Thursday, May 11, 2017

Listening closely to James Clapper on the "17 intelligence agencies"

In the boring paying-attention-to-facts mode, a few passages from the James Clapper's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week along with Sally Yates stick out for me. Full transcript: Sally Yates and James Clapper testify on Russian election interference Washington Post 05/08/2017. Clapper is the former Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

This statement by Clapper provides a fact-check on a claim that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment made a stock claim during the 2016 campaign, that "17 intelligence agencies" had confirmed that the Wikileaks dump of Clinton campaign emails had come from the Russians:

Last year, the intelligence community conducted an exhaustive review of Russian interference into our presidential election process resulting in a special intelligence community assessment or ICA as we call it. I'm here today to provide whatever information I can now as a private citizen on how the intelligence community conducted its analysis, came up with its findings, and communicated them to the Obama administration, to the Trump transition team, to the Congress and in unclassified form to the American public.

Additionally, I'll briefly address four related topics that have emerged since the ICA was produced. Because of both classification and some executive privilege strictures (ph) requested by the White House, there are limits to what I can discuss. And of course my direct official knowledge of any of this stopped on 20 January when my term of office was happily over.

As you know, the I.C. was a coordinated product from three agencies; CIA, NSA, and the FBI not all 17 components of the intelligence community. Those three under the aegis of my former office. Following an extensive intelligence reporting about many Russian efforts to collect on and influence the outcome of the presidential election, President Obama asked us to do this in early December and have it completed before the end of his term.

The two dozen or so analysts for this task were hand-picked, seasoned experts from each of the contributing agencies. They were given complete, unfettered mutual access to all sensitive raw intelligence data, and importantly, complete independence to reach their findings. They found that the Russian government pursued a multifaceted influence campaign in the run-up to the election, including aggressive use of cyber capabilities.

The Russians used cyber operations against both political parties, including hacking into servers used by the Democratic National Committee and releasing stolen data to WikiLeaks and other media outlets. Russia also collected on certain Republican Party-affiliated targets, but did not release any Republican-related data. The Intelligence Community Assessment concluded first that President Putin directed and influenced campaign to erode the faith and confidence of the American people in our presidential election process. Second, that he did so to demean Secretary Clinton, and third, that he sought to advantage Mr. Trump. These conclusions were reached based on the richness of the information gathered and analyzed and were thoroughly vetted and then approved by the directors of the three agencies and me.

These Russian activities and the result and (ph) assessment were briefed first to President Obama on the 5th of January, then to President-elect Trump at Trump Tower on the 6th and to the Congress via a series of five briefings from the 6th through the 13th of January. The classified version was profusely annotated, with footnotes drawn from thousands of pages of supporting material. The key judgments in the unclassified version published on the 6th of January were identical to the classified version.

While it's been over four months since the issuance of this assessment, as Directors Comey and Rodgers testified before the House Intelligence Committee on the 20th of March, the conclusions and confidence levels reached at the time still stand. I think that's a statement to the quality and professional of the — of the intelligence community people who produced such a compelling intelligence report during a tumultuous, controversial time, under intense scrutiny and with a very tight deadline. [my emphasis]
In the nature of the beast, the IC (intelligence community) can't release full, detailed information publicly on how they came to those conclusions. Based on the careful review of the January 6 report done by Marcy Wheeler and others in the light of information that is in the public record, there seems to be strong evidence for Russian hacking efforts, not quite so clear that Wikileaks got the material from Russian sources, though the latter is clearly possible.

Later on, Sen. Al Franken used the 17-agencies phrase in a question:

FRANKEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to thank both you and the ranking member for -- for this hearing and these hearings.

And I want to thank General Clapper and -- and Attorney General Yates for -- for appearing today. We have -- the intelligence communities have concluded all 17 of them that Russia interfered with this election. And we all know how that's right.

CLAPPER: Senator, as I pointed out in my statement Senator Franken, it was there were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment plus my office...

FRANKEN: But all 17 signed on to that?

CLAPPER: Well, we didn't go through that -- that process, this was a special situation because of the time limits and my -- what I knew to be to who could really contribute to this and the sensitivity of the situation, we decided it was a constant judgment (ph) to restrict it to those three. I'm not aware of anyone who dissented or -- or disagreed when it came out.

FRANKEN: OK. And I think anyone whose looked at even the unclassified border's pretty convinced that this is what happened. [my emphasis]
In other words, the claim that Clinton made in her last campaign debate with Trump about the 17 agencies struck me the first time I heard it as something that might not be quite right (Aaron Blake, The final Trump-Clinton debate transcript, annotated Washington Post 10/19/2017):

CLINTON: ... that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.

So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 -- 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton...

CLINTON: And I think it's time you take a stand...

TRUMP: She has no idea whether it's Russia, China, or anybody else.

CLINTON: I am not quoting myself.

TRUMP: She has no idea.

CLINTON: I am quoting 17...

TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.

CLINTON: ... 17 intelligence -- do you doubt 17 military and civilian...

TRUMP: And our country has no idea.

CLINTON: ... agencies.

TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.

CLINTON: Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely...
When you're going to effectively accuse your opponent of treason to their face, sticking to the facts is helpful. And Clapper last week confirmed specifically that it was not "17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election." But the "17 intelligence agencies" phrase became so embedded in the Democratic establishment vocabulary that Al Franken was still citing it last week in his question to Clapper.

I was also struck by this comment of Clinton's, "We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election." No foreign government - not Russia, not China, not Britain, not Israel, not Saudi Arabia - has ever tried "to interfere in our election"? I would have to say that it seems to be a dubious claim.

Making these observations is not letting Trump and his team off the hook for dubious or more-than-dubious interactions and business deals with Russian entities.

Here is Donna Brazile using the "victim of a cybercrime" by Russia to duck responding directly to what was probably the most significant of the generally not-a-big-deal nature of the emails published by Wikileaks, the revelation that Brazile when she was a CNN contributor had leaked upcoming debate questions to Hillary's campaign, Jordan's NOT HAVING Donna Brazile's Russia Dodge! TYT Politics 10/19/2016:

In fact, Brazile was soon required to resign from CNN over that revelation on which Jordan Chariton was questioning her in the video.

Also, we know that the US government does a lot of propaganda that affects perceptions of the US public, not just of foreign targets. This comment of Clapper's is worth bookmarking for future reference:

KLOBUCHAR: Very good. Do you think we're doing a good enough job now, back to the propaganda issue, in educating our citizens about this?

CLAPPER: No, we're not. And the other thing we don't do well enough is the counter messaging.

KLOBUCHAR: And how would you suggest we could improve that?

CLAPPER: I would be for -- I have been an advocate for a USIA (ph) [US Information Agency] on steroids. I felt that way in terms of countering the message from ISIS, who is very sophisticated at conveying messages and proselytizing and recruiting people. Our efforts to counter message are too fragmented in my -- in my own opinion. That's all I'm saying here. I -- I would seriously consider the notion of a, as I say, a USIA (ph) on steroids not only for the...

KLOBUCHAR: What would that mean exactly?

CLAPPER: I'm sorry?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, someone that we could -- we could message or counter message, and our efforts to counter violent extremist ideology, particularly that from ISIS, who are very skilled at this and we -- I don't think we do, as a nation, we do a good enough job. I think counter messaging the Russians, giving them some of their own medicine much more aggressively than we've done now. And I would hasten to add that is -- should not be tagged onto the intelligence community. It needs to be a separate entity from the intelligence community, something the I.C. would support, but should be separate from that. [my emphasis]