Fact and comment

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.

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11 thoughts on “Fact and comment”

  1. “‘and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his [Trump’s] Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.’”

    Like, uhm, Zhirinovsky and Maria Katasonova?

    “‘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.’”

    What, Katasonova again?!

    “Furthermore, a ‘fact’ that ‘pro-Kremlin bloggers’ had prepared something would not be evidence that the Kremlin itself ‘aspired to help’ Trump. “

    Everybody knows ™ that only paid by Surkov Olgino’s Kremlebots will support anything anti-American and pro-Russian! Shy and conscietous intilligents, gays and democratic journalists – i.e. The Best People of This Country ™ – are thoroughly handshakable and lead the vanguard of the Twitter Revolution (while preparing to meet the imminent arrival of the 6th fleet with flowers and lustrations of vatniks).

    “‘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]”

    and

    “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. “

    Your lack of faith, Professor, is… distrubing. Surely, it’s a widely-held practice in the Civilized West to believe the gentelmen without demanding any proof!

    “‘Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton.’”

    [….]
    [….]
    [….]
    [….]
    [__]

    ^Levels of the proverbial bottom just crashed at full speed by the supposedly competent “Intelligence” analysts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ‘RT and Sputnik … consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets.’

    I hear they also insisted that the grass is green, the sky is blue, and the sun rises in the east before setting in the west. Those bastards.

    Although, to be fair, it should be more like “western media outlets”. The Guardian being among the worst, I’d say.

    I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m getting more and more convinced that a lot of this must be a payback for giving asylum to Snowden, back in 2013. That was huge deal, if you remember. Huge embarrassment for the ‘intelligence’ dudes and the prezdnt. They even forced-landed the Bolivian president and searched his plane – how crazy was that? has anything like it happened before, ever?

    What do you think?

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    1. Snowden was stuck in the Moscow international airport lounge when the US revoked his passport and there was a real chance the plane he was suspected on being on would be force landed once in transit. He was forced on Russia in that way, so I doubt they would be mad at the choice they made on their own for Russia. Plus Snowden is rather minor when compared to geopolitical power plays in the Middle East and Ukraine.

      You can also say that it’s due to the perceived crackdown on the reformers in 2011, that the US saw as a chance to change power in Russia and was really disappointed that it didn’t pan out and instead resulted in a pause in the inexorable progress of liberal democracy… but it’s likely that the State Department is just full of people who are still fighting the Cold War, when really they should have been out of a job in the early 90s, so there is no single special reason for the general hostility.

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      1. “You can also say that it’s due to the perceived crackdown on the reformers in 2011”

        ‘Crackdown on reformers’? What?! Can you elaborate here? Because I can’t remember any “reformers” being “cracked down” in 2011 in Russia.

        “and instead resulted in a pause in the inexorable progress of liberal democracy”

        “Progress”. Funny!

        “but it’s likely that the State Department is just full of people who are still fighting the Cold War”

        If their approach any indication of methods and ruling ideology, I’d rather say that the SD modus operandi is to voice the official threat (“offer” or “suggeston”) from the US establishment to this or that country, and then warning, that should you, uppity nobodies from nowhere decide to decline the offer – or try to bargain – you’d be talking not with the State Department, but with CIA and DoD.

        Because there is little “diplomacy” in the SDUS as of now. Exceptionastan can’t bargain or compromise its position (that’s what is the whole issue of “talks” and “diplomatic conferences” is all about actually) – it’s other countries that should accept the US position. Doing otherwise is the “appeasment” or “a blow to American Greatness”.

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      2. “‘Crackdown on reformers’? What?! Can you elaborate here? Because I can’t remember any “reformers” being “cracked down” in 2011 in Russia.”

        I meant that they ‘perceived’ it as a crackdown and I see now people talking about that five years later, not that it actually went down like that. In reality it was a few demonstrations and then the elections happened. I think the SD saw 2011 as a chance to change power in Russia and were really disappointed when it didn’t pan out. It’s pretty obvious that the ruling party (and mostly due to Putin) is genuinely popular.

        “Because there is little “diplomacy” in the SDUS as of now. Exceptionastan can’t bargain or compromise its position (that’s what is the whole issue of “talks” and “diplomatic conferences” is all about actually) – it’s other countries that should accept the US position.”

        Yes, it’s a pretty dangerous situation that can easily result in escalation. The only cure is for the US to get burned badly, but not in a confrontation with Russia or China, as that might mean being burned in a nuclear war. Some humiliation like a bigger scale failure than bringing democracy to Iraq maybe? Then more reflective foreign policy architects can take over.

        Also, on a more personal level, it seems like ordinary people in the US are just not as optimistic or happy like 15 years ago, and that’s why I enjoy reading ‘Between Two Worlds’ so much because it’s a personal account of comparing daily life there to another country. It’s just an anecdote if it’s one person, but a country where the population doesn’t believe in the ‘American Dream’ and believes it has gone astray, can be pretty dangerous and irrational on the world stage. Sometimes when I read the latest opinion analysis in US news about Putin lamenting the death of the Soviet Union and trying to restore old borders, I think to myself “are you guys just projecting your own thoughts about trying to go back to 20 years ago here?”

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      3. “I meant that they ‘perceived’ it as a crackdown and I see now people talking about that five years later, not that it actually went down like that. In reality it was a few demonstrations and then the elections happened. I think the SD saw 2011 as a chance to change power in Russia and were really disappointed when it didn’t pan out. It’s pretty obvious that the ruling party (and mostly due to Putin) is genuinely popular.”

        I won’t call Bolotnaya participants “reformers”. Virtually none of them were in power of those who protested (and how can you reform if you are powerless?) and those few who were had been out of corridors of power for years. Who’d you call a “reformer” – Mikhail “2%” Kasyanov? Boris Nemtsov? Alexei Kudrin? Or any of the little furhers leading this or that sect of the professional always kvetching oppositioners?

        When Dima and Vova announce their decision to swap places – again – there was no “purge” within the government. Putin inherited Medvedev’s cabinet as it is – including very (I’d say – treasonously) liberal economic block in the government. So-called “crack down” was against a caste of urban kreakls, hipsteriat and so-called Russian liberals, who were living in denial and, probably, entertained some naïve thoughts that “West will help us” (c). Even they were handed unbelievably softly, with not “repressions” to speak of. As for whether Clinton (and Michael McFoul) really planned to inflame the protests into proto-Maidan – maybe. As the test subject the Bolotnaya protests demonstrated aptly that on their own liberarst intelligentsia is worthless as the revolutionary material – for that you need highly motivated nationalists and/or football hooligans. Which was successfully applied on Maidan – together with more direct application of funds and tighter cooperation with local sponsors of “Revolution”, in that case – the Ukrainian “pro-Western” oligarchs.

        “Yes, it’s a pretty dangerous situation that can easily result in escalation. The only cure is for the US to get burned badly, but not in a confrontation with Russia or China, as that might mean being burned in a nuclear war. Some humiliation like a bigger scale failure than bringing democracy to Iraq maybe? Then more reflective foreign policy architects can take over.”

        What – like to scrap an deal with Iran? How this would be a “lesser evil”? The problem is the imperial mentality deep rooted not only in the corridors of power but even among the ordinary people of the US. What, would they just accept that their country is no longer the all-powerful superpower that can dictate its will all across the globe? I doubt it. Its precisely because of several highly hyped international incidents that the appeal to Make America Great Again (c) won hearts and minds of the people. Because you could be either a jobless or a wage slave, or burdened with debts, several mortgages, depression or what not – the thought that you are a Citizen of the Empire could (and do) make you proud and less reflective on the pressing issue. And, most of all, it won’t force you re-evaluate the whole system and demand (violently) some real change, possibly depriving the Powers That Be from the bottomless trough of money and power.

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      4. “What, would they just accept that their country is no longer the all-powerful superpower that can dictate its will all across the globe? I doubt it.”

        Well yes, I’m hoping that they do if that is the problem. The types of companies that people with my degree work for are big and usually based in the US or Europe, and I was planning to come back after the current job finished. I don’t think it has much to do with thinking about dictating your will to the world, but that the current economic system is just not working for a lot of the population. Especially in the USA where there is not much of a safety net and an erosion of trust, things can change in just a decade.

        If the current economic frustration and decreasing quality of life indicators continue, which led to the election of Trump, the symptoms of the disease, like lashing out at Russia about hacking in some inadequate report are just going to get worse, and ultimately I won’t be able to come back. I don’t know why the CIA is doing this. Maybe they think making a big external threat and heating up the situation will cause a big trade coalition to form that can save the US worker? That won’t happen without universal healthcare and a crackdown on the H1-B system. And they are forgetting that China is now the world’s biggest economy and they just drove Russia and China together two years ago. I doubt an external intelligence agency thinks much about real income growth and pensions at home either.

        Anyhow… this is all just fun speculation. I personally resent the lashing out at Russia angle as it seems to come from ignorance. Could be due to my bias of knowing Russian and reading stuff in it from time to time. Also amazed at how incompetent in journalism the Washington Post and New York Times have proven themselves after the election of Trump. A lot has happened in the last two months and if you’re right that it’s mostly because of a superiority complex, then that has to be killed. Something has to be done to stop this building insanity and polarization that I’m reading about. If not, well, I guess I’ll stay in Asia and watch the fireworks.

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  3. The report is such a pile of steaming bovine excrement that no one is prepared to put their name to it, not even a head of agency. Any security professional signing off on this would be a laughing stock.

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  4. According to the “intelligence” report I too must be a Russian troll. I watch silly programs such as Crosstalk, Max Keiser, Thom Hartman and Larry King plus more broadcast on RT (Russia Today). Each of the programs has dozens of guests from every walk of life. From what I recall none of them ever encourage going to war. Tom is known for his liberal point of view, although he has guests who rumble, as he calls it.

    BBC the British government’s propaganda tool promoted an invasion of Iraq and the recent Russian angle. The CBC Canada’s propaganda tool often follows the BBC. Unfortunately the CBC had a problem when Canadians demanded Canada not take part in the US invasion of Iraq 2003.

    When will the almighty US come to the conclusion, although the majority voted to Clinton, the Electoral College voted for Trump. Rather than blame anyone they might want to look at their own electoral system. Bush Jr. vs Gore? I agree with Yonatan with a variation of language.

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  5. Democrats lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Because of that they lost the election. Regarding Wisconsin: take a look at the county map of 2014, and one of 2016 – they’re almost identical. Did Putin also influence the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Elections? Because if he didn’t, then it’s just a trend that DNC missed. Michigan – see the Flint Water Fiasco if you need any real proof of mismanagement. What party was in power in Flint at the time? The Democrats. And as far as Pennsylvania’s concerned, Trump would’ve won it anyways, because Rural Pennsylvania was leaking jobs due to the Democratic Economic Policy. Most Americans know this. The longer this charade goes on, the more Americans it will annoy, and hence, the more alienated the DNC will become.

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