The CIA is trained in objective analysis, not political knife-fighting. Can it survive a hostile administration?
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
It is not hyperbole to say the growing public disagreements between the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and the incoming Donald Trump administration are unprecedented. By ordering a “full review” of allegations of Russian into the 2016 election process, President Barack Obama is essentially asking the IC to make an analytical judgment about the validity of the election that will place Trump in the Oval Office. The president-elect and his surrogates, in turn, are dismissing any IC claims of Russian involvement, and the abilities more broadly of the entire IC itself.
There’s reason to believe this acrimony may soon end in tragedy. History shows that when the White House ignores or disbelieves intelligence analysis it is underprepared for foreign policy crises.
For now, it is useful to review how we have reached this unique point in American history. On Oct. 7, a joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence determined that:
“The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations…. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process…. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
This earlier IC finding has since been enhanced by additional analysis. On Saturday, the Washington Post first reported the results of a briefing by IC officials to select U.S. senators. According to the reporting, the CIA produced a “secret assessment” that concluded: “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.” An anonymous senior U.S. official was quoted as stating, “It is the assessment of the intelligence community [note: not just the CIA] that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected. That’s the consensus view.”
Soon after, the New York Times reported that “intelligence agencies” concluded with “high confidence” that “Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump.” This reporting also mentioned that Russian-directed hackers also breached Republican National Committee servers, but that information extracted had not been released. It also disclosed that the IC identified individuals from Russia’s military intelligence agency (the GRU) “who oversaw the hacking efforts.”
Some context for understanding that “high confidence” assessment: According to IC doctrine, the phrase “high confidence” is roughly correlated with a 80 to 95 percent probability of something having occurred. Interestingly, 100 percent (and zero percent) judgments are not even allowed for IC analysts; no analytical judgements are an absolute fact or certainty, which is why they are always phrased in terms of probability. History shows that such probability language can disappoint or confuse anyone hoping for an undeniable, clear-cut assessment. Probability language can also be exploited by someone interested in muddying the waters of an analysis.
That brings us to President-elect Trump, who has apparently reached his own conclusions about these IC assessments. In an interview with Time magazine, which named him Person of the Year, he stated: “I don’t believe [Russia] interfered,” though adding the strange caveat that it “could be Russia. It could be China. And it could be some guy in New Jersey.” Later, Trump’s transition office released an unprecedented statement “On Claims of Foreign Interference in U.S. Elections,” which began by defaming the CIA: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Two days later, Trump told Fox News Sunday: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it,” while making the perplexing addition: “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place. I mean, they have no idea.” Most disturbingly, Trump included this wholly inaccurate and deeply misleading observation: “Hacking is very interesting. Once they hack if you don’t catch them in the act, you’re not going to catch them.”
Summarizing the president-elect’s various positions: Russia did not interfere in the U.S. election, anybody could have interfered including Russia, the IC simply has no idea, and it is impossible to investigate a cyber data breach after the fact. In other words, even though the U.S. government, according to Trump, will never be able to determine whether the Russian government actively interfered in the election, the president-elect has already reached his own conclusions — one that is at odds with the reported consensus of the IC.
There is a convergence in the responses to the latest IC claims among foreign-policy commentators who are politically aligned with Trump, and those who are affiliated with the left. They respond with two counter-charges. First, that there is no reason to believe any assessment by a U.S. intelligence agency on account of the flawed sourcing and erroneous judgments made in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
This notorious document suffered from several tradecraft errors. Senate investigators found it was compiled hurriedly and approved in 20 days, while the IC ideally prefers three months. The CIA’s own after-action review noted “[the NIE] was the product of three separate drafters, each responsible for independent sections, drawing from a mixed bag of analytic product.” The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction named “a central flaw of the NIE” that it took “defensible assumptions (of Saddam’s prior behavior) and swathed them in the mystique of intelligence, providing secret information that seemed to support them but was in fact nearly worthless, if not misleading.”
If this single — though massively consequential — NIE is your reference point for all intelligence estimates, then you may never believe any IC judgements. But it is worth recognizing that there have been hundreds of NIEs produced since October 2002, which the American public has zero basis to evaluate. The one that we do have a partial picture of was released in December 2007, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities.” While the 2002 NIE was hurried to influence congressional votes to approve the Iraq War, the 2007 version effectively halted any Bush administration plans to militarily coerce or attack Iran’s nuclear sites. As the later NIE determined: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Your belief of contemporary IC claims of Russia’s involvement may be determined by whether your present beliefs are anchored in the 2002 or 2007 NIE.
The second counter-charge is that there has been “no evidence” produced by the U.S. government that directly implicates the Russian government in interfering with the presidential election. Unfortunately, the IC generally does not, and likely will not, publicly release the evidence that serves as the basis for its analytical judgment of any Russian involvement. Doing so would reveal the sources and collection methods that were used to obtain the evidence. Indeed, an unnamed U.S. official has already told that Los Angeles Times that producing such specific information would compromise its future intelligence collection capabilities.
The IC — either in released documents, congressional hearings, or interviews — almost never declares such evidence publicly. (With then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 presentation before the U.N. Security Council being an extremely rare instance.) This has always been the case. Interested readers can skim over 1,700 fully or partially declassified NIEs at the CIA’s Electronic Reading Room, which are searchable by title, geographic area, and function. You notice analytical judgments with qualifying language, but rarely the granular “proof” in the form of names, clear command and control instructions, or chains of evidence.
The most that citizens can realistically hope for the IC to publish regarding Russia’s involvement in the November elections are its key judgments, confidence levels, and general rationale for those judgments. President Obama has the authority to declassify anything he chooses. Hopefully, he is especially forthcoming and transparent with the results of the formal review that he ordered last week. Whether the Trump administration and policymakers of both parties are persuaded by the review’s conclusions, or remain firmly convinced of their prior positions, will reveal a great deal about whether anything close to an even semi-bipartisan consensus on foreign policy is possible over the next four years.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images