (“Known and Unknown: a Memoir,” p.434.)