The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Hunter Biden laptop and claims of ‘Russian disinfo’

In 2020, Joe Biden referenced a letter from former U.S. Intelligence officials warning his son’s laptop could be tied to a Russian information campaign. (Video: The Washington Post)
15 min

DONALD TRUMP: “It’s the laptop from hell …”

JOE BIDEN: “Look, there are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan. They have said that this has all the characteristics — four, five former heads of the CIA, both parties, say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage. Nobody believes it except him and his good friend Rudy Giuliani.”

TRUMP: “You mean, the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax? You gotta be—”

BIDEN: “That’s exactly what … we’re told.”

TRUMP: “Is this where you’re going? This is where he’s going? The laptop is Russia, Russia, Russia?”

exchange during the final presidential debate, Oct. 22, 2020

“60 MINUTES”: “Do you believe the recent leak of material allegedly from Hunter’s computer is part of a Russian disinformation campaign?”

BIDEN: From what I’ve read and know, the intelligence community warned the president that Giuliani was being fed disinformation from the Russians. And we also know that Putin is trying very hard to spread disinformation about Joe Biden. And so when you put the combination of Russia, Giuliani and the president together, you assess what it is. It’s a smear campaign because he has nothing he wants to talk about in his — what is he running on? What is he running on?”

exchange on 60 Minutes, Oct. 25, 2020

About a month before the 2020 presidential election, the New York Post revealed that it had obtained emails from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which a Delaware repair-shop owner said he had abandoned. That laptop — and its contents — are center stage again as congressional Republicans have argued that social-media suppression of the story — and mainstream media ignoring it — may have swung the election to Biden.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. For many political journalists and social media companies, the New York Post reporting on the emails was deja vu.

The leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta may have contributed to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016. WikiLeaks slowly doled out the documents for maximum impact — and it was later determined that the hacks were orchestrated by operatives with ties to the Russian government, which had favored Trump.

News organizations vowed to do better in 2020 and be extra cautious with hacked materials. Complicating matters was that the source of the hard drive, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, refused to share it with other news organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times. Few were willing to report information in the New York Post stories without their own due diligence, especially if Russia was once again seeking to meddle in the election.

Twitter, operating under its hacked material protocol developed after the 2016 election, blocked users from sharing the New York Post story — a decision officials later said was a mistake.

A major question was the origin of the materials. The story that Hunter Biden turned over for repair a laptop filled with sensitive materials — and then never picked it up — seemed rather fantastic.

On Oct. 16, a week before the final presidential debate, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told CNN: “Well we know that this whole smear on Joe Biden comes from the Kremlin. ... Clearly, the origins of this whole smear are from the Kremlin, and the president is only too happy to have Kremlin help and try to amplify it.”

That prompted a response on Oct. 19 from the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe: “Let me be clear: The intelligence community doesn’t believe that, because there is no intelligence that supports that. And we shared no intelligence with Chairman Schiff or any other member of Congress that Hunter Biden’s laptop is part of some Russian disinformation campaign.”

That night, Politico published a story with an explosive headline: “Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say.”

The article said that more than 50 former senior intelligence officials, including five CIA chiefs, had signed a letter saying the release of the emails “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”

That’s what Biden referred to in the presidential debate and on “60 Minutes” — though his wording was much stronger than the letter’s. Biden said the letter said the laptop story was a “Russian plan,” “a bunch of garbage,” “disinformation from the Russians” and “a smear campaign.”

The letter artfully does not say any of those things.

In fact, it does not even say what the Politico headline claimed — though that headline likely shaped perceptions of the letter that continue to this day. The article itself does not say the letter made a disinformation claim.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Feb. 6 sent letters to 12 of the signers, requesting interviews about a letter he said “falsely implied the New York Post’s reporting about Hunter Biden was the product of Russian disinformation.”

The Fact Checker reached out to the 12 people who received Jordan’s letter. Most did not respond, but we learned that the letter was organized by Michael J. Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, and written and edited by a number of senior intelligence officials who had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Morell had long been considered a top candidate for CIA director in a Biden administration, news reports said, but key Democrats objected, claiming he publicly supported the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“There was message distortion,” former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. told The Fact Checker in a telephone interview. “All we were doing was raising a yellow flag that this could be Russian disinformation. Politico deliberately distorted what we said. It was clear in paragraph five.” He said he was unaware of how Biden described the letter during the debate.

“No one who has spent time in Washington should be surprised that journalists and politicians willfully or unintentionally misconstrue oral or written statements,” said Thomas Fingar, a signer who had been the top intelligence official at the State Department, in an email. “The statement we signed was carefully written to minimize the likelihood that what was said would be misconstrued, and to provide a clear written record that could be used to identify and disprove distortions.”

John Paul Mac Isaac, the Delaware computer repairman, last year sued Politico for defamation, citing Politico’s headline. He also sued Schiff and CNN over the Schiff interview, as well as the Daily Beast for reporting the laptop had been “stolen.” The Daily Beast has apologized and retracted that statement; it has been dropped from the lawsuit.

In a statement to The Fact Checker, Politico said: “The article fairly and accurately reported on — and summarized — the intelligence officials’ letter. More specifically, the headline is a fair summary of their allegations, the subhead offers additional context, and the first paragraph of the article hyperlinks to the letter itself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusion.”

The headline has not been updated since the article was published. The subhead said: “More than 50 former intelligence officials signed a letter casting doubt on the provenance of a New York Post story on the former vice president’s son.”

Let’s examine what the letter says.

Dissecting the letter

“We are all individuals who devoted significant portions of our lives to national security. Some of us served in senior positions in policy departments and agencies, and some of us served in senior positions in the Intelligence Community. Some of us were political appointees, and some were career officials. Many of us worked for presidents of both political parties.”

Analysis: This is boilerplate intended to signify the importance of the signers.

“We are all also individuals who see Russia as one of our nation’s primary adversaries. All of us have an understanding of the wide range of Russian overt and covert activities that undermine US national security, with some of us knowing Russian behavior intimately, as we worked to defend our nation against it for a career. A few of us worked against Russian information operations in the United States in the last several years.”

Analysis: This sets the stage to bring Russia into the conversation.

“Perhaps most important, each of us believes deeply that American citizens should determine the outcome of elections, not foreign governments. All of us agree with the founding fathers’ concern about the damage that foreign interference in our politics can do to our democracy.”

Analysis: This provides a nonpartisan reason to explain why the letter was written.

“It is for all these reasons that we write to say that the arrival on the US political scene of emails purportedly belonging to Vice President Biden’s son Hunter, much of it related to his time serving on the Board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”

Analysis: Note that the letter refers to a Russian “information operation” — not disinformation. Within the national security community, there’s a difference.

“Information operations and warfare, also known as influence operations, includes the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent,” says the Rand Corp.

Disinformation, by contrast, is false information deliberately intended to mislead.

Two signers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed the letter was carefully phrased to highlight the possibility of information operations — the dissemination of materials designed to have an impact, whether true or not.

But Clapper disagreed. “To me, it’s a difference without a distinction. It could have been bad information, false information,” he said. “But we had no evidence, no inside baseball that it was. The intent of the letter was that this could be Russian disinformation — emphasis on could. It’s a very important nuance … a distinction that people are always ignoring.”

“We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement — just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.”

Analysis: This paragraph five — a “get out of jail free” card — is intended to provide plausible deniability if Russian involvement is not proven.

One of the signers, Douglas Wise, a former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director, recently told the Australian that the signers believed that much of the laptop was legitimate or else any Russian plan to influence the elections would fail. (After all, none of the leaked emails from 2016 were shown to be false.) “All of us figured that a significant portion of that content had to be real to make any Russian disinformation credible,” he said.

Three other signers told The Fact Checker that Wise was on target. “From my experience, the most effective disinformation campaigns — what were called Soviet ‘active measures’ when I first encountered them during the Reagan administration — build on factual information,” Fingar said. “Pure fiction is less likely to fool target audiences. I suspect but do not know that other signers have drawn the same lessons.”

“At that point in time, it smelled like a Russia information operation,” said another signer, which he said would make sense only if a significant amount of the material was true but was being weaponized to affect the election.

Such certitude about the authenticity of much of the laptop data is not reflected in the letter.

Clapper, for his part, disagreed that it could be assumed at the time that many of the laptop emails were legitimate. “I did not examine the laptop,” he said. “I did not know the content. So I don’t think I could subscribe to that.”

“If we are right, this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election, and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this.”

Analysis: “If we are right” is another “get out of jail free” card.

“There are a number of factors that make us suspicious of Russian involvement.”

Analysis: The letter begins to make its case for a Russian role in the dissemination of the laptop emails.

“Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives, as outlined publicly and recently by the Intelligence Community, to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump. For the Russians at this point, with Trump down in the polls, there is incentive for Moscow to pull out the stops to do anything possible to help Trump win and/or to weaken Biden should he win. A ‘laptop op’ fits the bill, as the publication of the emails are clearly designed to discredit Biden.”

Analysis: The letter argues Russia is trying a replay of 2016.

“Such an operation would be consistent with some of the key methods Russia has used in its now multiyear operation to interfere in our democracy — the hacking (via cyber operations) and the dumping of accurate information or the distribution of inaccurate or misinformation. Russia did both of these during the 2016 presidential election — judgments shared by the US Intelligence Community, the investigation into Russian activities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the entirety (all Republicans and Democrats) on the current Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Analysis: Again, the argument is that Russia’s success in 2016 would embolden it to try again in 2020.

“Such an operation is also consistent with several data points. The Russians, according to media reports and cybersecurity experts, targeted Burisma late last year for cyber collection and gained access to its emails. And Ukrainian politician and businessman Adriy Derkach, identified and sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for being a 10-year Russian agent interfering in the 2020 election, passed purported materials on Burisma and Hunter Biden to Giuliani.”

Analysis: The letter speculates that Russia is responsible for obtaining the laptop and getting it into Giuliani’s hands. Interestingly, this part of the letter suggests the laptop data might be real — but it was stolen to sway the election.

“Our view that the Russians are involved in the Hunter Biden email issue is consistent with two other significant data points as well. According to The Washington Post, citing four sources, ‘U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence.’ In addition, media reports say that the FBI has now opened an investigation into Russian involvement in this case. According to USA Today, ‘ … federal authorities are investigating whether the material supplied to the New York Post by Rudy Giuliani … is part of a smoke bomb of disinformation pushed by Russia.’”

Analysis: The letter cites media reports suggesting Russian involvement.

“We do not know whether these press reports are accurate, but they do suggest concern within executive branch departments and agencies that mirrors ours. It is high time that Russia stops interfering in our democracy.”

Analysis: Another “get out of jail free” card — the letter says the signers have no idea if the media reports are accurate, even though it just cited them.

The Bottom Line

The letter does not clearly say the Hunter Biden laptop was a “Russian disinformation” program, notwithstanding the Politico headline. In fact, the letter mainly argues that Russia may have had a role in obtaining and disseminating Hunter Biden’s emails — which could mean as little as Russian bots spreading awareness on social media.

But it was to Joe Biden’s advantage to misleadingly embrace the message conveyed in the headline — just as, for political reasons, for Republicans to continue to make that claim as well.

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