Does the CIA Believe Russia Influenced U.S. Elections?
tl;dr It's unclear. Even if they do, it's not the opinion of every U.S. intelligence agency.
The Washington Post, not necessarily a bastion of quality journalism these days, recently posted an article with an extraordinary claim as a headline: "Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House"!
If you read through the article, that's not quite what happened. The headline is (unsurprisingly) sensationalized.
CIA agents supposedly held a secret meeting with some members of Congress about a secret report on alleged Russian interference with the U.S. election. Agents were said to have potentially "identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others." Those individuals are not employed by the Russian government and may not have direct ties to the Kremlin. The CIA further claimed "it was now 'quite clear' that electing Trump was Russia’s goal," according to the report. It's important to note that the Washington Post's article is not based on statements from the CIA. It's based on statements from someone (likely a member of Congress) who attended the "secret meeting" or read a Senate-written summary about it. Therefore, this is all second-hand unverified information.
The New York Times ran a similar story, seemingly using another source (of course, also anonymous). The source said “We now have high confidence that [Russia] hacked the DNC and the RNC, and conspicuously released no documents [from the RNC hack]." This seems to be the basis of the "Russia helped Trump" claim. Meanwhile, there is no proof that the RNC was hacked. The RNC denied that their systems were breached, saying the FBI had personally reviewed RNC cybersecurity.
Many of the Wikileaks documents from government officials came from whistleblowers, FOIA requests, and unsophisticated phishing scams. It can also be argued that the contents of those documents and emails were more damaging than the leaks themselves. If so, certain officials would rather point fingers at a nuclear power (without proof) than accept personal responsibility for their own words and actions. Of course, cybersecurity is a serious issue and the source of alleged hacks should be discovered. That investigation is ongoing. But finger-pointing isn't helping at all.
Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, was quoted in the Guardian as saying the CIA claims were "bullshit." Murray said he knew who gave information to Wikileaks, claiming that it was an 'insider' - who wasn't Russian and wasn't a hacker. He also said "America has not been shy about arresting whistleblowers and it’s not been shy about extraditing hackers. [The CIA] plainly [has] no knowledge whatsoever." He believes that if the CIA really found out who performed the hackings, that person (or persons) would already be in an American prison.
Some people present at the alleged CIA-Congress meeting, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were said to have been skeptical of the CIA's presentation. Several reasons to doubt the Washington Post's claims about Russian interference:
- The article says there is no solid evidence of the Russian government's involvement. It's mentioned in black and white: "A second senior official cited by the Washington Post conceded that intelligence agencies did not have specific proof that [Russia] was 'directing' the hackers..."
- The FBI investigated possible links between Russia and Trump, and found absolutely nothing.
- The White House said the elections were "free and fair from a cybersecurity perspective." The Clinton campaign also failed to uncover evidence of sabotage or undue influence.
- Julian Assange (founder of WikiLeaks) said in a television interview that the "Russian government is not the source" of email leaks. However, Assange refuses to name his source(s).
- This Washington Post article contains second-hand unverified information from anonymous sources (probably Senators). No reason to automatically believe hearsay until supporting evidence is provided.
- This "secret report" was conveniently "leaked" to every major news outlet the same time a pro-propaganda legislation was passed by Congress.
- The CIA is historically untrustworthy compared to other agencies. Abducting people, attempting to assassinate foreign leaders, shipping weapons overseas, claiming Saddam had a WMD program, MKUltra... the list goes on. You can believe the CIA, but be skeptical and think critically about their alleged claims.
- The Clinton campaign used their "pied piper" strategy to help Trump get elected as the Republican candidate for President. There isn't proof (yet) Russia wanted to elevate Trump, but there is proof Democrats wanted to elevate Trump.
At the end of the day, the question is still this: did Russia "hack the 2016 election"? We may never know. As printed in The Guardian, "[The] conclusion about Russia’s motives did not mean the intelligence community believed that Moscow’s efforts altered or significantly affected the outcome of the election." This is assuming the Russian government was even involved. The alleged evidence is very tenuous and circumstantial.
"WaPo report cites second-hand *characterizations* of CIA claims, not even CIA claims themselves. And the characterizations are conflicting." - Michael Tracey, journalist
The way the media has reported on the recent so-called CIA report has been embarrassingly irresponsible and biased. The basis of "Russians hacked the election to get Trump in office" comes from the assertion that foreign hackers allegedly stole documents from both the DNC and the RNC, and only released documents related to Democrats. (While the Clinton campaign worked closely with the DNC, the RNC was anti-Trump. Why would the RNC have anything damaging on Trump if his campaign didn't coordinate with them? The Clinton campaign looked for dirt, and it's unlikely the RNC would have information they didn't find.)
And this is assuming we can trust the CIA. Other intelligence agencies haven't expressed definite agreement with the supposed findings.
Yes, it'd be a big deal if a foreign country influenced our elections in any meaningful way. However, I think we should wait for a solid conclusion before making accusations. I'm a believer in "innocent until proven guilty" in almost all situations. In the meantime, there are investigations to perform and cybersecurity holes to shore up.
John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, pointed out that the alleged hacking could have been done by a different foreign country. China, Iran, North Korea, or another country could've attempted to frame Russia. There isn't any direct evidence linking Russia to the DNC leaks, and the circumstantial evidence would've been easy to set up. He asked a vital question during an interview on Fox News: "If you think the Russians did this, then why did they leave fingerprints?"
“I’ll be the first one to come out and point at Russia if there’s clear evidence, but there is no clear evidence — even now. There’s a lot of innuendo, lots of circumstantial evidence, that’s it.”- Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee
In summary: The Washington Post says anonymous sources read a Senate-written briefing which said the CIA told some members of Congress that people with possible connections to the Russian government may have hacked the DNC and RNC. And because only DNC documents were made publicly available... that somehow means Russia wanted to elect Trump and they "hacked our election." That's a hell of a stretch. And no evidence has emerged to support this theory.
"Some people maybe connected to Russia might have given stuff to Wikileaks" is a total non-story. It doesn't give us new information or present new evidence. Still, I welcome a bipartisan investigation into the issue, in the hopes that our government will get answers. It's best to attain actual evidence before provoking nuclear powers with wild accusations.
"The worst thing about all this is that it is aimed at promoting further conflict with Russia. This puts everyone in danger for the sake of more profits for the arms and security industries – including of course bigger budgets for the CIA." - Craig Murray, former ambassador
[This post was last updated 12 December 2016.]