Three things struck me about the unclassified Joint Analysis Report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The first thing is that these are some very jarring paragraphs to read:
Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
As a big fan of the U.S.-led liberal international order, I find this a wee bit disturbing. By almost every conventional metric of power, Russia is a far weaker country than the United States. And yet, through a mixture of cyberespionage, misinformation and propaganda, Russia seems poised to see the collapse of the liberal world order, to be replaced by leaders who embrace a populist nationalism more simpatico with Russia’s worldview.
The second thing is that the evidence contained in the report is pretty damn thin. To be fair, there’s a reason for that:
The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.
Thus, while the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods . ..
An assessment of attribution [of cyberattacks] usually is not a simple statement of who conducted an operation, but rather a series of judgments that describe whether it was an isolated incident, who was the likely perpetrator, that perpetrator’s possible motivations, and whether a foreign government had a role in ordering or leading the operation.
This makes things difficult for a critical reader. Most of the report is assertions of the intelligence community’s confidence in the findings. Without a close look at the supporting evidence, those skeptical of Russian interference will continue to be skeptical. Meanwhile, those who believe it happened won’t have their faith shaken in that claim. The problem with the unclassified version of the report is that it lacks the ability to change anyone’s mind.
The third thing is what the report does not discuss at all: Did any of it matter? In the immortal words of Hillary Clinton, “What difference does it make”? Even if the Russians interfered, that doesn’t mean it affected the election outcome. After all, the big hit to the Clinton campaign was the FBI’s announcement that it was looking into the email scandal again. That was the one online brouhaha that did not involve the Russians. We know that the Russians themselves were surprised by the outcome of the election. So does any of this matter?
Yes, it does, mostly because of the reaction that did not happen. Recall that the intelligence community issued a warning in early October about Russian interference in the election, including, “the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” What puzzles me is why that announcement didn’t have more of an effect.
Traditionally, countries are not keen on foreign powers meddling in their elections. When Hugo Chávez tried to export his Bolivarian revolution to other countries in Latin America, he faced blowback in some countries as a foreign interloper. The United States has tried to influence elections in other countries, but the success rate has not been all that great. The revelation of Russia’s combination of propaganda and cyberespionage should have triggered revulsion within the United States. Instead. over the past two years, public attitudes toward Russia have split down partisan lines. The GOP — the same party that nominated a Russia hawk four years ago — now has a rank-and-file that looks more favorably upon Putin and Julian Assange than Democrats.
This might have something to do with the president-elect either claiming that there was no effect from Russia’s interference or blaming the cyberattacks on the Democrats rather than the perpetrators. Which, if you think about it, is a bit absurd:
When Watergate was being investigated, did people argue "well, break in didn't effect the outcome, so no big deal?"
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) January 6, 2017
Perhaps the biggest problem ailing the United States is that what was a high-trust society has become a low-trust society. The erosion of confidence in experts and in institutions makes it very easy for Trump supporters to reject the intelligence community’s warnings.
What Russia did is not new. Espionage, propaganda and disinformation have been around for a while now. We know that other countries had hacked U.S. campaigns in prior election cycles, but with little effect. What was different about Russia’s efforts in 2016 wasn’t the daring or the sophistication — it was that the discovery of such efforts didn’t lead to bipartisan condemnation of Russian interference.
Americans are operating in a climate of rising economic inequality, rising levels of political polarization, and little faith in journalism. Sure, it seems very likely that Russia pushed on the door to encroach upon American democracy. The truly disconcerting thing is that, by 2016, the door was unguarded and waiting to be opened.