The Real Reasons for Russian Electoral Meddling

Did Russian intelligence officials attempt to interfere in our election? Almost certainly they did. Did they attempt to tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump? Very clearly, they did not.

Several outlets reported last weekend that the CIA recently told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections for the purpose of helping to elect Donald Trump. To quote from one report: “’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.’”

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I can say unequivocally that is not what CIA or other intelligence officials have concluded.

The Post reporting was based on an anonymous official who claimed to be familiar with the CIA report. Whether this source was confused or deliberately misleading is less important than the fact that the current media uproar advances Vladimir Putin’s goal to sow chaos and distrust in our electoral system.

It’s important to note this isn’t the first time Russia has attempted to disrupt elections with misinformation and deception. Such tactics are straight from the Soviet playbook, only updated to include new and better tactics courtesy of social media. In fact, Russian meddling in European politics is so common that it is almost old news. It is well accepted that Russia supports, and directly funds, parties and causes that Putin believes will create disunity among our allies. And why does he do this? Because he knows it gives him an upper hand in dealing with the EU, NATO, and their member states. For example, just this summer, as Sweden debated whether to join a military partnership with NATO, anti-NATO rumors swirled on social media. And the rumors were compelling: the agreement would require Sweden to stockpile nuclear weapons; NATO soldiers could rape without fear of prosecution; Sweden could be forced to host NATO forces for a surprise attack on Russia. But though compelling, these rumors were also completely false. Intelligence officials now believed that Russia — opposed to NATO expansion — was behind the misinformation.

This example is worth noting for, as we witnessed here in the United States, Russia’s interference wasn’t used to choose one candidate over another but to create uncertainty and doubt.

Besides being unsupported by the intelligence analysis, to suggest that Putin was trying to elect Trump also reflects a naive view of Russian strategy and tactics. While Russian President Vladimir Putin — a KGB thug — isn’t beneath influencing elections, he is almost certainly seeking a more predictable outcome from his covert activities. So while predicting which candidate will ultimately prove more favorable for Russian interests is fraught with uncertainty, undermining voters’ confidence in the integrity of the election is a sure bet. And even if Putin did favor one candidate, I’m skeptical that he would prefer Trump. After all, it was President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who were repeatedly outplayed and embarrassed by Putin on Ukraine, Syria, and the Baltics. At the very least, Putin’s preference would seem debatable.

We should also wonder why we were able to identify Russia as the culprit, despite the fact that Russian hackers are exceptionally careful to evade detection. Knowing this, such a brazen attempt by Russia to influence the U.S. election seems ham-handed…unless Putin wants Americans to think a foreign power is manipulating our election.

Western Democracies have to depend on electoral legitimacy to survive and to govern, making us uniquely vulnerable to a well-managed misinformation campaign. Knowing this is true, let’s not play into Russia’s hands with unsubstantiated reports of an adversarial government determining the outcome of our election. The facts are concerning enough. We don’t need to exaggerate to know we have a challenge in countering Russian interference in democratic processes not only here at home, but throughout the world.

Relevant Congressional committees have already started holding hearings to understand the extent of the problem and to map out a plan to counter Russian interference. Americans deserve our best efforts. But this effort must be based on facts and our best analysis, not anonymous contacts and innuendo.

This was originally published in the Washington Examiner on December 15, 2016.