By Barbara Slavin
Almost everything about this political year has shattered precedent. Still, the CIA’s conclusion that Russian government-instigated cyber warriors actively promoted Donald Trump’s victory throws our system into truly frightening, uncharted territory.
It has been known for months that Russian hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Among the hackers was a Russian-backed group known as Fancy Bear that burrowed in to Democrats’ computers by using phishing attacks designed to mirror messages from Google. Then the hacks were given to Wikileaks, which dumped the most embarrassing emails at sensitive times in the campaign.
Many observers wondered why Wikileaks never released anything on the Trump campaign, given that hackers reportedly also penetrated Republican National Committee computer systems. This make senses if Russia was seeking not just to undermine confidence in American democracy, but to elect Trump.
Clearly, other factors hurt Clinton’s chances, including her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State and her failure to connect with blue collar workers who had traditionally voted Democratic but went for Trump in large numbers this year. However, since the vote was extremely close in several crucial states, the Russian operation could well have been decisive.
Equally distressing has been Trump’s response to Russian subversion.
Instead of acknowledging this serious threat to American democracy, a statement from his transition team denigrated the CIA for promoting, more than a decade ago, what turned out to be a wrong assessment that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein still had weapons of destruction. The statement went on to say – falsely — that Trump had achieved one of the biggest electoral college wins in history and to essentially tell Americans who didn’t support him to get over it.
Not so fast, comrades.
That a foreign government played such a destructive role in one of our closest and most bitterly fought elections is obviously a matter of grave concern. The Russian intervention also undermines the credibility of policies the incoming administration may adopt toward a nuclear-armed state whose interests are hardly identical to those of the United States.
The policy implications are especially concerning given Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign, Trump’s comments suggesting that he would abandon NATO allies unless they spent more on defense, his invitation to Russia to find and release missing Clinton emails, his choice of retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn – another Putin admirer—as national security adviser and the possible nomination of Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson – who has done major business with Russia – as Secretary of State.
Tillerson’s company would stand to gain enormously from lifting U.S. economic sanctions that were placed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. But then, conflict of interests seem to be the rule, not the exception, for the incoming administration
An especially disturbing aspect of the Russia revelations is the president-elect’s refusal to accept the findings of intelligence professionals on whom he will soon have to rely to warn him of imminent threats to the United States. He told Time magazine recently that the Democratic Party hacks could have been carried out by China or “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” On Fox News Sunday, he asserted that the allegations that Russia used cyber attacks to help get him elected were “ridiculous” and “just another excuse” by Democrats to justify their defeat.
Will Trump also reject CIA findings about the group that calls itself the Islamic State? North Korea? China? Iran? Will he accept Putin’s interpretation of the war in Syria that murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad is the solution not the problem?
Transitions are always a time of heightened risk for U.S. national security – witness what happened after George W. Bush took office in 2001 and did not take seriously enough CIA warnings that al-Qaeda was determined to attack the U.S. homeland. Yet Trump has demonstrated his lack of regard for the U.S. intelligence community by attending what should be a daily briefing only about once a week. His very ignorance of such matters should make him eager to hear much more from intelligence professionals, not less.
The Barack Obama administration has promised to issue a full report about Russian interference in U.S. elections before it leaves office. A few influential Republicans have joined Democrats in urging a thorough Congressional investigation.
Trump’s nominees for important Cabinet positions should also face close scrutiny about their connections to Putin and the Kremlin before they are confirmed.
Just before the election, Michael Hayden, a former CIA director under the last Republican president, called Trump a “polezni durak” or “useful fool.” That’s a Cold War term, Hayden explained, for “some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.”
Hayden called the term “harsh” but said, “it’s the most benign interpretation of all this that I can come up with right now.”