Monday, December 12, 2016

Russian Hackers And American Hacks

The CIA that misjudged Putin for years is now sure of his motives.

By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
December 12, 2016

Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin must be laughing. The Russian strongman almost certainly sought to undermine public confidence in American democracy this year, and as the Obama Administration leaves town it is playing into his hands.

That’s the real story behind the weekend reports that U.S. intelligence services have concluded that Russia intervened to assist Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The stories are attributed to “senior administration” officials who won’t go on the record but assert murky details that are impossible to verify without seeing the evidence.

Mr. Trump is denouncing the claims with his usual subtlety, but he has a point about their timing and nature. “I don’t want anyone hacking us,” Mr. Trump said on Fox News Sunday, while blaming the leaks on Democrats. “I think it’s ridiculous” and “I don’t believe it.”

Democrats are still in shock from their defeat, and many want to add the Kremlin to FBI Director James Comey, fake news and the Electoral College as excuses that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s victory.

The new information in these latest stories is less about new intelligence than it is a judgment about Russian motives. Other sources who have seen the intelligence say there’s strong evidence that actors linked to high-level Russian officials hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) website. The Russians then posted them on sites they set up or handed them to WikiLeaks, though even the WikiLeaks transfer isn’t known for sure. The Administration made public the conclusion about the DNC hack months ago.

The difference now is that the intelligence community is said to have concluded with “high confidence” that the Russians did the hacking to help elect Mr. Trump. But we’re told the evidence for this conclusion is far from definitive, and multiple intelligence services offered no such judgments when briefing the House Intelligence Committee on the election-related hacks last week.

The New York Times cites claims from its sources that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee website but then didn’t leak any documents. But other sources say that while it’s clear the Russians were probing the RNC website, it isn’t clear they penetrated it enough to grab emails. This is in contrast to the months the Russians spent roaming through the DNC site. We’re also told that there’s no definitive intelligence about who hacked Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. His emails posted on WikiLeaks were arguably more politically damaging than those from the DNC.

Keep in mind that almost no one thought Mr. Trump would win the election, and it’s hard to believe the Russians were the sole prophetic exception. The hacking began last spring, and the Russian motive could have been to gather information to embarrass or blackmail Clinton officials once they were in office. The Kremlin could also merely have wanted to sow confusion and doubt on the election result.

If the CIA really does have “high confidence” about Mr. Putin’s motives, this would also be the first time in recent history. These are the same seers who missed the Russian invasion of Crimea, missed the incursion into southern Ukraine, and missed Mr. Putin’s foray into Syria. The intelligence community also claimed “high confidence” in 2008 for its judgment that Iran had suspended its nuclear-weapons program. That judgment conveniently shut down any further Bush Administration action against Iran. But a year later, in the Obama Administration, our highly confident spooks disclosed Iran’s secret Fordo underground facility.


None of this means Americans shouldn’t be alarmed about Russian intentions or cyber attacks. Mr. Putin is an authoritarian who came of age as a Soviet spy and wants to damage U.S. interests around the world. Rather than dismiss evidence of Russian hacking, Mr. Trump ought to point out that Mr. Obama has done nothing to make Russia pay a price for it. He should also call for the entire story to come out, not merely alleged facts from anonymous sources.

All the more so as Mr. Trump undertakes his own attempt to “get along” with the Russian strongman, as he puts it. Like Presidents Bush and Obama, Mr. Trump thinks he can cajole Mr. Putin into some kind of cooperative grand bargain. The Russian always pockets U.S. concessions and then reneges on his promises.

A bipartisan group of Senators, including Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, has called for a Senate investigation into the election-related hacks. That’s fine with us as long it doesn’t become the partisan exercise that Democrats appear to want.

But why wait? U.S. intelligence services already know most of what they’re likely to learn. Release the evidence now. Let’s see if the Kremlin really did steal RNC emails, and let’s also hear from those who don’t share CIA Director John Brennan’s “high confidence.” The last thing Americans need is for an outgoing Administration that is still sore over losing an election to assist Vladimir Putin in poisoning the result.

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