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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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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Rex Tillerson, Exxon chief with close ties to Russia, is expected to be Trump’s pick for secretary of state

The New York Times reports: Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, whose extensive deal-making for the energy giant has plunged him into global politics from Yemen to Russia, is expected to be offered the secretary of state post this weekend by President-elect Donald J. Trump, according to two people close to Mr. Trump’s transition team.

Mr. Tillerson, 64, has spent the past 41 years at Exxon, where he began as a production engineer and went on to strike deals around the world for a company that explores, buys and sells oil and gas in some of the globe’s most troubled corners.

Those travels have engendered close ties with a number of world leaders, notably President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has known Mr. Tillerson for more than two decades, and who awarded him the country’s Order of Friendship in 2013. The next year, Washington’s relationship with Moscow was plunged into a deep freeze with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its shadow war in eastern Ukraine, a problem that Mr. Tillerson would inherit. [Continue reading…]

Steve Horn notes: Exxon, the top U.S. producer of oil and gas and a well-documented funder of climate science denial, actually leases more land in Russia than it does in the U.S.

“Exxon boosted its Russian holdings to 63.7 million acres in 2014 from 11.4 million at the end of 2013, according to data from U.S. regulatory filings,” reported Bloomberg in March 2014. “That dwarfs the 14.6 million acres of rights Exxon holds in the U.S., which until last year was its largest exploration prospect.”

Exxon, though headquartered in Irving, Texas near Dallas, is a sprawling “private empire” with assets spread across the globe. When asked about building more U.S. refineries to protect the U.S. economy and consumers from fuel shortages, former CEO and chairman Lee Raymond put Exxon’s view of itself and its loyalty to the U.S. bluntly.

“I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S,” Raymond is quoted as saying in the 2012 book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll. [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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Trump, mocking claim that Russia hacked election, at odds with GOP

The New York Times reports: An extraordinary breach has emerged between President-elect Donald J. Trump and the national security establishment, with Mr. Trump mocking American intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election on his behalf, and top Republicans vowing investigations into Kremlin activities.

Mr. Trump, in a statement issued by his transition team on Friday evening, expressed complete disbelief in the intelligence agencies’ assessments.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Trump’s team said, adding that the election was over and that it was time to “move on.”

Though Mr. Trump has wasted no time in antagonizing the agencies, he will have to rely on them for the sort of espionage activities and analysis that they spend more than $70 billion a year to perform.

At this point in a transition, a president-elect is usually delving into intelligence he has never before seen and learning about C.I.A. and National Security Agency abilities. But Mr. Trump, who has taken intelligence briefings only sporadically, is questioning not only analytic conclusions, but also their underlying facts. [Continue reading…]

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‘We are dead either way’: Agonizing choices for Syrians in Aleppo

The New York Times reports: He had long been one of the more optimistic anti-government residents of the besieged, rebel-held section of Aleppo, trying to buoy others’ spirits even as loyalist forces closed in. But as the Syrian Army and allied militias took more and more territory in an apparently decisive offensive during the week, Yasser Hmeish, an accountant for the local medical council, grew frantic.

Soldiers seized his neighborhood on Wednesday while he worked at a clinic blocks away. Several of Mr. Hmeish’s neighbors were brought into the clinic wounded, but died before he could ask what had happened to his family.

“I don’t know anything, anything about them,” Mr. Hmeish said in an audio message, in one of scores of exchanges we had with people inside east Aleppo as the offensive unfolded. “We are about to die or be arrested.”

After years of bombing and months under siege, rebels had lost more than three-quarters of their territory in eastern Aleppo by the end of the week, throwing thousands of civilians and fighters into chaos. We followed the events in real time from Beirut, monitoring social media and talking via WhatsApp, Skype, telephone and other media with doctors, fighters, housewives, local council members, antigovernment activists, aid workers and others, including on the government side. All were people we had gotten to know through years of covering Syria’s bloody civil war.

They confided their dilemmas over whether to flee to government-held areas or stay put until the bitter end, a choice that split up many families. They described escalating bombardment and attacks that have killed women and children trying to reach safe ground. They revealed deepening rifts among rebel groups, and between fighters and civilians, over whether and how to surrender. [Continue reading…]

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Russia hacked Republican National Committee but kept data, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump, according to senior administration officials.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

Republicans have a different explanation for why no documents from their networks were ever released. Over the past several months, officials from the Republican committee have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked. On Friday, a senior committee official said he had no comment. [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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Donald Trump receives far fewer intelligence briefings than most of his recent predecessors

Reuters reports: President-elect Donald Trump is receiving an average of one presidential intelligence briefing a week, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter, far fewer than most of his recent predecessors.

Although they are not required to, presidents-elect have in the past generally welcomed the opportunity to receive the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the most highly classified and closely held document in the government, on a regular basis.

It was not immediately clear why Trump has decided not to receive the intelligence briefings available to President Barack Obama more frequently, or whether that has made any difference in his presidential preparations.

An official on the transition team said on Thursday that Trump has been receiving national security briefings, including “routine” PDBs and other special briefings, but declined to specify their content or frequency, saying these matters were classified.

Trump has asked for at least one briefing, and possibly more, from intelligence agencies on specific subjects, one of the officials said. The source declined to identify what subjects interested the president-elect, but said that so far they have not included Russia or Iran. [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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Republicans ready to launch wide-ranging probe of Russia, despite Trump’s stance; Obama orders intel review

The Washington Post reports: Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.

Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.

But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.

Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.

The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said. [Continue reading…]

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Killing hope in Aleppo

 

MI6 chief, Alex Younger, says: “Russia and the Syria regime seek to make a desert and call it peace.”

 

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