Blog No. 121. Russian Hacking: The Trout in the Milk

A November 9 story in the Washington Post reported a CIA assessment that Russian hacking of Democratic computers was intended to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump. Disclosure of the assessment, which had been given to Congressional leaders behind closed doors, produced a considerable uproar. The intelligence community had on October 7, issued a statement accusing the Russians of hacking in order to interfere with the American election, but the attribution of a specific motive added a new and explosive layer to the matter.

According to the Post the following day, the FBI, which had also participated in the briefing, was less certain than the CIA as to whether the Russian motives were specifically aimed at influencing the outcome of the election. Some observers attributed the divergence to differing cultures:

The competing messages, according to officials in attendance, also reflect cultural differences between the FBI and the CIA. The bureau, true to its law enforcement roots, wants facts and tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt. The CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior.

“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards — can we prove this in court,” one of the officials said. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”

On the day the CIA assessment was reported, the White House issued a statement indicating that President Obama had ordered, somewhat belatedly, a “full review” of Russian hacking to be submitted before the end of his term. Few, however, believed that such a report would resolve the matter and there were growing calls for a Congressional investigation.

President-Elect Trump responded in an utterly predictable fashion, dismissing the CIA’s conclusion as “ridiculous,” and his transition office issued the following statement:

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Attempting to trash the critic is, of course, an all too familiar Trump technique. (Thus, when Chuck Jones, the Indiana labor leader had pointed out that Trump had lied in describing the Carrier deal, Trump attempted neither to correct nor defend his misstatement but simply attacked Jones personally.) Yet this example, attacking a vitally important agency on which he will soon have to rely, seemed a bit odd even for Trump. And the reference to “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” was both irrelevant and inaccurate: of the last ten elections, Trump’s electoral college margin ranked eighth.

Some, such as Devin Nunes, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the transition team, refrained from attacking the CIA, but suggested that its assessment was based on “lots of circumstantial evidence.” Indeed. One is reminded of the famous comment of Henry David Thoreau that “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” (Thoreau’s observation was made at a time when there were widespread allegations that unscrupulous dairies were increasing the volume of milk by adding water. Hence, finding a trout in the milk strongly suggested that the supplier had added water from a nearby stream.) In this case, the presence of a trout was not hard to detect, even without access to classified information.

There is very little doubt that Russia strongly favored the election of Trump over Clinton for a variety of reasons. As a Senator, Clinton had been a critic of Russia, but as Secretary of State, she carried out the “reset” policy initiated by Obama. Although that policy initially produced cooperation in several areas, it was eventually succeeded by an atmosphere of open hostility with Clinton as a focal point.

A November 3 article in the Washington Post was titled “From ‘reset to ‘pause’: the real story behind Hillary Clinton’s feud with Vladimir Putin.” It suggested that a turning point may have come with Russian elections in 2011:

In December 2011, despite a deepening economic crisis, Putin’s United Russia party retained control of the Duma in parliamentary elections that independent monitoring groups described as fraudulent.

Thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest, and Clinton — with the White House’s explicit blessing — spoke publicly in their defense, condemning Russian officials for manipulating the vote and systematically harassing election observers.

“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” Clinton said during a speech that month in Lithuania. “And that means they deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.”

After her speech, when demonstrations in Moscow grew still larger, Putin suggested that his political opponents were following marching orders from Clinton and her team.

Opposition parties “heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work,” Putin said. Kremlin officials repeated the charge in private meetings with U.S. diplomats, expressing a vehemence that surprised some Obama administration officials.

In recent days, Michael McFaul, a former Ambassador to Russia, suggested that Russian interference in the election was a form of revenge against Clinton: “Let’s remember that Vladimir Putin thinks [Clinton] interfered in his election — the parliamentary election in December 2011 — and has said as much publicly, and I’ve heard him talk about it privately,” McFaul explained.

If Putin had reason for holding a negative view of Clinton, Trump must have seemed like catnip. In addition to his peculiar flattery of Putin, there was the matter of Trump’s own business ties with Russia (described back in July in Blog No. 106) Even more significant were the doubts that Trump had cast on NATO and, in particular, on defense of its Baltic members. Such doubts had led Nicholas Kristof (and many others) to conclude that “Trump poses a national security risk to the West, and that’s reason enough Putin would be thrilled to see him elected president.” As icing on the cake, Putin would also have enjoyed the fact that Trump’s most prominent adviser on national security affairs was Lt. General Michael Flynn who had his own significant ties to Moscow. (Flynn’s subsequent designation as Trump’s National Security Adviser is among the most troubling of his appointments.)

Given Putin’s perspective, there is every reason to believe that that the hacking of Democratic computers, and dissemination of the contents through Wikileaks, were intended to influence the election in Trump’s favor. Indeed, even Inspector Clouseau would ask  why, if Russia had both the means and the incentive, would it not have done so? It may be that Putin, like most of the rest of us, underestimated Trump’s ability to win, and covert assistance to him had to be viewed as a long-shot, but one that could be taken at little cost. The conclusion that Russia was not merely interested in sowing confusion, is further supported by the fact that no materials from the Republican National Committee were published, and a story in Tuesday’s Washington Post reported the finding of intelligence officials that the Russian hacking had “prioritized” Democratic targets.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Republicans on Capitol Hill have joined Democrats in rejecting Trump’s attempts to brush off the entire matter as unworthy of further attention. On Sunday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement along with Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed calling for a bipartisan investigation. The following day Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan each issued statements supporting Congressional investigation. It is not clear how the investigation will be organized, and while the appointment of a select committee might be preferable, McConnell appeared to reject that possibility, leaving the matter in the hands of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees.

Although one or more investigations are clearly called for, it is uncertain what the result will be, even if further investigation confirms that  Russian hacking was directed at aiding Trump. Such a conclusion would be highly irritating to Trump and presumably embarrassing, although he has shown little capacity for embarrassment. It would not, as some might hope, “de-legitimize” his election and his administration. Nor is it at all clear what, if any retaliatory measures would be appropriate. One positive result, however, could be to provide something of a check on the rising tide of Russophilia that has appeared to engulf Trump and his associates.

The latest evidence of that tide appeared as the selection of Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State. Although Tillerson has not served in government, he is a man of proven ability and accomplishment and has been recommended by Bob Gates, Condi Rice and James Baker. While those recommendations deserve, and will receive, considerable weight, Tillerson’s extensive dealings with Russia, and his apparently close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, demand thorough scrutiny. Trump, of course was not only untroubled by Tillerson’s background with Russia and Putin, but saw it as an asset, proudly observing in a televised interview that Tillerson “does massive deals in Russia.”

Of particular concern is Tillerson’s outspoken opposition to the sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and incursion in Eastern Ukraine. While Tillerson’s view of the sanctions was undoubtedly based on the revenue loss they imposed on Exxon, it is not clear that he would regard them any more favorably as Secretary of State. If the United States were to support, or acquiesce in, lifting of the sanctions, it would be a clear signal to Putin that he is largely free to do as he wishes in the Baltics, Eastern Europe and beyond. The sanctions are a serious issue that should be probed in depth at the Tillerson confirmation hearing.

The unsettling connection between the Russian hacking and the Tillerson appointment was carefully explored in the respected national security blog, LawfareThe conclusion:

Trump’s behavior is not only significant for the message it sends to Russia, but also for the message it sends to the American people. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have rightly expressed grave concern over Russian interference. With speculation at a fever pitch, ordinarily a president-elect would do everything in his power to reassure the public they have not, in fact, elected a Manchurian candidate. He would do so by pledging to get to the bottom of allegations of foreign interference in the election, condemning such activity as unacceptable if true, even if he felt compelled to express reservations over the veracity. And he would select a Cabinet that strongly rebutted any suggestion that Putin had won something by intervening on his behalf, thereby sending the signal that he is in no one’s pocket. 

Instead, faced with the undeniably bipartisan anxieties of a great many people, Trump twists the knife, nominating not only a secretary of state whose ties to Russia raise concerns, but then boldly taunting his detractors on national television by making it clear that those are the very features he values most about his choice.


11 thoughts on “Blog No. 121. Russian Hacking: The Trout in the Milk

  • It usually is wise to not write a review until the end of the second act, and or, “The fat lady sings.”
    This intrusion has many implications and may well be an embarrassment for those in charged to protect our security. It makes one pause and wonder about our peeking into Mrs. Merkel’s and other world leaders correspondence and phone calls.
    I surely hope that our government is responding to these cyber attacts in kind.

    Santa Claus. Com, wishes for, all a glorious, merry Christmas and a New Year that bring peace and harmony world wide.

  • It should come as no surprise that the Kremlin might attempt to subvert a U.S. election. But it is very troubling that Mr. Trump brushes off the assessment of our intelligence agencies and that he invited Russia to meddle in the presidential election by hacking into the DNC. We need a bipartisan special commission to investigate Russian cyber espionage and propose effective countermeasures. But it is unlikely that we will get one under president Trump.

    Trump’s choice of ExxonMobil’s CEO to serve as Secretary of State — a man who wants to end sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and invading the Ukraine — may further embolden the Kremlin to destabilize western democracies and weaken our country.

    The “art of the deal’ will undoubtedly enrich the Trump family during his presidency, but might it also strengthen our adversaries and bankrupt our country?

  • Doug,

    I read your blog religiously, but this is the first time I’m moved to comment.

    I have always wondered about that trout in the milk analogy. Thank you for explaining it.

    As for the Russian hacking, Putin’s trolls seem to have added some authentic, mildly relevant documents (Podesta emails, etc…) to the mix of information available to American voters. And, of course, the American press routinely publishes improperly obtained information. That is nothing new.

    So, while the criminal intrusion of a foreign power — especially a foreign power as sinister as the Putin regime — into our election warrants investigation, I agree that this episode cannot de-legitimize Trump’s victory.

    Thank you for your always sage punditry.

    Bill Costigan

  • Funny, Hillary has not been criticized by either Doug or the Dems for her “reset” with Russia nor Obama for his “red-line” that subsequently led to Russia getting back into the Middle-East and Syria – and directly led to the murder of thousands, loss of Allepo and the saving of the Syrian regime. But it is Trump who, so far, has done nothing overtly for or against Russia but rather is apparently taking a Diplomatic approach with the appointment of Tillerson, get’s all the hyperbole from Doug and the Dems. I do wonder who is the Manchurian Candidate here, Trump for Russia or Doug for the Dems.

    • Doug’s post has nothing to do with Clinton, Aleppo, one’s political party, or any of the other stuff you mention. It has to do with Russian hacking into our government and political elections. How could that be good for our country? All Americans must stand against our enemies.

  • Thank you for these postings. A measured and calm voice in the wilderness of hyperbolic vitriol and shouting.

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