US intelligence agencies on January 7 released a report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a covert campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election, and primarily to “denigrate” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and advance the Kremlin’s “clear preference for president-elect Trump”.
Representing opinions of three key agencies - the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency - the declassified intelligence report, ordered by President Barack Obama, detailed a broad Russian intelligence campaign using cyberactivities and “trolling” on the internet of people viewed as opponents of Russia’s goals.
In a first official Russian response to the published part of the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 9 that its “absolutely unfounded accusations” were “reminiscent of a witch-hunt”. The material released came over at a "rather amateurishly emotional level", he added.
The report caused a storm of comment at home, with leading US newspapers calling it “damning” and prominent US senators such as Republican Lindsey Graham urging president-elect Donald Trump to accept its conclusions and to punish Russia.
However, the report has proven to be controversial as it provided no new evidence and contained several blatant factual mistakes that even Russia critics admit undermined its creditability. However, this was only a redacted version of the full classified report, which could contain more compelling evidence. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on the day of the release: “As you would expect I am hearing the classified report way more interesting.”
The debate that emerged was over the quality and extent of the evidence presented. The New York Times called the document “a damning and surprisingly detailed account of Russia’s efforts to undermine the American electoral system”, but further into the article conceded that it contained no new evidence.
The Washington Post called it a “remarkably blunt assessment” and “an extraordinary post-mortem of a Russian assault on a pillar of American democracy”. But the paper also said on the eve of the report’s publication that even the classified version contained “no explosive revelations”.
While accusing Russian intelligence agencies of obtaining and maintaining “access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards”, the report gave no evidence of tampering with the vote count on November 8, as it was clear to everyone that this would undermine the legitimacy of the presidency.
Russia strenuously rejects the claims that it tried to influence the outcome of the elections. But according to the US agencies’ findings, Putin “aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him”.
The report notes that Putin favoured Trump’s election partly because the Russian leader had previous success dealing with “Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia”, such as Silvio Berlusconi. Putin also regards Trump as a more likely ally in forming Russia’s version of a counterterrorism coalition against Islamic State, it added.
In his first public acknowledgement of the Russian efforts to hack into the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, Trump said in a statement after he was briefed on the findings that Russia, China, and other countries and groups are consistently trying to penetrate the cyber infrastructure of US governmental institutions, businesses and organisations, including the Democrat National Committee.
However, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines”, said Trump, who will be inaugurated as president on January 20. “There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.”
“Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!” Trump wrote on his Twitter page.
The pro-Russian media and commentators were always going to attack the report. When events run against them and the evidence is compelling, the standard Russian response is to muddy the waters as much as possible by “reporting” on alternative theories or introducing red herrings into the narrative.
For example, while it is fairly clear pro-Russian separatists used a Russian BUK missile launcher to shot down the commercial MH17 airplane in 2014, Russian reports of Ukrainian fighter jets in the area, a technical report from the maker of the BUK system denying Russian involvement, and, most bizarrely, a report of Putin’s plane being in the area at the time, obfuscated the picture enough to blur the impact of the story. None of these alternative theories have any concrete evidence to back them up but they were pushed strongly by Russia Today (RT) and other Russian media at the time, before being quietly dropped since. These reports were untrue and were cynically injected into the newsflow by the Russian authorities, according to bne IntelliNews Russian media sources.
There was no need to play that game with this report as it contained several glaring mistakes that undermined its creditability, as RT was quick to point out. RT was squarely in the headlights and about half the report was dedicated to the Kremlin sponsored channel.
Kevin Rothrock, a contributor to the Moscow Times, summed up the queasiness even Russia detractors were left feeling after the report was released.
“These assessments by three of America’s most influential newspapers are themselves surprising and remarkable, in light of the fact that the US intelligence community revealed nothing new on Friday, repeating conclusions already publicized by the White House and officials like US National Intelligence Director James Clapper,” Rothrock wrote in an op-ed.
US journalists have called upon the government to release more of its evidence for open scrutiny to avoid a repeat of the use of false claims of evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq by the administration of George W. Bush to mislead the public.
“Unfortunately, America’s case against the Kremlin suffers from some major flaws that should be acknowledged, even by individuals who argue reasonably that the Russian government likely used hackers to attack and undermine democratic institutions in the US,” writes Rothrock. “Moscow’s ‘influence campaign’ is undoubtedly ‘multifaceted,’ but that’s no reason to embrace the tall tales propagandists tell about themselves, and it’s not an excuse to confuse reporting on social justice with foreign aggression.”
Many leading Western liberal Russia watchers were also openly critical of the report. The Guardians’ Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker tweeted: “I sign up to almost every word of this @KevinRothrock piece.” Walker also contributed to undermining the report’s conclusion by interviewing a hacker included in the additional US sanctions imposed on December 20 who now lives in Thailand and appears to have no connection to the government.
With the report already being questioned by Russia’s critics, Russian media has been having a field day highlighting some of its more obvious clangers.
The intelligence agencies’ material cites the comment by the leader of Russia’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, that he would “drink champagne” if Trump won the US election as evidence, calling him a “Kremlin proxy”, which drew wide derision by Russia watchers. Zhirinovsky is seen as a clown who is famous for making any comment that get him some headlines. He recently exhibited some of his more extraordinary views in an interview with Canadian Samantha Bee for her “Full Frontal” spoof news show in November, and also openly supported Trump and derided Hilary Clinton.
“I understand the need for classified info. But quoting Zhirinovsky?! What is this?!” tweeted Walker.
The New York Times was also guilty of mistakes, claiming the RT host Abby Martin quit on air because of the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, provoking Martin to tweet for a correction. “.@GoldmanRussell Please issue correction in this terrible article—I worked at RT for 1 yr after speaking out, didn’t quit bc of “propaganda”.” The New York Times did correct the piece, but Martin was still not satisfied: “.@nytimes correction still insinuates I quit RT over Ukraine but I had my show for 1yr after denouncing Putin—disproving the article’s point.”
But it was RT itself that made the most hay from the clangers in the US report. RT columnist Bryan McDonald quickly ran out a rebuttal entitled “How RT became the star of CIA, FBI & NSA’s anticlimactic ‘big reveal’,” that lists some of the worst mistakes.
The report cites two shows “Breaking the Set” and “the Truthseeker”, as platforms for denigrating Clinton during the election. But both shows were off the air at least a year before the campaign got under way and well before either Clinton or Trump were candidates.
The report also claimed that RT’s London bureau was headed by Dasha Pushkova, who is also the daughter of a famous Russian journalist and current head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexsey Pushkov. However, Pushkova quit RT several years ago to have children and now works for Russia’s domestic news agency Vesti.
The report contained an appendix with RT audience figures that was badly out of date, claims McDonald: “When it comes to YouTube views, the report cites a figure of 800mn for RT. However, it’s five times higher, at four billion, and counting. Indeed, the English language channel alone can be proud of over 1.5bn hits at present.”
The report once again echoes the US official line that RT is a pure propaganda venture, solely designed to undermine the US, while RT sarcastically countered with its defence it is simply offering a different angle on legitimate news.
While none of the commentators dispute Russia did attempt to spy on the US elections, these clangers only undermine the US intelligence services’ claims on the extent and effectiveness of Russia’s cyber-operations. “We can all see the smoke, but what we need to know is where is the fire and how big is it,” one foreign investor working in Moscow commented.
The poor quality of the report comes on top of questions that many of the most respected Russia watchers were already asking. Widely reported links between Russia’s military intelligence were shown to be shaky by Bloomberg commentator Leonid Bershidsky in a piece titled, “Why I still don’t buy the Russian Hacking Story”.
Likewise, long-time Russia reporter Matt Taibbi wrote a similar piece titled “Something About This Russia Story Stinks” that found the evidence weak and called for fuller disclosure. To be clear: neither of these commentators denied a Russian cyber-spying effort, which is universally accepted; the issue is simply being able to judge the extent and effectiveness of the operation. Was it business-as-usual espionage, or an attempt to engineer an electronic coup d’etat in the November election that would be an act of war, so the answer to these questions are crucial.
The hacking accusation have already brought bad relations down to a new low in just the first week of 2017. So far Trump has said little concrete on the scandal.