In 2016 the world witnessed a historically unprecedented spy-versus-spy showdown. The stage was the U.S. presidential election. The prize was the integrity of the American democratic process. The winner of round one: Russia.
Now America is entering round two bruised and dazed. The White House and senior U.S. intelligence officials plan to publish a detailed report on the brazen Russian election interference. The much-anticipated document will be published before Trump is inaugurated; so it will be out some time in the next three weeks. Yet this publication, as well as a covert response currently in preparation, could have grave unintended consequences—namely weakening America and bolstering Russia.
The outgoing Obama administration believes that publishing details and more evidence on how Russia interfered with the election will have two beneficial effects, one foreign and one domestic.
The intended domestic benefit is to convince the unconvinced, to demonstrate Russian interference to those who still don’t believe there was interference, presumably because the already available evidence isn’t good enough. This would then, the thinking goes, help inoculate the U.S. political establishment and the wider public against a repetition of such influence operations. And perhaps it would help NATO allies to better prepare for their own upcoming elections and hack-and-leak dramas.
The report’s intended foreign benefit is deterrence: naming and shaming Russia, and exposing its semi-covert methods of influencing the election. Exposing the hostile intelligence operation in this way, the White House believes, may deter future attacks. Intelligence officials in off-the-record meetings cite an alleged drop in offensive activity after an Oct. 7 attribution statement as evidence that deterrence actually worked. But more likely is that the operation simply evolved from the second October week forward: WikiLeaks, a witting or unwitting Russian proxy, dropped one dump a day, sometimes two; and Russian social media fronts continued to provide exclusive material to journalists in private.
Yet the White House now believes the only constraints on publishing more evidence should be protecting capabilities. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the report should be “available to the public consistent with protecting intelligence sources and methods.”
But this line of reasoning is incomplete at best, and flawed at worst.
First, the amount and the quality of the evidence that is already available in the public domain is extraordinary. The Russian operators made several grave and revealing operational security mistakes, and sometimes they got caught without making any mistake. Several intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, around a dozen private cybersecurity firms, and a few independent researchers have caught Russian hacking groups in the act in the context of the 2016 election hack-and-leak operation—not just once but several times: in the networks of the DNC, in the networks of other victims, on command-and-control machines, on various third-party infrastructure that was used to engineer the wider operation, on their own leak platforms, in direct message conversations, and while peddling hacked files as exclusive sources to willingly cooperating journalists. Several malware samples have been correlated with other intrusions, both laterally across victims as well as temporally across historic campaigns. The amount of data and analysis available in the public domain would fill a decent book, although much of it would be rather technical.
But digital forensic evidence is a bit like looking at the Mona Lisa painting through a magnifying glass: If you zoom in on a fingernail, it will look unconvincing, and like something that can be forged easily. Worse, even recognizing it as a fingernail in isolation, and as an authentic one that wasn’t forged, requires technical skills, experience, and time. Once this painstaking analysis is complete, and after zooming back out, only then will the full picture become visible in detail and in color. It’s the same with an intelligence assessment of a complex campaign.
The consequence: additional evidence may convince some skeptics, for instance technically literate civil liberties proponents critical of authority who embrace leaking in principle and don’t want to see it hijacked by Russian covert operators. But additional evidence would not convince the fiercest and loudest critics, and many press reports will likely cover the forthcoming intelligence report with more faux balance, as if the intelligence community and the far-out critics see eye-to-eye on this issue. They don’t. Even if the U.S. Intelligence Community were presenting a live specimen of a 400-pound Russian government hacker right there in the White House briefing room, a good number of people—the president-elect probably among them—would still refuse to accept the evidence. “Clearly not good enough,” they would say, “This could be doctored!” Already today the attribution discussion is less and less about forensic evidence and intelligence estimates; it is driven more and more by ideology and naked political interest.
The second, sobering insight follows: The Russian intelligence operation has been spectacularly successful so far. The press coverage of the hacked files was relentless—before the election, the coverage divided Democrats; since the election, it is dividing Republicans.
Around 2,000 U.S. news stories referenced material hacked by Russia in July alone. The second major tranche, published on WikiLeaks, was picked up in more than 4,800 news stories. CNN covered the leaks in more than 770 items, The Washington Post did more than 530 stories, The New York Times published 420, “doing the Kremlin’s work,” in the Grey Lady’s own words. And around 700 widely circulated news agency pieces came out, according to Factiva, a research tool owned by Dow Jones & Company. Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 15 times on Twitter alone, generating around 800,000 engagements with the public, most in October.
The same month, WikiLeaks was the leading topic on Facebook. Conversations on the leaks posted on the self-styled “whistleblower” site on Facebook even outperformed the Chicago Cubs and the World Series, especially among election-deciding older men. The brutal drip-drip of leaks throughout the campaign has caused tremendous frustration among Democrats and, by highlighting the Clinton-Sanders rift and a ham-fisted campaign, the leaks have caused intra-party tensions among Democrats before the election.
After the election the intra-party tensions started to hit the Republicans, although not as strongly as was the case for the Democrats. Traditional Republican Russia hawks were outraged by Putin’s brazen influence operation, while dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters were outraged by what they saw as attempts to tarnish the legitimacy of their president-elect. By mid-December the CIA, FBI, and the DNI, representing 16 intelligence agencies, were explicitly stating that the Russian operation evolved from undermining American democracy to favoring Trump, and even that the campaign was eventually commandeered by Putin himself. Trump, meanwhile, continued his denial and repeatedly dismissed U.S. intelligence findings, by doing so now actively undermining the legitimacy and strategic standing of his incoming administration.
Worse, the operation’s effects haven’t petered out yet. The deepening and ugly rift between the entire U.S. intelligence community and the president-elect is unprecedented and dangerous—and it is a direct if unexpected result of the Russian hack-and-leak operation. Publishing more evidence now runs the risk of pouring jet fuel into this rift and setting ablaze a damaging debate that will leave the United States weaker, not stronger. Putin’s denial is daring Obama to inflict even more self-harm, and the U.S. president may even oblige.
The likely outcome is the opposite of deterrence: a direct incentive for Russia as well as other potential adversaries to ramp up such influence operations in the future, with a bonus learning opportunity on how to maximize post-election effects next time—as well as free advertising for Putin as fearful virtual supervillain that the world should be afraid of. Naming and shaming is an ineffective deterrent against a brazen authoritarian regime with a good grip on public opinion at home and a disregard for conventional diplomacy abroad.
The U.S. intelligence report should still be briefed to Congress and published. The American public deserves to know. But the agencies should err on the side of caution when declassifying evidence. Capabilities, sources, and methods should be used covertly to good effect, not burned publicly for poor effect. But expectations should be kept low: Any short-term U.S. covert action will likely pale against the overall success of the Russian campaign of the past nine months.
So this isn’t about “round two.” The real challenge is bigger.
The United States, firstly, should finally end this silly election season and re-frame Russia for what it is: a regional power with a poorly performing economy, a rusting industrial base, plagued by organized crime and corruption, losing its brightest minds to brain drain, and haunted by post-imperial phantom pain that drives its incompetent leadership into ill-planned foreign policy adventurism. Worse, what may look like a shrewd covert strategy at first glance is in fact a conspiratorial doctrine of permanent psychological operations at home and abroad, a strategy that is fast degenerating into a self-destructive worldview that is corroding what is left of freedom and liberty in Russia today.
Finally, and most importantly, the root problem isn’t “cybersecurity,” as President Obama implied in his disappointingly uninspiring pre-holiday press conference. Yes, we face technical challenges, such as protecting and hardening messages and leakable files against exposure. We also face tough mid-level questions, such as how responsible journalists should deal with leaked material of unknown provenance. But the biggest task ahead is political. We are facing a deep identity crisis of Western liberal democracy and the values that undergird it. Our societies are becoming sharply unequal and permanently connected, with ever more frustrated people choosing their own comforting alt-media echo chambers. Emerging news consumption patterns prize fakes over facts, affirmation over information, and emotion over reason. The marketplace is driving this trend, not some foreign spy agency. It is this heady brew that is providing uplift to populist and authoritarian tendencies at home and abroad, benefiting Trump and Putin alike. And that won’t go away.
Responding to a semi-covert influence operation that benefitted from a political perfect storm risks becoming a distraction. Coming to grips with this brave new political reality is the urgent generational task ahead.