Friday, February 10, 2017

Finding Real News

If you want to get a better understanding of hot button political issues, the best thing is to read overtly partisan press or blogs.  Read outlets like The Nation and Mother Jones on the left and those like National Review Online and the Powerline Blog on the right, or check out Reason or Cato from the libertarian perspective.  You'll hear the best arguments from all sides, not just the best from one side.

The worst place to go to understand these issues is from media that bills itself as objective, whether it be the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN or Fox News.  Most of the time you will end up knowing less about the issue after you've read their analysis.

The other thing you should do, if you have the time, is read original documents, not just what someone is telling you about them.  Let's take a recent example to see what we can learn.

There was a great deal of media coverage about a report issued by American intelligence agencies on January 6, 2017 about Russian influence in our recent President election.  You can find the declassified sections of the report report here.  Below are some of the questions and observations I would have liked to see in the "objective" press, but from my reading and observation were not raised.  But first, I'll give you my amateur assessment of the Kremlin's interest in the presidential election.

I think it probable that the Kremlin favored the election of Donald Trump.  I base that on:
  • Trump's favorable personal comments about Putin.
  • Trump's history of favorable views of authoritarian strongmen.
  • His refusal to condemn Russia for aggression in Crimea and Ukraine or murdering its political opponents.
  • Trump's view of Russia as a potential ally in the Middle East and the fight against ISIS. 
  • The presence, in the early stages of his campaign, of senior aides known to have favorable views of current Kremlin leadership.
Factors countering that view:
  • The widespread assumption in the American intelligence community that the Kremlin is in possession of the Hillary Clinton emails giving them potential leverage if she were elected.
  • The controversial dossier about Donald Trump's activities in Russia that was purported to come from Russian intelligence sources and which, though it did not become public until after the election, was in widespread circulation among media hostile to Trump prior to the election. 
A possible factor countering that view:
  • How did the Kremlin rate the chances that a Clinton presidency would continue the policies of the Obama presidency which was ineffective in opposing Russia?
Despite these counter factors, if I were betting, I'd bet on the Kremlin favoring Trump, though I don't consider it a certainty. 

One other point before discussing the intelligence report; I have little patience for those jumping on Trump about his views of Russia, which I do not share, but who enjoyed President Obama's snarky remark in 2012, "the 1980s are calling, they want their foreign policy back", responding to Mitt Romney's view that Russia was a serious threat to America; who ignored Obama's remarks, caught off-mic, to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev that he "would have more flexibility" after the 2012 election; who had no objection to Obama's reneging on promises of missile defense for Eastern European countries in order to obtain Russian cooperation on Iran, and his shutting down of a 2015 State Department initiative to combat Russian disinformation because he wanted "not to upset the Russians" about cooperating on Syrian peace proposals; and who blamed George W Bush for bad relations with the Kremlin and supported Hillary Clinton's naive "reset".

I'd also recommend reading my post from December on Gleb Pavlovskiy's views on Putin, Trump and Obama.

AND NOW, the report, issued by the CIA, FBI and NSA.

Key Judgments from the Report:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.  We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.

Moscow's approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia's understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates.  When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.

Moscow's influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations such as cyber activity with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third party intermediaries, and paid social media users or "trolls".  Russia, like its Soviet predecessor has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focusing on US presidential election that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

Russia's intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US president election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.

DHS [Department of Homeland Security] assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.
In summary, the report concludes:
The election vote was not hacked (though based on at least one poll, more than half of Democrats believe, based on media coverage, that Russia actually did hack into the vote counting).

Moscow was trying to influence the election, as Russia and its Soviet predecessor have done in the past.

In doing so, Russian cyber operations were directed against both parties.

Moscow's goal varied from undermining Clinton's credibility in light of her expected election to helping Trump win the election.
Now let's look at some of the aspects of the report that should have raised questions or comment in the media:

1.  The report states that its conclusions were with a high degree of confidence by the FBI and CIA, while the NSA's were made with a moderate degree of confidence.   The NSA is the only one of the three with access to signals intelligence.  What were the reasons for the differing levels of confidence between the FBI/CIA and the NSA?  This is of particular import because the information cited in the body of the report for the FBI/CIA conclusion almost exclusively consists of publicly available data (publications, Kremlin press statement or public statements by Putin associates).

2.  Regarding the Kremlin's goals in 2016, the phrasing of the report is puzzling.  The report states that Russia "aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible" but also that when it appeared Clinton would win the election, "the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency".  The language seems to imply that there was an early period when Russia was trying to help Trump win, followed by a switch when the Kremlin thought Clinton would win.  Is this a correct reading?  Can the agencies tell us when this switch occurred and why?  Did it occur before or after Wikileaks released the DNC and Podesta emails (disclosures which the report concludes "did not contain any evident forgeries"?  Since Trump trailed consistently in all polls from the time he clinched the Republican nomination through election day, on what basis did the Kremlin make a different assessment at some point?  When did the Kremlin not think Clinton was likely to win the election? In other words, during which periods was the Kremlin trying to help Trump win, as opposed to damaging a future Clinton presidency?

3.  The report places the Kremlin's 2016 influence campaign in an historical context, citing prior Russian and Soviet efforts to influence American presidential elections, though it also concludes the Kremlin took this to an unprecedented level in 2016.  I would have liked to see some questions about this aspect of the report.  Did the Kremlin seek to influence the 2012 election and, if so, in whose favor?  Did the Kremlin seek to influence the 2008 election and, if so, in whose favor (we know that Kremlin spokespersons denounced John McCain, and Republicans in general, during the course of that election)?  Do the intelligence agencies have information they can release about the reported contacts in 1983 between Senator Edward Kennedy and Communist Party Secretary Andropov regarding coordinating efforts to defeat President Ronald Reagan in his re-election bid? The report contains this disclosure:
In the 1970s, the KGB recruited a Democratic Party activist who reported information about then presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter's campaign and foreign policy plans . . .  
Can the intelligence agencies shed any additional light on this incident?  Is there additional information regarding past Russian and Soviet election influencing that can be publicly shared?

4.  Did the agencies make an assessment of Kremlin goals in the cyber attacks against the Republican Party?   What, if any, information was obtained in these attacks?  Was information obtained that was not released during the course of the election?

5.  The report alleges that, through RT Americas TV, the Kremlin waged a propaganda campaign in support of Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that also drew support from a diverse array of American politicians including President Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and David Duke.  Can the agencies provide any additional information in support of this claim?

6.  The report alleges that, through RT Americas TV, the Kremlin waged a propaganda campaign in support of the anti-fracking movement, with a goal of damaging energy development in the United States. Can the agencies provide any additional information in support of this claim?



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