As a matter of timing, it was odd: Last week, the New York Times attached a lumpy correction to a story about the political dynamics of President Trump’s various proclamations on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The story highlighted the president’s various “asterisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation” about Russian cyberattacks, and made a reference to the consensus among “17 intelligence agencies” about Russian interference.
Here’s the text:
Correction: June 29, 2017A White House Memo article on Monday about President Trump’s deflections and denials about Russia referred incorrectly to the source of an intelligence assessment that said Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.
News organizations had been repeating that “17 intelligence agencies” line for months and months, with no corrections in sight. Why was the New York Times issuing a correction all of a sudden? And why did the Associated Press add a clarification one day later? Who asked for it? The New York Times declined to comment beyond the correction. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined to comment on the record.
What we do know is that the number has been an issue for the president. In a Thursday news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump fielded a question from NBC News correspondent Hallie Jackson about his take on Russian meddling. “I heard it was 17 agencies. I said, ′Boy, that’s a lot. Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it.’ And we did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17. And many of your compatriots had to change their reporting or they had to apologize or they had to correct.”
Trump spoke the truth. The January intelligence-community assessment of Russian meddling stemmed from the findings of three agencies: the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency. It was published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Though the ODNI represents all of the various 17 intelligence agencies and elements in the U.S. government, not each one of those agencies contributed intelligence to the report. In testimony before Congress in May, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put a point on the distinction: “As you know, the [assessment] was a coordinated product from three agencies: CIA, NSA and the FBI — not all 17 components of the intelligence community.” In either case, the conclusions were unanimous.
Also in remarks before Congress, former CIA director John Brennan spoke to why there weren’t “17 intelligence agencies” behind the findings: “It only involved the FBI, NSA and CIA as well as the Office of Director of National Intelligence; it wasn’t a full interagency community assessment that was coordinated among the 17 agencies and for good reason, because of the nature and the sensitivity of the information trying to, once again, keep the tightly compartmented.” The Daily Caller on June 1 wrote a fact-check vacating a more recent claim by Hillary Clinton about the 17-agencies agreement.*
So it’s an exaggeration to say that “17 U.S. intelligence agencies … blame Russia for election meddling” (AP, June 22); or that “the 17 intelligence agencies released a declassified report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the 2016 election with the goal of disparaging Hillary Clinton while boosting Trump and undermining the public’s faith in the democratic process” (CNN, June 28); or to ask, “How stunning is that to you, that the president of the United States disputes the evidence of 17 intelligence agencies in this country?” (Chuck Todd, “Meet the Press,” June 18); or to point out, “And then, on the broader question, the underlying issue of our relationship with Russia and the fact that Russia, according to our 17 intelligence agencies, interfered in our campaign, James Comey was unequivocal on that point” (George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, June 11).
The 17-intelligence-agencies shorthand is everywhere, such that off-base iterations far outnumber corrections and clarifications at this point. It’s a convenient and powerful number, too: In today’s world, it’s hard to find 17 people who agree on a single thing, let alone 17 government agencies and offices. So its coinage had to come from someone who had a stake in a strong affirmation of the intelligence consensus on Russian interference. Sure enough: In a Las Vegas debate last October, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, “We have 17 — 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”
Those remarks refer to an Oct. 7 statement from the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security that starts like this: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
Following Clinton’s debate remarks about the 17 agencies, fact-checkers confirmed her contention. USA Today headlined: “Yes, 17 intelligence agencies really did say Russia was behind hacking.” PolitiFact gave Clinton a “True” rating:
The 17 separate agencies did not independently declare Russia the perpetrator behind the hacks. Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said that this cuts against Clinton’s point, saying, “It is unlikely that all 16 of the agencies had looked independently at the Russian connection, which is what Clinton seemed to indicate.” (Cheung said 16 agencies because he omitted the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from his count.)However, as the head of the 17-agency intelligence community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, headed by James Clapper, speaks on behalf of the group.
Speaking on behalf of a group, however, doesn’t quite equate to “all” members of the group “concluding” the same thing.
Whatever your take on the fact-checks, the media laundered and recycled a Clinton talking point without too much exploration of the intricacies through which the intelligence community reaches its conclusions. Until the New York Times wrote up a correction, that is.
*Updated to add the line about the Daily Caller’s contribution.