Saturday, July 08, 2017

Short History of the "17 intelligence agencies" trope to date

The "17 intelligence agencies" trope has now become a true zombie meme. So I thought I would do another summary on it.

Here was our President, talking about the Russian hacking scandal in his ditsy press conference in Poland Thursday, President Trump Holds a Joint Press Conference with President Andrzej Duda The White House 07/06/2017.

The part on hacking comes just after 22:15, when he is pressed in the follow-up question (after 24:00) on whether he agrees with the US intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia was responsible for election-related hacking. He says:

I heard it was 17 agencies. I said, boy, that's a lot, do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let's check it. And we did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four, it wasn't 17. And many of your compatriots [presumably American reporters] had to change their reporting and they had to apologize and they had to correct. Now, with that being said, mistakes have been made. I agree, I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.
The more important takeaway from that press conference is that Trump is still trying to minimize Russia's role in the election hacking. He also talks about it as though all his information came from the media and as though he as President has no access to details of the findings of the CIA, FBI and NSA on the hacking.

But the reaction from several quarters made me realize that the "17 intelligence agencies" like has become so firmly rooted in partisan and media narratives that it is now clearly Undead and will go on and on and on.

Up-front disclaimer: US intelligence agencies operate in secret. They're very selective about what they tell the public about their activities. (Trump would probably add at this point: A lot of people don't know that, nobody talks about that.) Sometimes intelligence agency officials don't tell the full story of what they are doing. Shocking as it may be, sometimes they actually lie about what they do or haven't done. So there's a good chance we don't currently have the full story of what intelligence agencies know or don't know about the Russia hacking.

So, for the reactions. Here on Morning Joe, we have David Ignatius after 10:25, President Donald Trump: On Foreign Soil, Trump Rips Intel, Press And Obama 07/06/2017, sticking with the "17 intelligence agencies" meme.:

Ignatius tries to argue that the October statement by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), then James Clapper, on the intelligence findings was issued in the name of the "intelligence community," although Ignatius just says, "He spoke for all the agencies he heads"). Though he does admit, with some evident embarrassment, "It is true that the specialized intelligence about Russian actions, planning, had been gathered by only several of those agencies."

It's a bad sign for the state of American politics and journalism is that Joe Scarborough so often actually makes sense these days, as he does here on the "17 intelligence agencies" thing after 6:00 in this segment, President Donald Trump Needs To Call For Sanctions, Says Former Ambassador Morning Joe 07/07/2017:

Nicholas Burns, a former US NATO Ambassador in the segment, amazingly tries to defend the "17 intelligence agencies" line just after 6:00 in the segment by kinda-sorta saying that none of them dissented from it:

Well, as I listen to General Clapper, the NSA, CIA and FBI authored that January 6 report that was issued publicly to the American people but that all other intelligence agencies, the fourteen others, all agreed with it. The FBI and CIA have been consistent about that over the last six months, there's no question about it. When you have a big 97 to 2 vote in the Senate, you rarely see that these days, a bipartisan vote, when I testify [sic], you can feel the opposition to what Russia has done. So I think it's a red herring to suggest that somehow there's division in the intelligence community.

Diplomats are good at steering conversations. Burns pivots quickly from whether the findings were from the famous "17 intelligence agencies" (He also pays tribute to St. Reagan in referring to "a positive, Reaganesque leader" as a default standard.)

Scarborough doesn't contradict him directly. But he says, hey, the NSA, the CIA and the FBI along with the DCI's Office should be enough to take it seriously. But he adds that if it makes anybody feel better, they could have the DEA go out and sniff some suitcases and say that makes the DEA on the Russian hacking business.

Joan Walsh wrote after Trump's press conference (The Much-Hyped First Trump-Putin Meeting Was a Farce The Nation 07/07/2017):

... reporters and pundits, myself included, have insisted that President Donald Trump had to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about the finding by 17 US intelligence agencies that Putin 'directed' a hacking assault on the Democratic Party intended to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton last year. ... Podesta ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign, not the DNC, though both saw their accounts hacked by actors “directed” by Putin, according to a January statement by those 17 US intelligence agencies. [my emphasis]

The "17 intelligence agencies" trope was an unforced error on the part of the Democrats to begin with. Now it's taken the form of a ritual incantation. It's requires exactly the same number of syllables to say "NSA, FBI and CIA" instead of "seventeen intelligence agencies," and it removes an easy rhetorical target from Trump's defenders. So here's my recap of the meme. I'm posting a number of key links below this summary.

The October 7 press release from Homeland Security and the DNI on Russian hacking referred to conclusions drawn by the "U.S. Intelligence Community," without further specifying specific agencies. Hillary Clinton introduced the "17 intelligence agencies" phrase in her October 19 debate with Donald Trump. She used it as a way to emphasize the seriousness of the intelligence conclusions about the hacking. I think the effectiveness of her general attack at Trump on that issue in the exchange quoted below was mixed. And I recall at the time being puzzled by the "17 intelligence agencies" claim. But it was at least a plausible reading of the October 7 press release to concluded that the reference to the "U.S. Intelligence Community" meant affirmative concurrence by all intelligence agencies. And I recall thinking that maybe Clinton had some other kind of information on the findings that what had appeared in the public record.

That became more problematic once DNI James Clapper release the January 6 report. It specified that the evaluation had been made by the FBI, the CIA and the NSA and did not specify others. In his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8, Clapper was even more explicit. He said, the hacking assessment "was a coordinated product from three agencies; CIA, NSA, and the FBI not all 17 components of the intelligence community." (my emphasis) And that the studies were more specifically assigned to "two dozen or so analysts for this task were hand-picked, seasoned experts from each of the contributing agencies." He explained that the "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."

Pressed on the question during questioning, Clapper responded that "there were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment plus my office." And on the question of what the involvement of the other 14 agencies were he said, "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."

Now, it's worth noting that Clapper has been reasonably suspected of having perjured himself before Congress on NSA surveillance. (Fred Kaplan, Fire James Clapper Slate 06/11/2013) However, the information that the intelligence agencies have made public about which intelligence agencies were involved in the assessment comes from the October 7 press release from Clapper and the Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; the report released by Clapper's Office of the DNI on January 6; and, Clapper's testimony to Congress May 18. And the latter two was much more explicit. So, lacking conflicting information in the public record, it's hard to see how it's reasonable to insist that the vague "U.S. Intelligence Community" of the three-paragraph October 7 press release should be taken as an authoritative statement in which Clapper "spoke for all the agencies he heads" (David Ignatius), but that Clapper was at least implicitly lying in his much more explicit January 6 report his even more explicit testimony to Congress May 8 the assessment came from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and the Office of the DNI and not from all 17 intelligence agencies.

Below are several key links. also has a helpful Timeline of Russia Investigation with links updated through 06/23/2017. But I can't say that enhances it's credibility with their July 6 post that does exactly what I just explained would be hard to regard as reasonable. (Eugene Kiely, Trump Misleads on Russia Hacking 07/06/2017) The meme goes marching on.

(1) Yes, there are 17 intelligence agencies. Nina Agrawal lists them in There's more than the CIA and FBI: The 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community Los Angeles Times 01/17/2017. If you were wondering why the agencies only added up to 16 in the Burns quote above, it's because the Office of the Director of National Intelligence counts as one of the 17.

(2) News had become public in the summer of 2016 that the Democratic National Committee server had been hacked. The cyber-securty firm Crowdstrike, hired by the DNC to evaluate the hacks, identified the hackers as COZY BEAR and FANCY BEAR, both of which it identified as being possibly connected to Russian intelligence. (Bears in the Midst: Intrusion into the Democratic National Committee Crowdstrike Blog 06/15/2016)

(3) October 7 press release: Joint Statement from the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security. The entire release consisted of three paragraphs, the first of which reads:

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
This was a press release, not a National Intelligence Estimate. An NIE would have contained much more information about the investigation, the agencies involved, and any dissents. It would undoubtedly have been published only with redactions. The three paragraphs do not identify specific agencies, only "U.S. Intelligence Community."

The Secretary of Homeland Security at that time was Jeh Johnson. James Clapper was DNI then and until January 20.

(4) October 19: Hillary Clinton introduces the "17 intelligence agencies" slogan in her last campaign debate with Trump. (The final Trump-Clinton debate transcript, annotated by Aaron Blake Washington Post 10/19/2016):

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, I want to clear up your position on this issue, because in a speech you gave to a Brazilian bank, for which you were paid $225,000, we've learned from the WikiLeaks, that you said this, and I want to quote. "My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders." So that's the question...

TRUMP: Thank you.

WALLACE: That's the question. Please quiet, everybody. Is that your dream, open borders? CLINTON: Well, if you went on to read the rest of the sentence, I was talking about energy. You know, we trade more energy with our neighbors than we trade with the rest of the world combined. And I do want us to have an electric grid, an energy system that crosses borders. I think that would be a great benefit to us.

But you are very clearly quoting from WikiLeaks. And what's really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans. They have hacked American websites, American accounts of private people, of institutions. Then they have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the Internet.

This has come from the highest levels of the Russian government, clearly, from Putin himself, in an effort, as 17 of our intelligence agencies have confirmed, to influence our election.

CLINTON: So I actually think the most important question of this evening, Chris, is, finally, will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage against Americans, which he actually encouraged in the past? Those are the questions we need answered. We've never had anything like this happen in any of our elections before.


TRUMP: That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, OK? How did we get on to Putin?

WALLACE: Hold on -- hold on, wait. Hold on, folks. Because we -- this is going to end up getting out of control. Let's try to keep it quiet so -- for the candidates and for the American people.

TRUMP: So just to finish on the borders...


TRUMP: ...

Now we can talk about Putin. I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.

He has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president. And I'll tell you what: We're in very serious trouble, because we have a country with tremendous numbers of nuclear warheads -- 1,800, by the way -- where they expanded and we didn't, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she's playing chicken. Look, Putin...

WALLACE: Wait, but...

TRUMP: ... from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it's pretty clear...

TRUMP: You're the puppet!

CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit...

TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.

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...


TRUMP: She doesn't like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...

TRUMP: Excuse me. Putin has outsmarted her in Syria.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...


TRUMP: He's outsmarted her every step of the way.

WALLACE: I do get to ask some questions.

TRUMP: Yes, that's fine.

WALLACE: And I would like to ask you this direct question. The top national security officials of this country do believe that Russia has been behind these hacks. Even if you don't know for sure whether they are, do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?

TRUMP: By Russia or anybody else.

WALLACE: You condemn their interference?

TRUMP: Of course I condemn. Of course I -- I don't know Putin. I have no idea.

WALLACE: I'm not asking -- I'm asking do you condemn?

TRUMP: I never met Putin. This is not my best friend. But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn't be so bad.

Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way. Whether it's Syria, you name it. Missiles. Take a look at the "start up" that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can't believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads, and we can't. The Russians can't believe it. She has been outsmarted by Putin.

And all you have to do is look at the Middle East. They've taken over. We've spent $6 trillion. They've taken over the Middle East. She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I've ever seen in any government whatsoever.

WALLACE: We're a long way away from immigration, but I'm going to let you finish this topic. You got about 45 seconds.

TRUMP: And she always will be.
The exchange appears just after 21:00 in this CBC News recording of it, CBC News Special: Final Trump-Clinton presidential debate 10/19/2017:

(5) January 6 public DNI report, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, with an introductory background section. From the report:

This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies. It covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion. The assessment focuses on activities aimed at the 2016 US presidential election and draws on our understanding of previous Russian influence operations. When we use the term “we” it refers to an assessment by all three agencies. [my emphasis in italics]

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 have high confidence in these judgments.

  • 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. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence. [my emphasis in italics]

  • We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.

(6) Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in European elections PBS Newshour 06/28/2017. Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks as though she takes it for granted that Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 Presidential election was caused by Russian intervention. She also claims that "every single one of America's intelligence services" agrees on the major aspects of Russian interference in the election and with "full confidence."

(7) May 8: James Clapper and Sally Yates testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Full transcript: Sally Yates and James Clapper testify on Russian election interference Washington Post 05/08/2017. Clapper, who was DNI at the time the October and January statements were released, tstified:

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. ...

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]

And Sen. Al Franken followed up in qustioning:

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]

(7) June 29: The New York Times officially disavows the "17 intelligence agencies" claim in a correction (Maggie Haberman, Trump’s Deflections and Denials on Russia Frustrate Even His Allies 06/25/2017):

Correction: June 29, 2017
A White House Memo article on Monday about President Trump’s deflections and denials about Russia referred incorrectly to the source of an intelligence assessment that said Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.

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