Washington is in an uproar over reported findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government used secret cyberattacks to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump called the charge “ridiculous,” while deriding the agencies for their errors before the Iraq war. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demanded a full investigation, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants the Senate Intelligence Committee to take it on. President Obama has ordered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to undertake a review and report back before Obama leaves office Jan. 20.
Judging what to believe here is difficult, though, because little information is available. News stories have been based on accounts of a secret CIA report, as revealed to reporters by anonymous government sources. One “senior U.S. official” told the Washington Post, “It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected.”
Yet other intel officials familiar with the same raw information evidently disagree with the CIA’s conclusions about it: The Post also reports that, several days ago, a senior FBI official’s briefing for lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee was, in comparison with the CIA’s certitude, “fuzzy” and “ambiguous,” suggesting to those in attendance that the bureau and the agency weren’t on the same page. “For the Democrats in the room,” the Post reports, “the FBI’s response was frustrating — even shocking.”
If the CIA’s view is true, it demands responsive action. But there is no way for the rest of us to know, because the people overseeing the CIA and FBI have not come forward with public statements. They should — and right away. Calls for congressional investigations may be de rigueur, and certainly make all of us feel that our government is on the case. But remember: Such probes (most recently of American deaths in Benghazi, Libya) can drag on interminably.
If there is firm evidence that Vladimir Putin had Russians hack the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and others to get material to transmit to WikiLeaks in an attempt to change the outcome of our presidential election, the American people should see that information. How better to keep such intrusions from occurring again? But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, told the Post that “there is no clear evidence — even now. There’s a lot of innuendo, lots of circumstantial evidence, that’s it.”
The opaque nature of all this leaves the American people buffeted between troubling speculation and the self-assured pronouncements of U.S. officials and politicians who may or may not have hard evidence supporting them. Among those doing the pronouncing is the president-elect, who has taken the unusual step of dismissing the work of intel analysts he’ll soon oversee.
Did Moscow in fact deploy spycraft in an attempt to rig a U.S. presidential election? Only the agencies that investigated the matter have the information needed to assess the competing claims. Most of the time, these agencies have an understandable preference for secrecy. But this is one of those occasions when greater transparency is essential.
Clapper, who oversees the 17 government units that collect and analyze intelligence data, is the logical person to step out and shine a light on what is known — and what is not. Obama can help by declassifying any relevant documents that can be safely published.
There are limits to such openness, of course. The agencies don’t want to compromise human sources or reveal spying methods that would help our enemies figure out how to evade detection in the future. But if people in the executive branch can talk about these things with reporters, on the condition of anonymity, it’s safe to assume the people running our intelligence agencies can address the controversy before TV cameras without doing harm.
The House and Senate intelligence committees may want to invite public testimony from Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and others. But the reveal shouldn’t have to wait until Congress is ready.
As things stand, President-elect Trump is beset by suspicions he benefited from the surreptitious efforts of a longtime U.S. rival — suspicions that he can’t dispel and his detractors can’t prove. When the stakes are this high, the public deserves to know more, and the sooner the better.