U.S. spy chiefs presented their case at Trump Tower on Friday that Russia was behind the hacks that rocked the 2016 presidential election. But they didn’t help themselves by releasing a strongly-worded report that is scant on new evidence—and is, in some cases, a literal rehash of outdated information.
“There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” President-elect Trump said in a statement right after he met with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director Jim Comey, and NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election [and with]… a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence chiefs announced through an unclassified report released after the meeting that sounded like it was coming from an alternate universe.
The night-and-day report and reaction hint at either a difficult relationship to come between the president and America’s spies, or a cagey response by a future commander in chief who is only beginning to realize how the chess masters in the Kremlin play the game of geopolitics.
The unclassified report is unlikely to convince a single skeptic, as it offers none of the evidence intelligence officials say they have to back it up—none of those emails or transcripts of phone calls showing a clear connection between the Russian government and the political intrusions. The reason—revealing how U.S. spies know what they know could endanger U.S. spy operations.
And it contains some out-dated information that seems slapdash considering the attention focused on it. Errors in the report were almost inevitable, because of the haste in which it was prepared, said one U.S. official briefed on the report. The report comes in three levels—unclassified, classified and then one so top secret that only a handful of intelligence professionals was able to view the whole thing. That most classified report is the one that went to President Barack Obama, and to Trump. The merely classified version will be briefed to lawmakers in the coming days. The classification issues alone meant it was “hard to transmit around” to be fact-checked, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“The unclassified report is not particularly impressive,” Susan Hennessey, a former NSA official, told The Daily Beast in an email. “It basically confirms what those who had been paying attention already know. It may serve to limit Trump for purposes of plausible deniability. But this is a highly risk-averse document that shows deference to the protection of sources and methods over informing the American people. That’s a shame, as certainly more detail could have been safely provided.”
That lack of specificity makes it easier for Trump to stay in the “see no, hear no, speak no evil” column. His post-spy-summit statement seemed to cherry-pick the intelligence, only mentioning parts of the briefing that confirmed his belief that election vote tallies were not tampered with, rather than the part that described how the Democratic National Committee and key Hillary Clinton campaign officials were hacked, and their emails released to devastating result.
Then again, maybe the scales did fall from his eyes behind those closed doors, and he did believe the “forensic evidence” the spies had gathered, as described by current and former U.S. intelligence officials, including emails between Russian officials celebrating the results of the election, and intercepted conversations showing they’d hoped to sow discord and doubt, whoever got elected.
Perhaps the president-elect just got a crash course in “Moscow Rules,” and is beginning to understand the world-class hacking machine at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disposal. The rules, established for U.S. spies working in Moscow during the Cold War, include: Don’t harass the opposition; lull them into a sense of complacency; and pick the time and place for action.
After all, Trump did call the meeting with intelligence officials “constructive,” adding that he has “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation,” after a week of tweets that made derisive references to U.S. spies.