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To Russia with love: Trump’s precarious path on hacking and intelligence

Donald Trump continues to downplay any alleged role of Russia in the recent US election. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

There is little indication or even robust suggestion that Russia directly manipulated electronic voting machines and tampered with the vote count for the US presidential election on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

So it remains debatable to what extent Russian intervention had boosted Trump’s popularity and worked to indirectly affect the overall election outcome. But a key point is that the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Homeland Security have drawn identical conclusions about Russian motives for hacking and propaganda during the 2016 race – to support a Trump victory.

It has also been widely reported that Russian security services allegedly penetrated the servers and computer systems of the Republican National Committee, but chose to hold back on releasing the stolen contents from these systems. One alarming and unresolved concern is whether the Russians calculated to hoard this stolen information to gain some form of future leverage against the RNC – or Trump himself.

Nonetheless, the CIA has been blunt in its most recent statement of foreign criminal hacking calculations:

It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favour one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected.

This is more unequivocal than previous analyses of what might be driving ongoing and meddlesome behaviour by Russia. It was linked to a more all-purpose interpretation that presumed a hostile Russian campaign of interference was to sabotage and discredit the US democratic process itself.

In response to the CIA and interconnected findings from several other sources, Trump has openly rejected this intelligence feedback. Instead, alongside his persistent defence of Russia, Trump has slammed the professionalism of the CIA and pointed the finger elsewhere. The origin of the leaks, Trump said, could be “be some guy in his home in New Jersey”.

In this sense, Trump’s deep-rooted scepticism of the intelligence agencies’ investigations appears two-fold.

Firstly, he seems to have picked a highly expedient pathway by implying that the intelligence professionals who analysed the hacks were “politically driven”.

This disturbing response, which threatens to split the intelligence sector, is a repeated claim for which he has delivered no comprehensive rationale. Perhaps as a precursor to the kind of tactics to be used by a Trump White House over the next four years, his team has instead attempted to muddy the waters and snub a major national security issue.

This has relied on a sweeping and misplaced revival of past controversies in US espionage operations to cast doubt on the work of intelligence agencies. The abrupt message, in an unsigned statement, highlighted that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”.

At the heart of such a debate is whether intelligence shapes policy, or policy shapes intelligence, or both. While mistakes have been made, the intelligence community can likewise serve as a convenient scapegoat for the biased preferences of policymakers.

Secondly, in the search for a more generous assessment of Trump’s rationale, the downplaying of consistent and numerous intelligence reports could be linked to a preference for a less robust assessment by the only dissenting voice in the intelligence sector – the FBI. But with a slight variation. The FBI is not sold on the view that Russian cyber-attacks had a particular intention outside an ad hoc effort to disrupt the election. A senior FBI official has stated:

There’s no question that [Russian] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals.

However, this line of defence still has plenty of holes. Again, the FBI does not deny that a covert Russian hacking and disinformation strategy attempted to influence the US election. This remains in stark contrast to Trump, who continues to downplay Russia’s espionage, mainly via his Twitter feed.

The FBI’s departure from other agencies in its avoidance of making any hard and fast statement about the specific purpose of Russian ambitions is most likely connected to its organisational culture. This is founded on criminal standards and court proceedings – the notion of demonstrating proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Yet intelligence is often not akin to legal standard evidence. It can be speculative and draw inferences from incomplete information.

The inherently imprecise and uncertain nature of intelligence can work in a government’s favour. A government can therefore justify policy actions (“we trusted the intelligence in good faith”) or dismiss intelligence outright (“we could not trust the intelligence because it was too thin”).

In this instance, despite the fluidity of what intelligence can and cannot do, the high confidence of the CIA should not be automatically ignored or discredited. The fact that Trump has continued to belittle the agency and its widely echoed findings indicates a president-elect who either does not pay attention to the intelligence product, or does not understand how intelligence operates.

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