Report: FBI less certain about the purpose of Russia's hacking

A highly cited story published by the Washington Post last week revealed that the CIA now believes Russia hacked the Democratic party’s infrastructure in order to help elect Donald Trump. However a follow up story published Saturday notes that the FBI is more cautious in drawing conclusions, a reluctance which is causing much frustration for Democrats.

After the CIA briefed Senators about their conclusion regarding Russia’s goals, members of the House wanted to know if the FBI concurred with that assessment. Specifically, Democratic members were pushing the FBI to agree that electing Trump was Russia’s goal. But the FBI counterintelligence official who was briefing them refused to offer that kind of definitive answer. From the Washington Post:

Sitting before the House Intelligence Committee was a senior FBI counterintelligence official. The question the Republicans and Democrats in attendance wanted answered was whether the bureau concurred with the conclusions the CIA had just shared with senators that Russia “quite” clearly intended to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and clinch the White House…

During the nearly two-hour briefing, the Democratic lawmakers in the room, again and again, tried to pin the FBI official down on whether the bureau believed that Russia had a preference in who won the election.

“It was shocking to hold these [CIA] statements made about Russian intentions and activities, and to hear this guy basically saying nothing with certainty and allowing that all was possible,” said an official who attended the briefing. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions.

The story suggests the difference between how the two agencies viewed the matter comes down to their differing functions. The FBI is a law enforcement agency that is often focused on what can be proven, while the CIA analysis is more about drawing conclusions from incomplete information. That divide is being reflected in the responses of some Democrats and Republicans. The former are eager to conclude Trump was elected with Russia’s help while the latter are pointing out some assumptions are still being made.

One thing which does not seem to be the case is that the CIA reached this conclusion prior to the election. On Saturday, outgoing Senator Harry Reid claimed during an interview with MSNBC that FBI Director James Comey had the CIA’s assessment prior to the election and sat on it.

Host Joy Reid asked the Senator to clarify saying, “You believe the FBI director had this information and deliberately withheld it from the American people before the election. Is that your contention, sir?” “That’s right. That is true,” Reid replied.

And over at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait wrote, “Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump.” But there doesn’t seem to be any support for that claim in the initial Post story and the follow-up story says that is not the case:

It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the statements that the CIA briefer had made to the Senate panel, making the case for the first time that Russia intended to help Trump win the election.

Previous CIA assessments of Moscow’s goals were more cautious, saying they were limited to undermining faith in the U.S. electoral system. In earlier statements to the intelligence committees in Congress, the agency stopped short of saying the intrusions were meant to benefit one candidate over another.

That’s a reference to the CIA briefing of the Senate which took place just over a week ago, meaning the CIA assessment about Russia’s motives was made after the election.