The Fancy Bear group is among the main suspects that might have hacked the emails of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the head of her election campaign, John Podesta. Photo: RIA Novosti
The Jan. 7 publication of the U.S. intelligence report on Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system was met with a great deal of interest from both those who believe in these allegations and those who question them. The report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” provides “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment that has been provided to the President.”
It claims that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” to discredit the U.S. democratic process, Secretary Clinton, and “harm her electability and potential presidency.” The report also pays a great deal of attention to "Russian Propaganda efforts" and, specifically, the activity of RT, the state-run television channel (former Russia Today), targeting foreign audience, and Sputnik, a news agency. The report’s assessments are based on the assumption that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
The most intriguing question is what additional evidence was presented in the classified part of the report, given the fact that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who consistently dismissed the intelligence allegations as unfounded, admitted for the first time that Russia might be involved in the hacking of the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Nevertheless, the declassified report didn’t seem to meet the expectations of many Russian and Western journalists and pundits, especially those who expected more evidence and even those who don’t rule out the possibility of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
For example, Kevin Rothrock, a contributor to the Moscow Times, an independent English-language newspaper, didn’t see anything new in the report, which, according to him, is just “repeating conclusions publicized by the White House and officials like U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper.”
“Unfortunately, America’s case against the Kremlin suffers from some major flaws that should be acknowledged, even by individuals who argue reasonably that the Russian government likely used hackers to attack and undermine democratic institutions in the U.S.,” he wrote in his column.
“The declassified part of it reveals few new details, omits even already known evidence and focuses mostly on the “influence operations” tools of the Russian media,” Alexandra Kulikova, an expert on international cybersecurity and a consultant for PIR Center, a Russian think tank, told Russia Direct. “It rather discusses the conclusions made and the context explaining why such conclusions are only natural (Annex on RT), rather than providing the technical evidence everyone is so much looking for.”
In reality, the American mainstream media, in its coverage of the report, just highlighted current trends in the U.S. political environment and Moscow-Washington relations. Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin succinctly conveyed this idea in a recent Twitter post. “Emerging grand compromise among US elites: Trump is legitimate, Russia is an adversary,” he wrote.
Emerging grand compromise among US elites: Trump is legitimate, Russia is an adversary.
— Dmitri Trenin (@DmitriTrenin) January 9, 2017
In this situation, expecting more persuasive evidence and new information about Russia’s alleged hacking in U.S. domestic affairs in the declassified report would be naive. And the authors of the report make it clear by referring to “estimative language” and “judgments” that don’t necessarily mean “that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
“Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentations, and precedents,” the report reads.
Most importantly, the authors reiterate in the report that “the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods” with the conclusions and more evidence “reflected in the classified assessment.”
The intelligence community “rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”
Kulikova argues that “the report doesn't leave the impression that it was meant to convince - as if the U.S. government felt that it needn't provide more direct evidence than has been made public to make a strong case against Russia and a supporting Annex on RT was enough.”
“Hard evidence would be certainly necessary in case of retaliation if the hack were officially acknowledged as act of aggression/armed attack, and supposedly it has been presented to the President-elect," she added. "But even at the level below this threshold, there's no internationally recognized procedure of escalation or mitigation of a cyber conflict – likewise there are no generally recognized [legal] standards of attribution of cyber attacks.”
Weighing pros and cons of the Intelligence report
Likewise, Mikhail Troitskiy, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), points out that the declassified report was not intended to provide evidence.
“One needs to be clear that the intelligence report on Russian hacking has not been designed to lay out any evidence in support of its main claim,” he told Russia Direct. “The document starts by saying that the reader will have to rely on the ‘judgments’ and ‘assessments’ of the U.S. intelligence community because providing 'evidence' would compromise its sources and methods. So it makes no sense to judge the report on the grounds of ‘evidence’ that it was never meant to contain.”
According to Troitskiy, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Barack Obama “decided to order such an unprecedented report partly because it was looking for comfort and culprits in the wake of the loss of the Democratic candidate [Hillary Clinton] in the presidential election.”
The Obama administration is currently facing a lot of challenges, as it is being forced to respond decisively under the pressure of the current U.S. political environment. One of the major characteristics of this environment is a great deal of distrust toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin, given Russia’s policy in Ukraine and Putin’s KGB background. Obama finds himself trapped in a very difficult position, where he needs to take into account the views of many advisers, especially those who are inclined to believe that Russia hacked the U.S. election.
Thus, the key inference that can be drawn from the report is that Washington does not see the Kremlin as trustworthy. This lack of trust is the core problem.
“The bottom line in the debate about the report is that President Obama and large numbers of influential professionals in the U.S. foreign policy community are convinced that Moscow has set out not just to oppose certain U.S. initiatives across the globe, but also to undermine the very foundations of U.S. power and its position in the world,” Troitskiy said. “Those convictions will outlive the Obama administration and make any new ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russia relations difficult to pull off [for the Trump administration].”
At the same time, Andrei Tsygankov, a professor at San Francisco State University, argues, “The intelligence report is part of the broader campaign to discredit Russia and Donald Trump, who expressed his commitment to normalize relations with the Kremlin.”
“That too is not new – Russia has been a convenient scapegoat for U.S. foreign policy problems at least since the infamous Magnitsky Act [which imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner — Editor’s note],” he told Russia Direct.
“The report doesn’t contain anything that hasn’t been already discussed in the public space regarding Russia’s alleged role in hacking the U.S. elections,” Tsygankov added. “Russia may have indeed been behind the described cyber attacks, but we still don’t have the smoking gun type of evidence of exactly who and how was involved in it.”
Meanwhile, Dimitri Simes, the president at Center for the National Interest, compares the intense focus on Russian hacking efforts to a political witch hunt. “Russian hacking is a serious problem but to single it out when other nations including China engage in similar practices, when the U.S. itself is no stranger to cyber warfare, and when the outgoing President of the United States, Barack Obama, is ordering reports from his appointees instead of giving intelligence agencies an opportunity to present their findings to the new president and his team is clearly politically motivated. It is another attempt to delegitimize Mr. Trump’s election — plain and simple,” he wrote on his Facebook page shortly after the release of the report.
However, Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, firmly believes in the results of the Intelligence report.
“It is true that countries other than Russia — in particular, China — engage in cyber espionage against the United States. But Russian intelligence agencies did something unique, something that goes beyond espionage,” he told Russia Direct. “They took information, the Democratic National Committee e-mails that they hacked, and passed that to Wikileaks for public release. That was clearly designed to influence the U.S. election. That said, Mr. Trump won the election. There is no way to re-litigate the outcome. How can one prove that that someone who voted for Mr. Trump in Scranton, Pennsylvania did so because of the leaked e-mails? Mr. Trump will be president. But he and all Americans should be concerned about this Russian attack at the heart of the American political system.”
In contrast, James Carden, a columnist for The Nation magazine and a former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department, is hesitant to call the report reliable and well-grounded. Instead, he describes the document as “a mountain of evidence-free assertions and risible conspiracy theories relating to Russian state media.”
“The U.S. government puts its name and authority behind, what is in reality, a report that can only be described as the result of a White House-directed attempt to politicize intelligence in an effort to mislead the public,” he told Russia Direct.
At the same time, Carden does not rule out the possibility of the Kremlin having hacked the U.S. electoral process in 2016. However, even if it is proven that Russia was behind the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, “Does any sentient person believe that the contents of those embarrassing and self-serving emails were what persuaded working class voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (who had gone for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012) to cast their ballot for Donald Trump? Of course not.”
“What all this amounts to is an overlong, pathetic attempt to exonerate Hillary Clinton for running one of the most inept general election campaigns in memory,” Carden concluded.
However, despite the fact that the intelligence report makes any reset of U.S.-Russia relations close to impossible, “Trump still has a chance to improve US-Russia relations since the President drives such issues much more than Congress,” argues Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department.
UPDATE: The story was updated on Jan.10 to include the comments of Alexandra Kulikova, an expert on international cybersecurity and a consultant at PIR Center, a Russian think tank.