The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.
Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.
“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”
The Post's Ellen Nakashima goes over the events, and discusses the two hacker groups responsible. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
The Obama administration has been debating for months how to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions, with White House officials concerned about escalating tensions with Moscow and being accused of trying to boost Clinton’s campaign.
In September, during a secret briefing for congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, according to officials present.
The Trump transition team dismissed the findings in a short statement issued Friday evening. “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 now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” the statement read.
Trump has consistently dismissed the intelligence community’s findings about Russian hacking.
“I don’t believe they interfered” in the election, he told Time magazine this week. The hacking, he said, “could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he wants to investigate whether Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election, amongst claims that Donald Trump's rhetoric on Russia and Vladimir Putin is too soft. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered.
For example, intelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin “directing” the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said. Those actors, according to the official, were “one step” removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees. Moscow has in the past used middlemen to participate in sensitive intelligence operations so it has plausible deniability.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has said in a television interview that the “Russian government is not the source.”
The White House and CIA officials declined to comment.
On Friday, the White House said President Obama had ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the election campaign, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to influence the electoral process.
“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Obama wants the report before he leaves office Jan. 20, Monaco said. The review will be led by James Clapper, the outgoing director of national intelligence, officials said.
During her remarks, Monaco didn’t address the latest CIA assessment, which hasn’t been previously disclosed.
Seven Democratic senators last week asked Obama to declassify details about the intrusions and why officials believe that the Kremlin was behind the operation. Officials said Friday that the senators specifically were asking the White House to release portions of the CIA’s presentation.
This week, top Democratic lawmakers in the House also sent a letter to Obama, asking for briefings on Russian interference in the election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been cautious for months in characterizing Russia’s motivations, reflecting the United States’ long-standing struggle to collect reliable intelligence on President Vladimir Putin and those closest to him.
In previous assessments, the CIA and other intelligence agencies told the White House and congressional leaders that they believed Moscow’s aim was to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system. The assessments stopped short of saying the goal was to help elect Trump.
Some key Republican lawmakers have continued to question the quality of evidence supporting Russian involvement.
“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,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Trump transition team. “There’s a lot of innuendo, lots of circumstantial evidence, that’s it.”
Though Russia has long conducted cyberspying on U.S. agencies, companies and organizations, this presidential campaign marks the first time Moscow has attempted through cyber-means to interfere in, if not actively influence, the outcome of an election, the officials said.
The reluctance of the Obama White House to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions before Election Day upset Democrats on the Hill as well as members of the Clinton campaign.
Within the administration, top officials from different agencies sparred over whether and how to respond. White House officials were concerned that covert retaliatory measures might risk an escalation in which Russia, with sophisticated cyber-capabilities, might have less to lose than the United States, with its vast and vulnerable digital infrastructure.
The White House’s reluctance to take that risk left Washington weighing more-limited measures, including the “naming and shaming” approach of publicly blaming Moscow.
By mid-September, White House officials had decided it was time to take that step, but they worried that doing so unilaterally and without bipartisan congressional backing just weeks before the election would make Obama vulnerable to charges that he was using intelligence for political purposes.
Instead, officials devised a plan to seek bipartisan support from top lawmakers and set up a secret meeting with the Gang of 12 — a group that includes House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ committees on intelligence and homeland security.
Obama dispatched Monaco, FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to make the pitch for a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against Russian interference in the election, according to a senior administration official.
Specifically, the White House wanted congressional leaders to sign off on a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions.
Though U.S. intelligence agencies were skeptical that hackers would be able to manipulate the election results in a systematic way, the White House feared that Russia would attempt to do so, sowing doubt about the fundamental mechanisms of democracy and potentially forcing a more dangerous confrontation between Washington and Moscow.
In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals.
And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.”
The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.
According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.
Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.
McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. After the election, Trump chose McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as his nominee for transportation secretary.
Some Clinton supporters saw the White House’s reluctance to act without bipartisan support as further evidence of an excessive caution in facing adversaries.
“The lack of an administration response on the Russian hacking cannot be attributed to Congress,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who was at the September meeting. “The administration has all the tools it needs to respond. They have the ability to impose sanctions. They have the ability to take clandestine means. The administration has decided not to utilize them in a way that would deter the Russians, and I think that’s a problem.”
"Trump's banana republic", declares the title of a passionate opinion piece on the pages of The Boston Globe after a televised presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. "This is banana republic territory," the writer declares after criticising Trump for attacking the sacrosanct law enforcement officials and casting doubts on their reliability.
The metaphor become perhaps the most potent political allegory of this election season. America would be Trump's banana republic, was the title of another opinion piece by Fareed Zakaria for The Washington Post. "The picture presented to the world," he wrote as he criticised the "vigilante rage" of the Republican convention, "has been of America as a banana republic."
The European press soon chimed in: "Sounding more like the potentate of some palm-dotted tropical island than a presidential candidate," declared Nick Bryant of the BBC, "Trump twice declined to say during the final televised debate whether he would accept the results of the 2016 election."
"Trump's Banana Republic Justice" was the title of yet another piece in October in Newsweek, when criticising Trump's attacks on Clinton: "This is the stuff of banana republics, not mature democracies."
The Los Angeles Times echoed the sentiment: "He [Trump] was talking like he would become some dictator of a Banana Republic and throw her and his political enemies in jail."
The sentence was even attributed to Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon: "That is the comment of a dictator that you expect to hear in a banana republic - the idea of jailing your political opponents."
Why is it, if someone from "the third world", a "banana republic", or a "palm-dotted tropical island" might be permitted to ask, that when the purveyors of the mighty and magnificent "Western civilisation" want to characterise something nasty and loathsome in their own midst they immediately opt for a metaphor, a pejorative term such as "banana republic" that they have invented for somewhere else?
Latin American countries have been systematically colonised and abused, first by Europe and now by the United States, robbing them of their resources and installing a tyrant over the people lest they revolt against the abuse. And yet the very same abusers get to use a sarcastic term to describe the result!
In this column I have already askedthis question when Muslims are used as a metaphor of fanaticism and stupidity by the left-liberal pundits in the US and Europe. But now I want to ask the same question about the larger non-European world they call "the third world" or "banana republics".
"Donald Trump is not invested in democracy," declares a famous liberal pundit, Keith Olbermann, passionately, "Donald Trump is not invested in our constitution, Donald Trump is not invested in America, Donald Trump is not invested in preventing people from being killed on the streets after an election, like this were a third world police state" [at 3:38 of this video].
Why is it that when a comedian such as Sacha Baron Cohen wants to make a movie about dictatorship, The Dictator, he opts to feature a dictator looking like an Arab potentate? Have there not been enough dictators in Europe: Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Nicolae Ceausescu, Slobodan Milosevic?
What and where is banana republic?
The seismic psychological change evident in the US in the aftermath of this election is in part because US liberals are stripped naked of their holier-than-thou arrogance of their delusional exceptionalism, that they are too smart for "third-world tyranny" to come their way.
Arguments were made, theories were woven about how we Muslims, Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans lacked something in our DNA, deep in the marrow of our bones, in our culture that we did not merit and deserve democracy, and yet suddenly smack in the middle of American democracy a neo-fascist white supremacist has emerged so that former CIA officers now worryabout the US constitution under a Trump presidency.
The alarming congregation of racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, militaristic billionaire forces inside the White House is bound to craft a whole new vintage of a nasty prescription the US has usually ordered for other political cultures, and yet it has now returned like a bulldog to bite itself.
Three of the top four candidates running for president have either contested the result (Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton) or declared millions have voted illegally (Trump).
It is now expected that Trump's business empire will be an endless source of conflict of interest under his presidency.
If "banana republic" is to be the name of this corruption, then the US is the likely contender to become the mother of all banana republics for the whole world to see.
Is Trump the personification of every racist trope this white supremacist culture has created for other political contexts and until now thought had completely exorcised out of its own system but is now haunted by it?
Is Trump a classical example of frightful characters like Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco much closer to the European heritage of what might emerge as American fascism?
Is Trump a resurfacing of white supremacist genealogy much more deeply rooted inside the US colonial conquest of America and imperial warmongering around the globe?
Or is Trump perhaps the dawn of a whole new white supremacist fascism that crosses the Atlantic and reaches deep into European racism now ringing from UK to Greece - with variations on its theme evident in France, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere?
It is perhaps too early to offer any definite answer to any one of these questions. But the fact remains that the alarming congregation of racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, militaristic billionaire forces inside the White House are bound to craft a whole new vintage of a nasty prescription the US usually orders for other political cultures, and yet it has now returned like a bulldog to bite itself.
In their book "Commonwealth", political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri encourage us to "abandon all dreams of political purity and 'higher values' that would allow us to remain outside!" This admission, they believe, is only a tool towards building an alternative project, "an ethics of democratic political action within and against Empire", aimed towards "a possible global democracy".
That urgent objective will not happen unless and until the nasty Eurocentric name-calling of nations has collapsed completely upon itself, North American and Western Europeans are liberated from the noxious metaphor of "the West" and join the fold of humanity at large.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.