ITHACA, NEW YORK – Donald Trump often sounds like a crazy man, which makes it hard to appreciate those moments of lucidity and method in the madness when his remarks cut close to the truth. The latest sideshow in the ever-televised, ongoing circus of American politics has Trump on trial-by-media for upbraiding the CIA and exonerating the Russians.
But what if Trump is not wrong on this particular question? Big intelligence agencies have long institutional histories littered with lamentable mistakes, one need only look at the CIA failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, or more recently, its woefully inaccurate intelligence estimate and analysis on Iraq which was gleefully grabbed, molded and acted upon by George W. Bush and a belligerent team of rivals including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, each in their own way eager for war.
If the best minds in U.S. intelligence truly now believe that Russia “hacked” the U.S. election, why does this huge story only come out in little leaks here and there, almost always voiced by partisans of Hillary Clinton?
Transparency and documentary evidence are of the essence in the face of such serious charges, but even evidence for the prosecution has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when the temper of partisan dispute is so rancorous. History shows that an intelligence finding that purports to be show-all and tell-all can actually be highly deceptive — one need only recall Colin Powell’s polarized pitch for war in Iraq at the United Nations in 2003 to realize that putting documents on the table to a chorus of bells and whistles can be a deceptive strategy in itself.
But at this tender moment in U.S. history, where half of a sorely divided electorate is in denial or feels cheated, the CIA, if it is truly dedicated to the well-being of the American people, as its newfound fans on the liberal left seem to think, should be more prudent. It should not release dubious intelligence as a smoking gun or slam dunk when it’s not, for America is in a more delicately divisive state than outward bromides about belief in the system would suggest.
The problem with the CIA, as the perspicacious Noam Chomsky has pointed out in other contexts, is that the intelligence agency is not “central,” as its acronym suggests, but rather a tool of the White House that is subject to carrying out its work at the pleasure of the president in line with presidential prerogatives.
If Trump blows up and criticizes the CIA because it seems to be behaving in a partisan manner, he is not necessarily out of his mind. The CIA is still in the hands of his nemesis President Barack Obama, and it is not out of the question that intelligence is being subtly shaped to an agenda. Obama plays a cool, quiet game, whether it be the takedown of Osama Bin Laden, or the thwarting of the Republican Party agenda, but at times also plays a mean game, as attested to by his exuberant embrace of drone assassinations, expanded executive powers and merciless prosecution of whistle-blowers.
If the CIA has indisputable evidence that Russia threw the U.S. election, it should put up or shut up. It’s not enough to vaguely link WikiLeaks to the Russians, it has to be demonstrated that the interference clearly had a democracy-destroying effect. If the Feds have something that rises to that level of perdition, then immediate bipartisan transparency is called for, because the implications of such charges are tantamount to declaring a new Cold War.
Gleaning what one can from the fragmented picture presented by the press, what is much more likely is that the CIA has ample evidence that Russia — like China, like Iran, like Israel, like the United States itself — is messing around in cyberspace seeking access and stealing information, crossing virtual borders with stealthy impunity. What else is new? Ever hear about color revolutions? The revelations of Edward Snowden? Everyone who is anyone in big power relations is gaming the world chessboard as best they can.
Leaving aside the murky motive as to why Russia would favor one egocentric, triumphal nationalist American candidate over another, it’s one thing for the CIA to cherry-pick findings and say it’s found some Russian fingerprints here or there, but quite another to prove that Russian hacking and “disinformation” altered the U.S. election.
Russia has a long inglorious history of disseminating disinformation, nobody is arguing with that, in fact the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies have dipped their hands in that dirty water as well. But to characterize the WikiLeaks trove of emails as disinformation is simply wrong: To date not a single email from the Democratic National Committee hack or John Podesta trove has been proven to have been altered. If anything the “crime” is the opposite of disinformation, which is to say unsolicited real information. The email exposure, which may well have been the act of a disgruntled insider inside the Beltway, (for what it’s worth, Julian Assange insists WikiLeaks did not get the email cache from the Russians) was high on tittle-tattle but far from earth-shattering, though it only takes a small injection of reality to destroy the glorious illusions created by a well-funded public relations machine.
The idea that Assange went after candidate Clinton because he is somehow in bed with the Russians has gotten considerable air time, but there’s ample personal motivation for the beleaguered Australian hacker to desire make trouble for Hillary after discovering in the released documents that she threatened, jokingly or not, (it’s hard to tell reading written transcripts) to have him killed by drone.
Then again, Trump and the hard men around him are quick to invoke the specter of capital punishment for so-called traitors and spies, so it is hard to believe that Assange would want Trump to be president.
In any case, there has been an outpouring, mostly from unexpected quarters, of outrage and disbelief that the president-elect should deign to question the sterling integrity of the CIA on the hacking question. One only need to tune into CNN or MSNBC to hear yesterday’s peaceniks and liberal democratic talk show hosts singing praise of the CIA, whose operatives, they piously remind viewers, put their lives at risk to make us free.
It’s a brave new world indeed, where left is right, the irrational is rational and nobody knows where it’s all going to go.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.
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