But either way, Putin wins
by MATTHEW GAULT
Cloak and dagger secrecy is so Cold War. It’s 2017. Privacy is dead and both people and governments commit atrocious acts in the open. That’s the point. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, then it didn’t happen. If the president of Russia orders hackers to disrupt the U.S. presidential election and no one hears about it, then what was the point?
Over the past few days, the U.S. intelligence community has revealed a more detailed — though no more substantive — report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It also briefed President-elect Donald Trump on the issue, the same incoming president who the spies claim Russia helped elect.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is not damning or detailed. It will probably not change the minds of people who’ve already decided Russia is or isn’t hacking the United States. But it is important, not so much for its content but for the way it was handled and the reactions of the interested parties.
First, thanks to the ODNI report, we now have the framework for a contentious relationship between the president-elect and the intelligence community. At the same time, Russia’s overseas broadcaster RT got more free advertising than it could ever manage on its own.
Secondly, one person benefited from all this and that person is Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin. He and his political technologists destroyed the very idea of truth in Russia. They understand how the Internet changed the world and learned how it’s easier to subvert dissent than to outlaw it.
And for Putin, it suits him just as well if Americans believe he influenced the election’s outcome. If they do, then it’s an extraordinary example of the budding soft power of the Kremlin — and a message to the West that Moscow is playing an entirely different game the old spies in Washington aren’t prepared for.
The U.S. intelligence community thinks it’s smarter than The Donald and Trump thinks he’s smarter than the U.S. intelligence community. The spooks released the first report to the public on Dec. 29, 2016. It confirmed what many already knew — the Russian government orchestrated the hacking of DNC computers in an attempt to influence the election.
When asked about the report, Trump — standing next to Don King — told reporters he thought everyone should get on with their lives. “I think computers have complicated lives very greatly,” he continued. “The whole age of computers has made it where no one knows exactly what’s going on.”
Well put. The age of computers has, indeed, made it harder to get at the truth.
The ability to obfuscate, discredit and otherwise neutralize competent sources of information in the digital age is one of the Kremlin’s chief tactics. Now it’s figured out a way to get the U.S. president and his spies to help sully the truth.
Pres. Barack Obama retaliated by kicking Russian diplomats out of America. Putin said he wouldn’t do the same in Russia. Trump praised Putin for being such a nice guy. He reminded the American public that the spies were wrong about weapons of mass destruction, but begrudgingly agreed to meet with them and learn what they knew of Russia’s hacking efforts.
Despite this conceit, Trump had already made enemies of America’s intelligence agencies. He repeatedly abused them in the press and on Twitter and threatened to cut their budgets to a shoestring.
So it was that on Thursday, Jan. 5 — one day before America’s spies were to meet with Trump — someone leaked the ODNI’s “detailed” report on Russian hacking to the press. The biggest assertion — and the one blazoned across American newspapers Thursday and Friday morning — was that Putin himself ordered the hacking of the DNC to tip the U.S. election in favor of Trump.
The report is scant on hard evidence and anonymous officials told the Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets that this was because they needed to protect their sources. If the spies turned over the concrete evidence to the public, they argued, the Russians could figure out who squealed.
But this routine is cold comfort for people reading a 25-page report that transposes dates, obsessively hammers the Russian state-run television network RT and refers to programs that no longer exist and politicians no longer in power.
Trump wasn’t happy, and he took a break from mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger on Twitter to tell the American public.
I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.
He went on to blame the hacking on poor security at the DNC and claimed that the hacks in no way affected the U.S. election. He told reporters his meeting with the intelligence community was productive. He’d learned how they think, he claimed. I doubt it.
RT, the star of the recent ODNI report, filed its own stories on the report. The articles felt like victory laps. “RT stars in ODNI report on ‘Russian activities and intentions’ in U.S. presidential election,” reads the headline of a straightforward report.
The article details the the report’s contents with special attention paid to all of RTs many mentions — particularly snarky tweets from fans.
Question. How much would @RT_com have to pay for the kind of free advertising today's hopelessly crap CIA report is giving it in America?
A commentary article followed, titled “All the ways RT ‘influenced’ American politics — it’s not what the ODNI thinks.”
The article delivered a point-by-point counter to every assertion the ODNI report made about RT and its intentions, complete with lavish links to graphs, YouTube videos and articles supporting its points. “Oh, and thanks for the free advertising, ODNI! Be sure to check out more of our coverage on the RT America YouTube page,” the article concluded.
Russia won. Again.
Trump is either in Russia’s pocket or he’s not. Putin either pushed the U.S. election in favor of Trump or he didn’t. Either way, Putin has the advantage.
If you believe Russia successfully swung the election, then you must also accept that Russia’s global influence has reached heights not seen since the Cold War, and perhaps even surpassed it in terms of influencing domestic American opinion. What was once a superpower in decline now seems poised to make a comeback.
That’s the perception, at least. Suffice to say, it would suit Russia’s national interests and foreign policy objectives for other countries — including the United States — to believe it. And it would certainly help Putin, who is presiding over numerous objective problems including a painful recession and an impeding demographic crisis.
But if you don’t believe Russia swung the election, then you must also accept that the American intelligence community has no idea what it’s doing. From the Bay of Pigs to weapons of mass destruction, it’s given the American public plenty of reasons to distrust it. For many, the Russian hacking revelations will be just another black mark on the community’s already bleak report card.
Now ask yourself this question — why would the Kremlin want to undermine confidence in America’s intelligence agencies? Again, either way, the outcome rebounds to Putin’s benefit.
And on the other side of the planet, the United States is the punchline in what’s considered to be an absurd joke. “Russians Ridicule U.S. Charge That Kremlin Meddled to Help Trump,” The New York Times declared.
Meanwhile, the stink of Russian influence will follow Trump into office and some Americans will never accept him because of it. He is one of the most unpopular American presidents to ever take office and he has alienated himself from his own intelligence community.
Sounds like a successful intelligence campaign to me.