When reading an intelligence report, it is advisable to distinguish between those parts of the report which are raw information and those which are comments. Intelligence analysts are trained to make this distinction clear. One method is to place raw information in a column on one side of the page and commentary in a separate column on the other side. Another way is to put the word ‘COMMENT’ before any commentary, and to put ‘END OF COMMENT’ at the end. A reader can then evaluate whether a comment seems justified in light of the supporting facts.
With this in mind, let us now turn to the unclassified report released to the public yesterday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, entitled ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.’
The report doesn’t do a very good job of separating fact and comment. But it does regularly use the phrase ‘We assess.’ Readers can presumably take anything preceded by this phrase as being equivalent to a comment. So let us look at the report’s assessments, and see what facts are used to justify them. Among the quotations which follow, those which I consider to state facts, rather than opinions, are highlighted in bold.
1) ‘We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign.’
The only facts provided to support this assessment are:
- ‘Putin publicly pointed to the Panama Papers disclosure and the Olympic doping scandal as US-directed efforts to defame Russia.’
- ‘Putin … has publicly blamed her [Hillary Clinton] since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012.’
Readers will note that neither of these facts actually shows that ‘Putin ordered an influence campaign.’
2) ‘We assess Putin, his advisers, and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump over Secretary Clinton.’
Only two facts are provided as supporting evidence:
- ‘Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s policy to work with Russia’.
- ‘and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his [Trump’s] Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.’
In addition, the report says that ‘Moscow also saw the election of President elect Trump as a way to achieve an international counterterrorism coalition against the Islamic State’.
This reads as if it is a fact, but it is not. Rather, it appears to be speculation as to what the intelligence analysts believe Moscow ‘saw’.
Finally, in this section, the report adds:
- ‘Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’.
Actually, Schroeder was not involved in business deals with Russia until after his term as Chancellor had ended, and it is disputable whether Berlusconi’s attitude towards Russia was linked to his business interests. Furthermore, this is not evidence as to Putin’s views on how positive his experiences were, nor evidence as to the dispositions of these leaders, but speculation on both those points. Again, therefore, this is more of a comment than a fact. In any case, previous experiences with Berlusconi and Schroeder are not direct evidence of support for Trump.
In short, while it may well be true that the ‘Russian Government developed a clear preference’ for Trump, the very limited evidence provided does not demonstrate this.
3) ‘We assess the influence campaign aspired to help President-elect Trump’s chances of victory when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to the President-elect.’
The only evidence to support this assessment is:
- ‘Before the election, Russian diplomats had publicly denounced the US electoral process’,
- ‘and were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the elections.’
The source of the second statement (preparedness to question the election) is not provided, so we cannot assess its accuracy. It appears to be a comment rather than a fact.
The report adds:
- ‘Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.’
This is also presented as a fact, but the final phrase, beginning ‘judging from’, shows this to be a comment, not a fact. The facts would be the social media activity. This activity is not described, so the reader cannot judge whether the interpretation is accurate. Furthermore, a ‘fact’ that ‘pro-Kremlin bloggers’ had prepared something would not be evidence that the Kremlin itself ‘aspired to help’ Trump. Moreover, the point relates to proposed actions after the election, whereas the assessment is about supposed actions before the election.
4) ‘We assess that influence campaigns are approved at the highest levels of the Russian Government.’
No evidence at all is supplied to substantiate this assessment.
5) ‘We assess Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies. In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016’.
It is not obvious whether the second sentence falls under the ‘we assess’ or is meant to be a supporting fact. I interpret it as the former based on the structure of this section of the report. The claims about Russian intelligence are supported by the following two sentences:
- ‘The General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials.’ [My underlining]
Note that these sentences are not facts, but assessments. No actual information is provided to indicate how these assessments were made. From what is included in the report, the reader has no way of telling whether the opinion that the GRU hacked the DNC is accurate.
6) ‘We assess with high confidence that the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.’
Two pieces of information are provided in support:
- ‘Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be an independent Romanian hacker, made multiple contradictory statements and false claims about his likely Russian identity throughout the election.’
- ‘Press reporting suggests more than one person claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 interacted with journalists.’
The second point is again an assessment of what the information ‘suggests’ to the analysts, and is not itself a fact. If correct, it lessens the possibility that Guccifer 2.0 was an individual Romanian hacker. But even then it is not evidence that the actual hacker was the GRU.
7) ‘We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.’
This claim is supported by the following evidence:
- ‘In early September, Putin said publicly it was important the DNC data was exposed to WikiLeaks.’
- ‘The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has collaborated with WikiLeaks.’
This evidence is entirely circumstantial. It does not in any way link the GRU to WikiLeaks in the specific case of ‘material acquired from the DNC’.
Following this seventh claim, the report goes off on a long diversion into a discussion of ‘Russian propaganda’ (a curious feature of the report is that 50% of it consists of an annex devoted to denouncing RT). The report says that ‘Russia’s state-run propaganda machine – comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls – contributed to the influence campaign.’ As supporting evidence, the report adds [my underlining] that:
- ‘RT and Sputnik … consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets.’
- ‘Russian media hailed President-elect Trump’s victory.’
- ‘Putin’s chief propagandist Dmitriy Kiselev used his flagship weekly newsmagazine program this fall to cast President-elect Trump as an outsider victimized by a corrupt political establishment.’
- ‘Pro-Kremlin proxy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, proclaimed just before the election that if President-elect Trump won, Russia would “drink champagne”.’
- ‘Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton.’
The claim that the Russian state, and President Putin himself, ordered a concerted campaign to subvert the American election thus rests on statements by ‘RT and Sputnik’, ‘Russian media’, ‘Dmitriy Kiselev’, and ‘Vladimir Zhirinovsky’, along with what seems to be an opinion statement about government backing for ‘trolls.’ Indeed the report admits that, ‘Some of our judgements about Kremlin preferences and intent are drawn from the behavior of Kremlin loyal political figures, state media, and pro-Kremlin social media actors.’
This is a questionable methodology. It rests on the assumption that if blowhards like Kiselev and Zhirinovsky, let alone ‘trolls’, say something, then it must be because they are following the Kremlin’s orders. This is a grotesquely oversimplified model of how Russian politics and society work. It can also be challenged by means of ‘whataboutism.’ ‘Pro-White House’ American journalists and trolls regularly accuse Vladimir Putin of being a ‘dictator’, denounce Russian elections as ‘fraudulent’, and promote Russia’s ‘liberal opposition.’ I doubt that the American intelligence community would conclude from this that there has been a concerted, centralized, White-House controlled effort, personally ordered by President Obama, to influence Russian elections. Why then is the fact that Kiselev and Zhirinovsky supported Trump used to justify claims about a Kremlin conspiracy?
None of the above in any way proves that the assessments in the American report are false. It is quite possible that that they are entirely correct. My point is that the assessments are not supported by the information which the report provides. Those inclined to suspect the Russians of the worst and to trust the US intelligence community will take the report at face value, while those inclined to favour Russia and to distrust US intelligence will notice the lack of hard facts and conclude that the report’s assessments are unjustified. One must assume that those issuing the report hoped that it would influence public opinion. Given the lack of solid evidence offered, it is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.