Obama was briefed just this afternoon by intel chiefs on their Russia investigation. What a coincidence that this is dribbling out now, pre-spinning the public before Trump’s briefing — and reaction — tomorrow. Putting this information out there tonight puts him on the defensive whereas waiting to leak this until the weekend, after Trump’s had his briefing and inevitably said something dismissive about it, would have left the IC looking defensive. We live in a golden age in which the incoming president and his spy team are now timing their respective PR in order to get the jump on the other.
WaPo’s headline, by the way, reads “U.S. intercepts capture senior Russian officials celebrating Trump win.” The lede of the story, though, claims that “Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.” Big difference potentially, needless to say, between celebration and self-congratulation. No one would fault Russia for celebrating Trump’s victory given how bullish on Putin and bearish on NATO he’d been during the campaign. Self-congratulation implies that they had assisted in it somehow, though, as if it wasn’t just his victory but theirs.
The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.
Other key pieces of information gathered by U.S. spy agencies include the identification of “actors” involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to the WikiLeaks website, and disparities in the levels of effort Russian intelligence entities devoted to penetrating and exploiting sensitive information stored on Democratic and Republican campaign networks…
U.S. officials said the captured messages, whose existence has not previously been disclosed, added to the confidence level at the CIA and other agencies that Putin’s goals went beyond seeking to undermine confidence in America’s election machinery and ultimately were aimed at tilting a fiercely contested presidential race toward a candidate seen as more in-line with Moscow’s foreign policy goals.
Even so, the messages also revealed that top officials in Russia anticipated that Clinton would win and did not expect their effort to achieve its goal.
That’s not the first time that U.S. intel has adjusted its conclusions about what Russia did during the campaign based on evidence obtained afterward. Their belief that Putin himself was personally involved in directing the operations was first leaked just last month, based on “new intelligence” produced by spies and diplomatic sources working for American allies. The fact that we didn’t hear about the post-election congratulations in the Kremlin until now coupled with the fact that the evidence implicating Putin apparently wasn’t locked down until after Trump and the IC began feuding makes it easy for skeptics to question the integrity of the charges. There’s no “good” time for the CIA to have leaked all of this — if they’d done it before the election they’d have been accused of trying to influence the outcome themselves and if they’d done it immediately afterward they’d have been accused of trying to taint Trump’s win. But the fact that they’re doing it now, after Trump has already questioned their competence and motives, makes it that much easier for him to cry “politicization!” The leak feels like a strike on the enemy in a political war as much as evidence being offered to support a case against Russia.
I’m tempted to say that no one will be convinced by the “self-congratulations” among the Russians unless and until the communications themselves are transcribed, but let’s be real. Even if they were transcribed and/or reproduced somehow, anyone who wants to go on doubting Russia’s involvement would simply say they’re forgeries or misinterpretations of innocent comments. There’s no way to get a guilty verdict on Russia from doubters because this isn’t really a prosecution, it’s a political fight over Trump’s and the IC’s credibility. If you’re all-in on Trump then Russia’s innocent or, at worst, guilty of something benign and ineffectual which all countries do. On the other hand, the fact that the FBI has admitted that it never actually examined the DNC’s servers after the hacking this past spring puts even Trump skeptics in the position of wondering why we should trust the IC over him. Here’s the latest, in which the FBI claims that the DNC simply wouldn’t allow them access to the server. Why would they do that? Only God and J. Edgar Hoover know for sure:
“The FBI repeatedly stressed to DNC officials the necessity of obtaining direct access to servers and data, only to be rebuffed until well after the initial compromise had been mitigated,” a senior law enforcement official told CNN. “This left the FBI no choice but to rely upon a third party for information. These actions caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier.”
The “third party” was CrowdStrike, a reputable cybersecurity firm. It makes no sense that the DNC would have refused the FBI access to the server after granting it to CrowdStrike, but even if they had, it’s weird that the feds would accuse a major U.S. enemy of something as momentous as campaign-related hacking without ever having had their own eyes on the evidence. I’d be surprised if Trump didn’t mention that tomorrow when he inevitably makes his case against the evidence produced in his briefing.
By the way, Rex Tillerson is reportedly assuring senators on the Hill this week that he’ll be tough on Russia. As one Senate staffer put it, paraphrasing, his message was “Look, I understand Putin and Russia is a playground bully and they only respect strength and you need to come from a position of strength to them or you are going to have a lot of problems.” How does he define “strength”? Publicly doubting your own intelligence bureaus when they accuse Russia while praising Putin for being “very smart”?
Update: More chaos as the Trump/IC storm rages:
James Woolsey has resigned from Trump transition. Sources say he was cut out of intel talks w/ Trump & Flynn, grew uncomfortable. Story TK
— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) January 5, 2017
Woolsey turned up on CNN just yesterday to say that there’s no point in listening to Julian Assange, whom Trump has been encouraging people to listen to. Now he’s gone.
Update: I thought he’d wait until after his briefing tomorrow to bring up the FBI and DNC, but here we go: