Note: The first part of this article presumes incorrectly that the special prosecutor’s latest indictment focuses on hackers’ interference with the 2016 election, not real-world cheerleading and trolling tied to social media. The latter portion of the article corrects this mistake. Remarks about FBI and CIA behavior hold regardless of the indictment’s focus.
Mueller indicted the Russkies this week. The allegations run to thirty-seven pages. Soon I will have to swallow my confident assertions that the intelligence agencies will never reveal their evidence. Of course, the formal charges from the special prosecutor will not go to trial, so the agencies still do not have to disclose classified evidence.
Here’s an interesting observation about the way the CIA and FBI operate. Reports and evidence about Russian interference started to roll in during the first half of 2016, if not before. That was well before the Democratic National Convention, and well before John Podesta’s inbox became a staple of the nation’s news feeds. Yet the intelligence agencies did not throw up any warnings! Of course we do not know what they did or said in private, but they did not say anything in public until a month after the election, in December 2016. By then Trump occupied the White House, Obama prepared more sanctions against Russia, and Clinton still wondered what happened to her.
Let’s say Mueller finds illegal contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian intelligence services. What if he learns, along the way, that our intelligence agencies, including the FBI, knew about efforts to undermine Clinton’s campaign, and did nothing about it? That seems to make the agencies look pretty bad, as their main job is to protect their country against exactly that kind of intrusion. If they discover intrusion more than six months before the election, and keep their knowledge under wraps until it does not matter, what does that tell us about the way they handle their responsibilities?
You want to ask, ‘What are we paying you for, if not to protect our elections from foreign interference, at the time it happens?’
Naturally they give their standard answer for not doing their job: we cannot disclose our sources and methods, which means we cannot tell you anything. In other words, their operating procedures come first, even before protection of our democracy. We knew that already, but the FBI and CIA don’t often have an opportunity to state their priorities so plainly. ‘We knew Russian intelligence was interfering in our election, but we did not tell anyone about it. Of course we told the president, after the election.’ You want to ask, ‘What are we paying you for, if not to protect our elections from foreign interference, at the time it happens?’
Almost two years have passed since the CIA and FBI first became aware of Russian probes, phishing, hacks, disinformation, propaganda, information laundering, and whatever other tricks they could cook up. Yet they have still not told us what they know. They are willing to let Mueller issue indictments of foreign nationals, with no more assurance about the quality of their evidence than they offered a month after the election, when our own president publicly accused another country of intrusion. I have never said Obama’s charges are false. I’ve said again and again that accusing people without evidence is a bad idea. Yet the CIA and FBI seem ready to let first the president, then the special prosecutor do exactly that.
Most of what we know comes from reporters who are not themselves experts in cyberwarfare. Moreover, they must conduct their investigations without running afoul of the intelligence agencies. They know from the Obama years that if the feds want to charge them with espionage because they possess or mishandle classified information, they will do it. So they have to be careful about what they report, and how they report it. They do not have a free hand with their own investigations.
These two agencies have never placed justification for their actions ahead of standard procedures for handling the information they hold.
Yet Mueller’s investigation rolls on. It has a lot more freedom, but it has not come up with any big fish. Unless the agencies decide their own interests require more openness, our level of knowledge a year from now cannot exceed what we currently know. Evidence will accumulate, as Washington and the media remain in a dither. At some point, Mueller will file his report. It will summarize what his team learned during its investigation. It may even contain some valuable bits of information. In the end, he cannot report what the FBI and CIA do not want him to report.
That is to say, the report will not contain evidence that matters. If the FBI and CIA were willing to tell us what they know, they would have done it by now. Reasons for disclosure were strongest during the last two years. Arguments for an information dump continue to weaken as each month passes. These two agencies have never placed justification for their actions ahead of standard procedures for handling the information they hold. They rely on their prestige to make them credible, not disclosure of supporting evidence. It’s not a good strategy. Prestige melts fast at Langley, and at the J. Edgar Hoover office building it has no chance at all.
Why do we find out about these activities now? It’s four years later!
Due diligence on the contents of Mueller’s indictment reveals that the special prosecutor’s charges focus on Russkies’ low-rent but widespread activism, online and offline during the election run-up, to promote favored candidates and disrespect disfavored candidates. Needless to say, they liked Trump and Sanders, disliked Clinton and Cruz. Their efforts date back to 2014, which raises the same question as before: why do we find out about these activities now? It’s four years later! Does the FBI like to play in its own sandbox, totally unconscious of the environment it operates in?
Note as well the FBI’s apparently conscientious warning that the Russians want to interfere with the 2018 midterms as well. Thanks a bunch. We find out four years late about the Russians’ 2014 operations, then you figure you should warn us about similar dangers during the upcoming nine months. Of course, you can’t or won’t tell us your plans to stop the intruders. That would compromise your sources and methods.
Comey’s press conference in July 2016, where he kindly suggested Clinton ought to stand trial if she weren’t standing for president – after her husband chatted with the attorney general – indicates that in fact the FBI does not deal with delicate politics with a lot of finesse. Of course Comey wanted to protect the FBI’s reputation, in a situation where he would fail, since he had no trump cards to play. Both the July press conference, and Comey’s letter to Congress about Anthony Weiner’s laptop, show an FBI director who wants to cover his agency’s rear, in a situation where no one can cover it.
In the meantime, did the FBI and CIA also sit on evidence of Republican cooperation with Russian intelligence agencies?
You want to ask, if the FBI sat on evidence of Russian intrusion for two and a half years before the election, why did it not sit on their investigation of Clinton’s private email server for a few more months. They could have ended their investigation of Clinton at the same time they cleared Obama to accuse the Russians of interference.
In the meantime, did the FBI and CIA also sit on evidence of Republican cooperation with Russian intelligence agencies? You know I do not ask these questions because I am partial to Clinton. I thought and still think she was a weak candidate, who truly underestimated her opponent’s support. She displayed plenty of other weaknesses during the election campaign. These questions highlight the effects of the intelligence agencies’ commitment to their own information handling procedures. The commitment to secrecy explains why the bureau in particular cannot do its job. It is, to put it as plainly as possible, inept because its own rules hamper its performance.
As we begin to grasp the bureau’s incompetence, it pushes ahead with more inexplicable, self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. It seems to want everything it does to be politics-free. It’s a bureau of investigation, for heaven’s sake, in the nation’s capital. It is not an intelligence agency, yet it has taken on the cast of one. It has become one more lego piece in the national security state. If you want to know why special prosecutor tells us about Russian election interference from four years ago, the answer lies in front of you. The FBI never intended to tell us! Let’s qualify that, to tie this disclosure to politics: they did not intend to tell us before President Trump fired Director Comey.
Thank you, Robert Mueller, for turning something up. I suppose we ought to thank the Russkies, too, for showing us how vulnerable we are to low-rent finaglers. One of the Russkies even texted, in the middle of their operations, we’ve been busted by the FBI! That’s a great piece of evidence! The finagler texts in the clear that our own security agency busted them, and we learn four years later the FBI told no one about it! Good work, boys and girls.
Is Donald Trump a Traitor? by James Risen in The Intercept
What Mueller’s Indictment Reveals by David Graham in The Atlantic