On unverified intelligence reports

ciafloorI think there are enough posts on this blog for folks to quickly ascertain that I’m not a fan of our President-Elect, but in case you’re wanting for that bit of particular context, I’ll repeat: NOT A FAN.

With that said, I wanted to talk a little bit about the recent bombshell dropped on our nation’s democracy — reports of financial and personal information about Donald Trump in the hands of the Russian government, and the possibility they may be used as leverage against him when he becomes President.

This is a Big Deal, about as big as it gets. And the details of the memos, published by BuzzFeed after CNN broke the story, are about as sordid as any spy thriller could come up with — alleged financial ties, alleged meetings between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives, and Trump’s alleged unseemly sexual escapades with prostitutes. The latter, while kinda gross, is far less important than the former two, which could very well be impeachable offenses.

So why didn’t this stuff come to light earlier? Why is it being treated as “unverified” and “unsubstantiated” — or “alleged,” which I used three times in the last paragraph — when we were willing to take WikiLeaks’ emails hook, line and sinker? Why is the U.S. Intelligence Community treading softly here, including these allegations in an appendix rather than as part of its main report on Russian interference in the election?

Here’s why. 

When it comes to intelligence gathering, your intel is only as credible as the methods used to obtain it. The initial report on Russian election interference, released last week, was thoroughly vetted by the CIA, FBI and NSA. When they say that Russia launched a campaign of hacking and disinformation designed to denigrate Hillary Clinton and elevate Trump, they have high confidence in that assessment.

Why? Because they know how the information used to reach that conclusion was gathered. No, they’re not going to tell the public how they got the intel, because that could jeopardize sources within Russia and various human and technological methods of gathering information that could be super-useful later. That’s standard operating procedure, y’all.

But this bit about Russia’s leverage on Trump, that’s different. The documents published by BuzzFeed are credited to a third-party intelligence gathering operation — a former British intelligence agent, in fact. The CIA, FBI, NSA and the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s alphabet soup didn’t actually gather this intel, so it’s very hard for them to vouch for it without double-checking first.

Freelancers aren’t particularly new or noteworthy in intelligence circles. There are plenty of non-governmental folks — opposition parties, multinational corporations, etc. — who would welcome the opportunity to gain intel on various governments and corporations around the world. There’s a market for freelance spooks. You can bet that CIA and MI6 and the Russian GRU keeps tabs on former agents putting out their own shingle — and may even find their services useful from time to time.

(And in this case, this one’s not hard to find. Numerous outlets are reporting it’s these guys. Yes, they have a Web site.)

Since the U.S. Intelligence Community did not actually gain this information through its own sources and methods, the claims by this former British intelligence operative will remain “unverified” and “unsubstantiated” until such time as the CIA and the rest of them do their own homework to check up on the conclusions — even if, as was reported, that this Brit did a fine job of intelligence gathering in the past.

It’s worth noting that this particular British ex-spook was hired to provide opposition research on Trump by his political opponents — first his GOP primary rivals, and then by the Democrats once Trump clinched the GOP nomination. Is that a red flag? Somewhat, but not as much as you think. An independent intel shop that provides incorrect information isn’t likely to get more work. Reputation and customer service are everything. But still, it’s worth keeping in mind — and also noteworthy that the Clinton campaign opted out of using this stuff. Maybe they were trying to stay above the fray, maybe they were spooked by the lack of corroboration.

(The New York Times published a handy little precis on this report today — its provenance and its use thus far. It’s worth a read.)

So why even give President Obama, President-Elect Trump and that select group of senators and congressmen who help oversee the Intelligence Community a heads-up on it? If it’s potentially crap, why tell anyone until it can be thoroughly vetted, proven and/or debunked?

Because, holy crap you guys, Trump’s taking office next week! If the soon-to-be President of the United States could in any way be compromised by political, financial or personal misdeeds cataloged and leveraged by a potential geopolitical adversary, you gotta speak up, even as you include all the “unverifieds” and “unsubstantiateds” you want.

Let’s say the Intelligence Community held off on telling anyone for want of substantiation. Six months from now, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Putin is saber-rattling toward the Baltics, massing troops at the border. And let’s say the Baltics — all of which are members of NATO — sound the alarm and trigger the clauses in the treaty where we’re obligated to help with their defense.

At a summit meeting, Putin hands Trump a manila folder with pictures of his indelicate frolicking, or details of some financial dealing that might just go south if Trump doesn’t play ball. (Actually, this would be handled more discreetly, but I like the dramatic effect.) Either Trump folds and sits out the potential invasion, or he stands firm and the U.S. is engulfed in a massive scandal just when it should be focused on Russian aggression.

After all this, what happens if the Intelligence Community maybe saw this coming, this undermining of American governance and leadership, and did nothing? It would make the Iraq weapons of mass destruction scandal look like a spelling error, man.

So CIA, FBI and NSA briefed Obama, Trump and Congress — not because they necessarily believe these allegations to be true or false, but because the allegations’ very existence could become a “clear and present danger” to the United States and its allies. Allegations, remember, don’t have to be true to be damaging — just look at all the crap Clinton put up with during the election.

I’m not going to argue the journalistic ethics of whether or not BuzzFeed should’ve published this stuff, because I’m honestly on the fence about it myself. I feel the same way about WikiLeaks and all those emails, for that matter, though given the small-fry crap found in those emails, I have to wonder if it was all worth it. That’s another blog post for when — or if — I get my head around that.

You can easily figure out how this was leaked. Donald Trump has exactly zero fans on Capital Hill among the Democratic Party, and fewer allies within the GOP than he’d like to think. The folks in the White House who might have seen this are few, but it’s certainly more than just Obama. And let’s remember that the President-Elect has been disparaging the Intelligence Community itself for months now, which isn’t exactly smart.

Was it a political leak to damage Trump? Almost certainly. Sure, maybe it was just a patriotic American thinking that such a leak was his or her duty, but either way, mischief managed. (Oh, and if you reveled in the WikiLeaks emails but believe this leak to be reprehensible, your double-standard is showing.)

That said, the fact that this stuff is out in the public sphere now, rather than later, is probably a good thing. At least we know a fuller picture of what we’re potentially getting on January 20th. But it also gives Trump yet another “out” to brazen this thing through, because it’s a third-party report rather than the firm conclusion of the Intelligence Community.

And that’s why third-party intel isn’t great. On the bright side, every journalist in the world — along with CIA and every intelligence agency in the world — is going to get to the bottom of this one sooner rather than later. We can only hope that this is the worst of it.

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