Trump, CIA on collision course over Russia’s role in U.S. election

The Washington Post reports: The simmering distrust between Donald Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies escalated into open antagonism Saturday after the president-elect mocked a CIA report that Russian operatives had intervened in the U.S. presidential election to help him win.

The growing tensions set up a potential showdown between Trump and the nation’s top intelligence officials during what some of those officials describe as the most complex threat environment in decades.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Central Intelligence Agency had determined that Russia had intervened in the presidential election not just to make mischief but to boost Trump’s chances.

Trump’s reaction will probably deepen an existing rift between Trump and the agencies and raised questions about how the government’s 16 spying agencies will function in his administration on matters such as counterterrorism and cyberwarfare. On Friday, members of Trump’s transition team dismissed the CIA’s assessments about Iraq’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

“Given his proclivity for revenge combined with his notorious thin skin, this threatens to result in a lasting relationship of distrust and ill will between the president and the intelligence community,” said Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

U.S. intelligence officials described mounting concern and confusion about how to proceed in an administration so openly hostile to their function and role. “I don’t know what the end game is here,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “After Jan. 20,” the official said, referring to Inauguration Day, “we’re in uncharted territory.” [Continue reading…]

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How do you brief a president who refuses to believe what you tell him?

Politico reports: Donald Trump’s insult-laced dismissal of reports that the CIA believes Russia hacked the 2016 election to help him is rattling a spy community already puzzled over how to gain the ear and trust of the incoming president.

Some fear that Trump’s highly public rebukes of the U.S. intelligence apparatus will undermine morale in the spy agencies, politicize their work, and damage their standing in a world filled with adversaries. After all, if the U.S. president doesn’t believe his own intelligence officials, why should anyone else?

“There is nothing more sacred to intelligence officers than their professionalism, honesty and non-partisanship. Trump’s charges strike at the core of their integrity,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer with broad expertise on Russia.

Trump, a career businessman with no national security experience, has long taken positions that have alarmed intelligence officials, such as supporting torture and suggesting that it’s OK to kill the family members of terrorists.

His choice of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a man who promotes conspiracy theories on Twitter, as his national security adviser has unnerved observers. And his apparent reluctance to accept daily intelligence briefings since winning on Nov. 8 has fueled concerns that Trump will assume the presidency blind to the dangers facing the United States. [Continue reading…]

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FBI and CIA give differing accounts to lawmakers on Russia’s motives in 2016 hacks

The Washington Post reports: In a secure meeting room under the Capitol last week, lawmakers held in their hands a classified letter written by colleagues in the Senate summing up a secret, new CIA assessment of Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.

Sitting before the House Intelligence Committee was a senior FBI counterintelligence official. The question the Republicans and Democrats in attendance wanted answered was whether the bureau concurred with the conclusions the CIA had just shared with senators that Russia “quite” clearly intended to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and clinch the White House.

For the Democrats in the room, the FBI’s response was frustrating — even shocking.

During a similar Senate Intelligence Committee briefing held the previous week, the CIA’s statements, as reflected in the letter the lawmakers now held in their hands, were “direct and bald and unqualified” about Russia’s intentions to help Trump, according to one of the officials who attended the House briefing.

The FBI official’s remarks to the lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee were, in comparison, “fuzzy” and “ambiguous,” suggesting to those in the room that the bureau and the agency weren’t on the same page, the official said.

The divergent messages from the CIA and the FBI put a spotlight on the difficulty faced by intelligence and law enforcement officials as they try to draw conclusions about the Kremlin’s motives for hacking Democratic Party emails during the 2016 race. Officials are frequently looking at information that is fragmentary. They also face issues assessing the intentions of a country expert at conducting sophisticated “influence” operations that made it hard — if not impossible — to conclusively detect the Kremlin’s elusive fingerprints.

The competing messages, according to officials in attendance, also reflect cultural differences between the FBI and the CIA. The bureau, true to its law enforcement roots, wants facts and tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt. The CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior. [Continue reading…]

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Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the triumph of the will to power

Jonathan Chait writes: Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders die-hards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled their suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. They also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits with a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump takes aim at U.S. Intelligence

CNN reports: President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team slammed the CIA Friday, following reports the agency has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help him win.

In a stunning response to widening claims of a Russian espionage operation targeting the presidential race, Trump’s camp risked an early feud with the Intelligence community on which he will rely for top secret assessments of the greatest threats facing the United States.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the transition said in a terse, unsigned statement.

“The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'” [Continue reading…]

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Russia intervened in election to help Donald Trump win, CIA has concluded

The Washington Post reports: The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“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,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The Obama administration has been debating for months how to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions, with White House officials concerned about escalating tensions with Moscow and being accused of trying to boost Clinton’s campaign. [Continue reading…]

Aaron Blake writes: The report highlights and exacerbates the increasingly fraught situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and digging into the increasing evidence that Russia helped — or at least attempted to help — tip the scales in Trump’s favor, they risk raising questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention.

Trump, after all, won by a margin of about 80,000 votes cast across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than one percentage point. So even a slight influence could have plausibly made the difference, though we’ll never be able to prove it one way or another.

While saying that Russia clearly tried to help Trump doesn’t inherently call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s win —earlier Friday, the White House made sure to emphasize that it’s not making that case — it’s not hard to connect the dots. And Trump and his party know it. [Continue reading…]

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Fearing abandonment by Trump, CIA-backed rebels in Syria mull alternatives

The Washington Post reports: Three years after the CIA began secretly shipping lethal aid to rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, battlefield losses and fears that a Donald Trump administration will abandon them have left tens of thousands of opposition fighters weighing their alternatives.

Among the options, say U.S. officials, regional experts and the rebels themselves, are a closer alliance with better-armed al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, receipt of more sophisticated weaponry from Sunni states in the Persian Gulf region opposed to a U.S. pullback, and adoption of more traditional guerrilla tactics, including sniper and other small-scale attacks on both Syrian and Russian targets.

Just over a year ago, the opposition held significant territory inside Syria. Since then, in the absence of effective international pushback, Russian and Syrian airstrikes have relentlessly bombarded their positions and the civilians alongside them. On the ground, Syrian government troops — bolstered by Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Shiite militia forces from Iraq — have retaken much of that ground.

From a slow and disorganized start, the opposition “accomplished many of the goals the U.S. hoped for,” including their development into a credible fighting force that showed signs of pressuring Assad into negotiations, had Russia not begun bombing and Iran stepped up its presence on the ground, said one of several U.S. officials who discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The United States estimates that there are 50,000 or more fighters it calls “moderate opposition,” concentrated in the northwest province of Idlib, in Aleppo and in smaller pockets throughout western and southern Syria, and that they are not likely to give up.

“They’ve been fighting for years, and they’ve managed to survive,” the U.S. official said. “Their opposition to Assad is not going to fade away.” [Continue reading…]

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Just one Trump transition aide dealing with CIA and 16 other agencies in the intelligence community

Reuters reports: Only one member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is dealing with the CIA and the 16 other offices and agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, four U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Geoffrey Kahn, a former House intelligence committee staffer, is the only person named so far to Trump’s intelligence community “landing team,” they said. As a result, said one senior career intelligence officer, briefing books prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and 13 other agencies and organizations are “waiting for someone to read them.” “It seems like an odd time to put issues like cyber security and international terrorism on the back burner,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Previous administrations, the official said, were quicker to staff their intelligence teams, in part because they considered intelligence issues critical to setting foreign policy, defense and budget priorities.

The intelligence community has some 200,000 employees and contractors and an annual budget of more than $70 billion. It collects and analyzes information on a vast array of subjects, from national security threats such as terrorism and climate change to global conflicts and the foreign, defense and trade policies of foreign governments.

Kahn has been in periodic contact with the CIA, said two of the officials, adding that they did not know if he had been in touch with the other intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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Trump gives Petraeus a pass

Politico reports: Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for classified State Department emails made her unfit for high office. But that isn’t stopping him from considering David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to knowingly leaking secret government files — and lying to the feds about it — for secretary of state.

Trump’s hourlong meeting Monday with Petraeus, a retired general and former CIA director, to discuss the Cabinet position is the latest in the president-elect’s outreach to retired military leaders who have clashed with President Barack Obama on foreign policy and national security.

But it also calls into question the sincerity of Trump’s stance on the importance of safeguarding the nation’s secrets, according to former government officials and intelligence experts — a stance that was driven home with campaign trail chants of “Lock her up.”

“The very consideration of Petraeus for a senior position reveals that the Trump campaign’s rhetoric regarding Hillary Clinton was totally bogus,” said Steven Aftergood, a specialist on government classification at the Federation of American Scientists. “Candidate Trump was generating hysteria over Clinton’s handling or mishandling of classified information that he likely never believed or took seriously himself.

“Petraeus admitted lying to the FBI, which distinguished his case from Clinton’s and made his case a good deal worse,” Aftergood added. “I think once again President-elect Trump is revealed as a rather hypocritical figure.” [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin’s expendable asset: Edward Snowden

Andrew Mitrovica writes: Surely, Snowden knows that the Doomsday clock is inching towards 12 o’clock not only for an insecure world, but for himself as well.

He knows that Trump’s pick for CIA chief, veteran congressman and rabid NSA cheerleader, Mike Pompeo, wants the “traitor” shipped back to the US quickly, tried perfunctorily, and executed swiftly.

“[Snowden] should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo told a television host in February.

Apparently, the congressman’s Wild West-like notion of “due process” is meting out a “death sentence” to Snowden after what will certainly amount to a token show trial.

Of course, in February, the earth’s geopolitical axis was such that Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama weren’t sharing a shot of vodka or horseback rides in the rustic Russian countryside.

Snowden is expendable. If he’s part of the price Putin might be obliged to pay to win more than just Trump’s admiration.

In this frosty context, reminiscent of the Cold War, Snowden, the former NSA spook, was a welcomed, if not useful, asset to the Russian leader, who was a KGB spy himself in the bygone, but not forgotten, Soviet era.

While alarming, Pompeo’s predictable, politically charged rhetoric could be dismissed at the time as, well, predictable, politically charged rhetoric.

Eight months later, the geopolitical axis shifted unexpectedly and breathtakingly. Trump’s once inconceivable victory will reverberate – to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s cockeyed vocabulary – in unknown and known ways.

Still, Snowden must know that the budding bromance between Trump and Putin – nurtured before, during and after an election that possibly saw Russia’s security services tilting the scales in the “Manhattan Mussolini’s” favour – will likely mean that Pompeo’s vengeful hopes could be realised sooner rather than later.

Snowden must also know that the Trump-Putin bromance is the natural consequence of the ties that bind: money and mutual authoritarian pathologies.

The pending rapprochement between these two temperamentally unalike, but otherwise like-minded figures – if it comes – will have other direct and perhaps immediate consequences for Snowden.

First, Snowden’s value to Putin as a real or symbolic slap to America’s haughty face will have run its profitable course. [Continue reading…]

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When doctors first do harm

M. Gregg Bloche writes: President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday expressed reservations about the use of torture. But he did not disavow the practice, or his promise to bring it back. And if he does, C.I.A. doctors may be America’s last defense against a return to savagery. But they’ll need to break sharply with what they did the last time around.

Buried in a trove of documents released last summer is the revelation that C.I.A. physicians played a central role in designing the agency’s post-Sept. 11 torture program. The documents, declassified in response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, show in chilling detail how C.I.A. medicine lost its moral moorings. It’s long been known that doctors attended torture as monitors. What’s new is their role as its engineers.

The documents include previously redacted language from a directive by the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services telling physicians at clandestine interrogation sites to flout medical ethics by lying to detainees and collaborating in abuse. This language also reveals that doctors helped to design a waterboarding method more brutal than what even lawyers for the George W. Bush administration allowed. [Continue reading…]

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Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for CIA director, could take the agency back to its darkest days

Vox reports: President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas to head the Central Intelligence Agency, putting a hawkish lawmaker who favors brutally interrogating detainees and expanding the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in charge of America’s premier spy agency.

Pompeo may be an unfamiliar name to many Americans, but he is well-known — and apparently generally well-respected — among intelligence professionals and well-liked by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The 52-year-old third-term Congress member serves on the House Intelligence Committee and played a prominent role the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which investigated Hillary Clinton for her role in the deaths of four Americans at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Pompeo was particularly harsh on Clinton during the hearings, and in a report afterward accused her of having “put politics ahead of people” and “focusing more on spin and media narrative before an election than securing American lives under attack by terrorists.”

As a member of Congress with experience working closely with — and at times strongly defending — the intelligence community, Pompeo’s nomination as CIA chief could bode well for the future relationship between the CIA and Congress, which has deteriorated in recent years over the CIA’s detainee program and feuds with its nominal overseers on Capitol Hill.

But Pompeo’s extremely hawkish views on critical national security issues, such as his support for keeping open the US prison at Guantanamo Bay; his defense of brutal CIA interrogation practices like waterboarding and “rectal feeding”; and his overwhelming focus on the dire threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” — all positions closely aligned with those of President-elect Trump and his new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — suggest he is not likely to be a particularly sobering or restraining force on the president-elect, particularly when it comes to controversial policies like torture and drone strikes.

Pompeo’s hawkish stance toward Russia, on the other hand, could be a major source of tension between him and the president-elect, who, along Flynn, seeks to develop closer ties with Russia, particularly in the fight against ISIS in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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