The revelation of the June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian nationals has spurred more than a few former intelligence officials to label it an apparent Russian intelligence operation masquerading as an opposition research meeting.
To be sure, however, Russia’s covert operations during the 2016 cycle didn’t start or end there. Political operatives of both parties fell for Russian spearfishing attempts, and the intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Kremlin was responsible for a covert influence campaign that saw the release of pilfered emails.
But Moscow had another target in its multi-pronged campaign to influence the vote: American reporters, who, in some cases, were equally credulous and—in extremis—enablers of the Russian assault on our democracy. Just as the Trump administration must be unequivocal in holding Moscow accountable, so, too, do some corners of the Fourth Estate need to soul search in advance of what surely will be subsequent foreign intelligence operations targeting our democracy.
As a former CIA officer and the National Security Council spokesperson during the election, I took particular notice as the media provided a megaphone to a Russian intelligence operation. A single date, Oct. 7, 2016, put much of this on full display. It was that afternoon that the Obama administration formally attributed the hack-and-release effort to the highest levels of the Russian government. Moscow’s culpability had been speculated on for months following a private security company’s assessment to that effect in June, but the statement from the director of National Intelligence and the secretary of Homeland Security that day was the first official confirmation.
Those of us in the White House expected that determination to receive significant media attention. And it did… for about 30 minutes. Shortly following the issuance of the statement, The Washington Post had its own scoop in the form of the Access Hollywood tape. Interest in the attribution came to a halt. A colleague later relayed that a reporter—who was peppering him with questions about the statement—stopped mid-sentence, muttering something to the effect of: “Oh my God, I’ll have to call you back.” He never did.
But Oct. 7 had more surprises in store. That evening, WikiLeaks—which the intelligence community just a few hours earlier had publicly characterized as an instrument of Moscow’s operation—began trickling out the hacked emails of John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman. Just as soon as interest in the Access Hollywood tape waned somewhat, media interest in the cache waxed. But, notably, reporters covered the leaked correspondence for its substance, not its origins. Intrigue in perceived campaign infighting, inside baseball decision-making, and even Podesta’s risotto recipe took hold, as the media largely glossed over the fact that they were peddling emails pilfered by an American adversary. This was lamentable, but given where we are these days, it was perhaps understandable.
But there was another element to Moscow’s enlistment of the American media—and one that was far less excusable. Starting in mid-2016, Russian intelligence fronts, namely a website known as DCLeaks and an online persona calling himself Guccifer2.0, began peddling exclusive scoops to hand-picked reporters, both niche and mainstream. These exclusives—pointing reporters to a particularly juicy email, for example—began after it had been widely reported that the Kremlin was behind the hacks and, most disturbingly, continued even after the administration labeled Guccifer and DCLeaks elements of the Russian operation. To be fair, some reporters took a principled stand, refusing to publish spoon-fed scoops. The Associated Press, for instance, declined to publish the exclusive and, instead, subsequently published a news story on its team’s interactions with the hackers. Nevertheless, others felt no such compunction, occasionally publishing gossipy content without noting the provenance.
Reporters could be forgiven for taking this approach early in the summer before Moscow’s meddling was widely understood. But that excuse eroded over time and should have been eviscerated with the administration’s October attribution statement. Nevertheless, they persisted even after the Russians—apparently having a little fun with their eroded cover—began disseminating scoops through the “Fancy Bear Hack Team,” a reference to a codename applied to Russia’s military intelligence service. And Moscow surely had even more fun upon realizing that some reporters continued to be willing mouthpieces.
To be clear, I don’t mean to partake in today’s baseless media bashing, and this criticism of some corners of the Fourth Estate comes from a recognition of the critical role the media can—and must—play in national politics. Indeed, the press is arguably the only functional check in our democracy today, holding to account those who see themselves as unaccountable. In light of the media’s indispensable role, however, those in the industry must never again advance our adversaries’ assault on our most sacred democratic exercise.
There are initial reasons to be optimistic that the lessons of 2016 are taking hold. Just as soon as the election concluded last November, reporters seemed to become more interested in Moscow’s meddling—so much so that the topic dominated President Obama’s end-of-year news conference that December. Perhaps with Clinton relegated to the woods of Chappaqua, the origins, rather than substance, of Podesta’s emails came into focus.
What’s more, the Kremlin’s efforts were foiled when Moscow attempted to run the same play in the French elections. While France’s media blackout laws proved beneficial, the American experience may have served as a cautionary tale, leaving journalists more attuned to what was unfolding. Just this month, moreover, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did her colleagues a service by reporting on what may well have been a Russian forgery purporting to be a U.S. intelligence report. Rather than rush to publish a scoop, Maddow and her team’s deliberate approach helped inoculate against future such attempts. (Full disclosure: I’m an NBC analyst and contributor).
Efforts such as these are so important because the next assault on our democracy is not a question of if; it’s a matter of time. And when it arrives upon our shores, Americans must be united in recognizing it for what it is and working together—government, private citizens, and, yes, the media—to stop it in its tracks.