The Washington Post and The New York Times have released explosive reports suggesting that Russian hackers actively screwed with the presidential election, even tipping things in favor of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. The stories, however, are based on anonymous sources from groups whose records of obfuscations, mistakes, and screw-ups are legendary. At least one elected official, the libertarian-leaning Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has called for public disclosure of whatever evidence U.S. intelligence community presented to be made available to Congress:
If intel community has evidence, it should be shared immediately with all of Congress. Be skeptical of any claims from anonymous officials. https://t.co/cBFyRGmypu
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) December 10, 2016
If anything, Amash is too selective in saying all members of Congress (instead of particular members and committees) should be presented the full case. Rather, this is something the voting public should be able to suss out. We'll get to that in a moment.
The Post's assessment of Russian efforts includes statements like this one:
"It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia's goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected," said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. "That's the consensus view."…
The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now "quite clear" that electing Trump was Russia's goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
According to the Post, officials in the Obama administration had been discussing how to deal with Russian activity, including hacks of emails of the Democratic National Committee that were then supposedly given to Wikileaks, for months. The administration ultimately did nothing (or at least nothing public) with their suspicions. Wikileaks denies that Russia was the source for either the DNC emails or the "Podesta emails," which the group released in the final weeks of the election.
In its continuing coverage, The New York Times notes that the new revelations aren't based on new evidence:
The C.I.A.'s conclusion does not appear to be the product of specific new intelligence obtained since the election, several American officials, including some who had read the agency's briefing, said on Sunday. Rather, it was an analysis of what many believe is overwhelming circumstantial evidence—evidence that others feel does not support firm judgments—that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump, and got their desired outcome.
It is unclear why the C.I.A. did not produce this formal assessment before the election, although several officials said that parts of it had been made available to President Obama in the presidential daily briefing in the weeks before the vote. But the conclusion that Moscow ran an operation to help install the next president is one of the most consequential analyses by American spy agencies in years.
The Times' coverage stresses that the Russian government has disliked Hillary Clinton at least since the early 2000s when, as a senator from New York, she encouraged anti-Russian activities in Ukraine and elsewhere. In 2011, Vladimir Putin publicly accused Clinton, then secretary of state, of instigating anti-Putin demonstrations after he won re-election. By the same token, says the Times, Donald Trump is considered to be chummy and accommodating to Putin. That's all plausible-sounding enough, even if it does leave various loose ends (such as the Obama administration's much-touted attempted "reboot" with Russia and uranium deals involving the Clinton Foundation) unexplained. Is it likely that Russia and Putin took an interest in the U.S. election and that they preferred one candidate over another? Certainly. And it's equally likely that Russia would prefer Trump, who has signaled clearly that he is less interested in hemming in Russia's influence in former Soviet republics and Europe.
At the same time, the stories also function to delegitimate Donald Trump's win in the presidential race, which was narrow to begin with (contrary to the Trump campaign's insistence that he won in a "landslide," it just ain't so). Forget that neither story actually presents even anonymously sourced information that shows Russian (or even Wikileaks) activity tipped the election. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver argues that if anything tipped things to Trump, it was FBI Director James Comey's decision to reopen his investigation into Clinton's email scandal:
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 11, 2016
Well, maybe, maybe not. There's at least one thing to keep in mind as this story plays out, especially in the post-fact world that the Trump era may have helped usher in: We need more transparency than even Justin Amash is calling for. Given the incendiary nature of the charges being made in the press by anonymous sources at two of the least-reputable organizations in the United States (both the CIA and FBI have long histories of making honest mistakes, incompetent oversights, and outright deception), it's not enough for the intelligence community simply to share its information with the full Congress, which is actually even less trusted than the media. Just 20 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers, for instance, while even fewer of us—just 9 percent!—have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in Congress.
Writing at Medium, former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington argues "Make public all Russian election hacking and influence op intel. Now. Electoral College voters deserve all the facts before casting their votes":
We need this information made public precisely because if it is true, we do need to revisit this election?—?immediately. Even if President Obama has doubts about the CIA's case, this issue is too important for him to decide unilaterally to slow-roll the release of this data until his successor has already been chosen. The American public deserves to have the same information Obama and the Congress have on this issue so that, if necessary, we can undo what the Russian government has allegedly done.
Eddington notes that seven senators wrote to President Obama at the end of November, ostensibly after getting the CIA's most-recent assessment. He says that it's quite possible that Obama, like the FBI, didn't think the case is particularly strong or overwhelming enough to take action. The electors will cast their ballots on December 19 and the time to act is before that.
I'm less interested in the outcome of this particular election, which Trump won according to constitutional practice (indeed, it's not even clear to me that the Russian activity described by the Times and Post would invalidate the results). But we are facing a long-term decline in confidence and trust in virtually all major U.S. institutions. The drop-off is particularly steep in governmental and political areas and is due entirely to incompetent and rotten behavior on the part of elected officials, policymakers, and their supporters in government and the press. Americans didn't simply become cynical in the 21st century. Rather, we elected people who spoke out of both sides of their mouths every time they flapped their gums. Whether George W. Bush believed in weapons of mass destruction or not, the fact is the major argument for invading Iraq came a cropper. At the same time, he and other Republicans insisted they were in favor of limited, smaller government even as they presided its reckless growth in size, scope, and spending. The "anti-war" Obama maintained a secret kill list, for god's sake, and made a hash of the economy, health care, and so much else. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi: We know that folks such as these are lying whenever their gums are flapping.
Again, the point isn't that politicians are always liars or that government is always incompetent. It's that trust and confidence in the honesty and efficacy of both have been shredded by (at least) the past 15 years' of experience. The 2016 election underscored the decline in trust and confidence when the two major parties tossed up two candidates who were particularly incapable of being straight with voters.
The 21st century is supposed to be all about transparency, right? Uber works because everyone in the system can keep track of one another, so people generally play nice, right? Government, especially a federal government whose confidence rating is in the crapper, needs to change its behavior and become more open and less shrouded. Having a really open discussion about these truly explosive charges regarding an election that effectively ended in a dead heat between two parties and two candidates that are generally disliked would be a good start toward a better, more believable future.
Related vid: Economic Growth, Coherent Foreign Policy, Trust in Govt: What WON'T Be Settled [on November 8]: