Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Need for a good investigation and clear thinking on the Trump-Russia scandal

George Beebe did a piece during the Presidential transition on Russia’s Role in the US Elections: The Case for Caution The National Interest 12/16/2017 that was a useful call for realism on the Trump-Russia story. It's still relevant even after all the development in the last two-and-a-half months.

The author bio at the end of the article reads, "George Beebe is the President of BehaviorMatrix LLC, a text analytics company. He formerly served as chief of Russia analysis at the CIA, and as special advisor to Vice President Cheney on Russia and the Former Soviet Union."

Obama during the transition called for "a bipartisan, independent, process" to investigate the story, which then we were still usually calling the Russia hacking story. When he said that, I couldn't help but wonder how those two qualities can fit together given the state of the Republican Party. But I do want to see a real independent investigation of it, if that's not a totally Utopian concept these days.

At the same time, I'm trying to keep the various implications of the story in view along with the various motives different players have. So it seems to me there are likely to be substantial reasons to think the Russian government tried to intervene in a the American election by hacking and/or other means in such a way that some substantive American response is required.

But it also seems to me that with Hillary's 3-million-or-so popular vote margin, it's difficult to conclude that Russian intervention was decisive to the outcome, unless evidence turns up of Russian sleeper agents running pro-Trump get-out-the-vote drives in Michigan and Wisconsin.

It's very clear to me that various rightwing groups here and in Europe admire Putin's authoritarian governing style, including our President. And that it's still the case that Russia and the US have common interests in some things and substantial conflicts on others, whether or not we like their governing practices.

I'm sure Trump's foreign policy will be a disaster and that all aspects of his Presidency will be mired in conflicts of interest and old-fashioned corruption.

But even for mega-billion deals for ExxonMobil, I'm not at all sure that the new administration will be able to have a cozy partnership with Russia; for instance, hardcore Islamophobes may see Putin as an ally against Islam, or "Radical Islamic Terrorism," but Putin's government is way more concerned about *Sunni* militants than Shi'a ones and therefore may not be so cooperative in starting a war with Iran. And in general, I'm really fond of the "don't do stupid stuff" rule for foreign policy.

Beebe's article is calling for careful public scrutiny of intelligence claims. And it's still good advice. This whole scandal is a reminder of how important it is for intelligence findings to have public credibility. Because by the nature of much of their work, they can't always make the full evidence public so that it could be independently verified. So while the basic claim that the Russian government was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee is widely accepted, it is still for most people based on the publicly expressed consensus of the "intelligence community." As well as on the general acceptance of it by Members of Congress who have access to more details of the intelligence findings than we do.

Much of the story now is being driven by anonymous leaks to major press outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. And they have earned the skepticism of reality-based observers, especially since the Times ran their first Watergate story in 1992.

Scandals like this inevitably have political aspects since they involve elections and public officials. One particular political twist to this one is that Democratic interpretations of Hillary Clinton's Electoral College loss. To make my own perspective more clear, I was a Bernie supporter in the primary and a Clinton backer in the general. Many Clinton partisans have claimed that "the election was hacked," i.e., that Russian interference was decisive in Trump's win.

And as I mentioned above, Hillary clearly won the popular vote. And the decisive margins that threw the Electoral votes of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was less than 100,000 for all three together. That is a tiny margin of votes on a national scale. And almost any significant issue or facotr could have made such a difference: poor Rust Belt employment prospects, James Comey's late (and very sleazy) intervention, the type of ads the Clinton campaign ran there, inadequate planning for get-out-the-vote operations.

Hillary won the election in the popular vote. So it would be hard to make the case that her approach to the issues and campaign were fundamentally flawed. The magnitude of the Democratic losses in local elections does indicate some real problems for the Democratic Party general prospects, as even establishment Democrats have had to recognize.

But the temptation for more conservative Democrats and Hillary hardliners to blame "Russia, Russia, Russia" for the loss would be a destructive one for Democrats to adopt in practice.

This is a report from the Center for the National Interest (founded by Richard Nixon in 1994) on a 01/27/2017 discussion that also included Beebe, Russian and the U.S. Election: Assessing Moscow's Actions and America's Responses:

Center Executive Director Paul Saunders addressed U.S. policy responses to the hacking and the current political climate. Saunders stated that the U.S. must ask itself what it is responding to, what it is trying to accomplish with the response, and the cost/benefit of each particular response. According to Saunders, it is a fair conclusion that the hacking was perpetrated by Russia, though the intent behind the attack is not yet fully understood, as there is very little relevant information in the public domain. The first step before the U.S. reacts, according to Saunders, is a thorough investigation into the hacking incident. Mr. Saunders emphasized that this event must be placed in the context of 25 years of troubled and complex U.S.-Russia relations.

Regarding the United States’ objectives in responding to Russia, Saunders argued that the Obama administration’s puzzling response in December — expelling 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioning officials at Russian intelligence agencies, and closing two Russian recreation facilities in New York and Maryland — had a very limited impact on Moscow. If the Obama administration had compelling evidence of serious Russian interference, it should have done more. If not, he said, it should have waited until the facts were clearer.

Citing the importance of a thorough and impartial investigation, Saunders stated that there is as much a danger in responding before an investigation takes place as in failing to respond adequately. The response must be proportional, urged Saunders, stating that the Obama administration had acknowledged that hacking of actual election voting machines did not take place. While the leaked information from the hacks and coverage by Russian state-owned media channel RT may have influenced U.S. public opinion, Saunders pointed out, such efforts are not uncommon in international affairs. [my emphasis]
Paul Pillar describes why we badly we need a good investigation of the Russia-Trump scandal while he warns us that dodgy intelligence can cut in more than one direction (Leak-Shopping and the Politicization of Intelligence The National Interest 02/28/2017):

Amid the White House’s further fulmination about leaks, it has become apparent that what concerns Trump and his circle is not leaking but rather the public disclosure and dissemination of any information that contradicts administration assertions. In this respect, this administration’s sounding off about leaks stems from the same motives as the president’s attempts to discredit mainstream media as an “enemy of the people.” ...

This kind of effort by the White House is similar to leaking in that it involves people with an agenda endeavoring to tell a partial story of, or impart spin to, some subject that is more complicated than that, involves information gaps, and in which the available information is subject to differing interpretations. These characteristics certainly apply to the Russian connections of Trump associates, which is why a thorough and impartial investigation of the subject is necessary. In each case, something is divulged to the press not to inform, but to support a political or policy position.

Just five weeks in power, this administration already has gone even farther, and in an even more corrupting way, down this road, and not just regarding the issue of Russian connections. The White House is reported to have reached into the intelligence and security services, including the intelligence and analysis arm of the Department of Homeland Security, to try to extract interpretations of data about terrorism that would support the decisions the administration made, and subsequently were struck down in the courts, about limiting travel from specified Muslim-majority states. This is a classic case of politicization of intelligence: using intelligence not to inform a policy decision yet to be made, but instead to try to muster public support for a decision already made. This is the opposite of how a healthy intelligence-policy relationship ought to work. [my emphasis]
New material and/or perspective are cascading into the media in great volume right now. For another perspective, here are two segments from Democracy Now! featuring Scott Horton and Robert Perry, both taking a left-leaning perspective on the Trump-Russia scandal but with distinctions. Debate: Are Trump’s Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare? 03/06/2017 (Transcript):

Web Extra: Are Trump-Russia Ties a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare? 03/07/2017 (Transcript):

Perry is particularly focused on how careless evaluations of the Russia situation could lead to foreign policy mistakes, and worse. A couple of his recent pieces at Consortium News: The Politics Behind ‘Russia-gate’ 03/04/2017; Official Washington Tips into Madness 03/06/2017. I worry that Perry is conflating the situation in which an investigative journalist pursues a story with the very explicit allegations made by the "intelligence community" about the Russian hacking. The public needs to know more specifics from an independent investigation about those. If they are true, we need confirmation and a good sense of what needs to be done about it. (Starting wars over Georgia or Ukraine would not be an appropriate response.) If they are really off-base, we need to know that, too.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is trying to parse what the evidence in the public record is really telling us, and what it's not yet telling us:

No comments: