WASHINGTON — The head of the CIA likely had a bombshell when he showed up for one of his last Capitol Hill testimonies in late November: Russian spies and hackers had not only covertly worked to undermine the US electoral process, but they had done so specifically to elect Donald Trump as president.
News of the intelligence finding into Russian meddling emerged Friday in a Washington Post report — which did not explicitly reference the Nov. 29 intelligence briefing by CIA Director John Brennan — and came just hours after a top White House official told reporters of a secret assessment outlining Russia’s subterfuge.
The president-elect’s team didn’t wait long to respond. They dismissed the CIA’s reported conclusion, noting, “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” And on Sunday Trump gave an interview to Fox News in which he waved aside his lack of attendance at intelligence briefings by explaining, “I’m, like, a smart person.”
On Monday morning, Trump tried to downplay the investigation in a tweet, citing a double-standard had the situation been reversed and he had lost the election and tried to bring up Russian interference. "Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!," he tweeted.
He followed up with "Unless you catch "hackers" in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn't this brought up before election?"
Trump’s mockery and dismissal raises questions about how the president-elect — who a BuzzFeed News analysis found has a tendency to tweet news stories that echo his views or favor sensationalism over facts — will deal with conflicting analyses inside the sprawling intelligence community whose mission is provide the commander in chief with verified, up-to-date analysis on events around the world, and how they in turn will deal with conflicts between their conclusions and the president’s.
The problem, said Glenn Carle, a retired career intelligence officer with the CIA, comes when the party that’s dismissing intelligence has a direct stake in doing so.
“What do you do as an officer or as an institution when your best assessment concerning the safeguard of the nation is dismissed by the party that is part of the threat?” Carle said. “It’s an existential challenge.”
Even within the intelligence community, there is a robust debate over why Russia would work so hard to tip the scales for Trump. Intelligence sources have told BuzzFeed News for weeks that the intelligence community — which includes 16 agencies, of which the CIA is only one — agreed broadly that Russia did something. But there was no consensus as to why, and there may never be.
“You don’t know that, unless you physically have someone there watching someone type a keyboard,” said one former intelligence analyst, requesting anonymity as they still consult with the intelligence community.
“The unanswered question is: Why did they do it?” one current intelligence official told BuzzFeed News. To try to understand the exact reasoning, the official said, almost misses the point.
“It’s not linear. They do this, and then they jump over here and try this, and then they jump back over here,” the official said. “The real goal is just chaos, sowing chaos.”
“You can’t take an American viewpoint and lay it on top of the Russians,” the former analyst said.
A follow-up report from the Washington Post Saturday confirmed the tension between the CIA and FBI over the Russia question, detailing a separate intelligence briefing last week in which the FBI questioned the CIA’s conclusion that Moscow specifically wanted Trump in the White House.
But the Kremlin’s effort, regardless of motivation, appears to have paid off. Along with Trump, who has indicated, at a very minimum, an openness to working with the Kremlin, his inner circle is stacked with national security players who have revered Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latest addition to that circle, the presumptive pick for Secretary of State, is an ExxonMobil executive with deep ties to Putin, and may signal a thawing of relations to promote trade and resource extraction.
Bucking the views of Republican hawks, Trump has also signalled he’s open to resetting relations with Russia despite Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia’s meddling in Western democratic processes — and its obsession with the US — is not at all new.
That Russia has long waged cyberwar and quietly nudged Western democracies away from globalism is a “given,” the US intelligence official said.
“I just automatically assume they’re doing that continuously. And we do it too,” said another US intelligence official.
While the intelligence community may not have an answer as to “why,” there is, at the least, a fairly uniform conclusion that Russia was trying to undermine the US electoral process. But Trump has challenged even that basic premise.
The president-elect’s choice not to recognize certain intelligence is, on its face, not unprecedented. Presidents — as the leaders of intelligence agencies, which fall under the executive branch — reserve the right, and have used that right, to slough intelligence assessments, for a host of reasons.
“The president is the executive branch and any number of other relevant organizations may disagree with and dismiss the [CIA’s] perspectives and work, that’s not especially alarming,” noted Carle, the retired CIA officer.
Russia has historically been a significant enough concern that Republican lawmakers proposed — back in early 2015, before the Kremlin had begun its boldest election influence efforts — a standalone White House board built to counter Russian propaganda and influence.
And yet the Obama White House has tried to block some of those efforts. In the months leading up to the election, it refused to publicly name and shame Russia for its attempts to manipulate the US electorate, despite a widely held belief within the intelligence community that, at the least, Russia was doing something. The president labeled Russia as the culprit only when inadvertently pushed by members of his own party in Congress, who beat him to the punch.
Just weeks before it formally hands the reins over to Team Trump, the Obama administration has apparently decided to play ball.
“This administration has a seven-year, eight-month habit of of continuing to minimize Russia’s aggressions,” Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who first proposed the White House Russia group, told BuzzFeed News in an interview just before the November election. “That’s one reason why Vladimir Putin has become increasingly emboldened over the last few years.”