Amid Months of Exaggerated Russia Reports, Publishers Retract and Reframe Stories

Yesterday the New York Times published an attempt to change the narrative about months of false and misleading “Russia meddling” reports, recently retracted and corrected by multiple respected news sources, including the Times, the Associated Press and CNN. The claim that “17 agencies” had signed off on a January 6, 2017 declassified report was very widely repeated but false.

It’s a bit of a complicated story. Washington Post’s recent summary includes many details and concludes “the media laundered and recycled a Clinton talking point without too much exploration…”

While this article focusses on some highly illustrative 2017 articles from the NY Times, virtually every news publisher, comedian and pundit played a role in unwittingly obscuring the truth. They couldn’t say “17 agencies” enough — especially given that the actual report had so little evidence in it, and didn’t conclude that the election, or even a single vote, had been affected.

The ironies are more hilarious than a season of vintage Daily Show material — amid a long con from right out of The Grifters (we have video). 
Conclusions include:

  • For more than half a year, an exaggerated focus on ‘Russian meddling’ stories has been been distracting news institutions and popular news media, to the point of eclipsing other political reporting, while wrecking their credibility in the eyes of a growing audience.
  • Sadly, this has significantly strengthened the president, the White House and his political base by unintentionally confirming his brand of profound skepticism of news media — FAKE NEWS — and widening that message to include every citizen sick of constant daily Russia meddling stories.
  • Far from being over, the Times’ latest protest yesterday — and ongoing hourly Russian Meddling updates on networks like MSNBC, no matter what the main topic — show the problem continues unabated to this day.
  • Every intelligence document stresses there is no evidence any foreign meddling effected the outcome of the election.
  • No matter — our news institutions have eroded the public’s trust in them more destructively than any real foreign attack ever could.
  • The report itself doesn’t claim 17 agencies vetted it. That claim was made mainly by people who did not read the report but were impressed with its pedigree.
  • The report notably fails to mention that Julian Assange — the whistleblower who published the Podesta emails containing Clinton speeches to banks that she wanted kept secret from voters – had reported that neither Russia nor any other “state actor” had sourced them. Evidently he was not interviewed for the thorough intelligence report.
  • The report contains no discussion or even anecdotal evidence of any specific fake news web sites, Facebook groups, or trolling incidents — so of course there are no examples or evidence given of such incidents connected to Russia. They do not show a single example of anything misleading online originating in Russia or from Russian sources.
  • Most of the report is Appendix A, a 2012 criticism of the RT television network, which isn’t on most TV lineups and affects US voters here far less even than the BBC or Al Jazeera news — perhaps not at all. RT is hosted by former US journalists like Larry King, Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann with The Big Picture and Pulitzer prize winning journalist Chris Hedges. Hosts include American, British and Russian reporters, and gentle hippies with pacifist shows like “Watching the Hawks” who sign off by saying “I love you” to the audience. They are the opposite of government tools; they are so anti-authoritarian, their slogan is Question More. Putin is rarely a topic, and US reporters say there’s no interference from the owners (the Russian state) regarding content, in sharp contrast to their experience with corporate networks here. If you’ve watched Democracy Now! or the Free Speech TV network and wondered what it could be like with an international presence and a $25M budget, you’re picturing RT News. Evidently our CIA is very afraid you’ll watch it.
  • When the Intelligence spooks stretch to find something sinister on RT, the most threatening thing they can find are the uncensored 2012 presidential candidates debates (see below)

Background
We’ve been let down by our media institutions during a critically difficult period, when we need information and institutions we can trust more than ever before. The president is a compulsive, even pathological liar, a renowned confidence man who has paid millions in settlements, and a confessed casual sexual predator with many victims. He has nonetheless also been the subject of unsubstantiated, anonymous, undocumented, exaggerated and occasionally false claims. The same publications and writers who had the most trouble reading the 2016 election, and who underestimated the effect of voters’ vast apathy and contempt for the ordained frontrunner and the press, are continuing in the same belief systems and information bubbles, with added layers of grief and frustration.

Half a year later there’s been little analysis of the many errors by the candidate, her campaign, or the serious weaknesses in the party’s message and leadership that have affected many recent races and persist to this day. The most popular figure in the party isn’t even a Democrat. And of course, publications like the Times won’t report on how biased, uncritical reporting from media that endorsed one candidate instantly and covered her uncritically fueled a skeptical backlash from millions of voters across the spectrum. The famous “post mortem” Republicans did right after losing in 2012 has yet to begin for 2016 Democrats, supplanted by denial, anger, and paralysis instead. There has been no reality check.

Into this grief-soaked gap leapt a Russia meddling report purportedly from multiple intelligence agencies. Since January 6th we’ve heard almost daily reference to a very persuasive report that 17 US intelligence agencies had signed off on, leading them to conclude “with high confidence” that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election. Except, on page 1 it explains:

The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.
Thus, while the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods.

and then:

We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.

Taken together, these could in principle help explain the almost absurd lack of specific evidence in the main 5-page report. Only the agencies’ conclusions are included; no evidence that those conclusions might have been based on. When readers encounter a declassified report that’s so devoid of content, one natural reaction is, “Wow, they must have redacted every bit of compelling evidence! At least we know teams from 17 different agencies reviewed all the classified stuff and considered it so accurate and important that they signed off.” In this case, the only thing there is the pedigree.

With that context, it grows clear why the Times’ latest claim — that a report vetted by just three spooks is almost as credible as if it had been reviewed by 17 different agencies — is so obscenely dishonest. Most people don’t realize, there’s barely any evidence in the report itself! It’s all about how much you trust the people who claim they saw some!

So it turns out instead of 17 organizations, it’s the 3 spooks who sat in the hearing on January 7th — perhaps the most famous liars in the intelligence community:
• James Clapper, whose perjury about surveillance under oath in the Senate convinced Edward Snowden he had to risk his freedom to reveal the truth
• CIA Director John Brennan, who lied for months about spying on Diane Feinstein and her staff while they investigated his torture programs. Here’s Brennan lying about it on NBC and laughingly suggesting Senator Feinstein must be insane: “Nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. I mean that, that that’s just beyond the scope of reason of what we would do.” Months later he finally confessed to the spying.
• FBI director James Comey, whose checkered past includes approving torture twice for George W. Bush and making many false statements about cracking iPhones as he unsuccessfully attempted to bully Apple into defeating their own privacy software.

Those are the only people who actually signed off on that weak Intelligence Report. So when the NY Times insists that’s roughly equivalent to 17 agencies reviewing it, they’re blatantly deceiving and digging even deeper.

Made The President an Honest Man
Perhaps the worst and most maddening thing about these episodes is the now too familiar experience where a trusted institution screws the pooch so dishonestly and stupidly that it makes our lying president into the smartest, most trustworthy person in the conversation.

Asked about Russia’s election meddling during a news conference on Thursday in Poland, Mr. Trump repeated his familiar refrain that “it could” have been Russia or other countries that interfered in the election, and then appeared to suggest that there was hardly an intelligence community consensus on the matter.
“Let me just start off by saying I heard it was 17 agencies,” he said when asked about the intelligence assessment.
“I said, ‘Boy, that’s a lot.’ Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it. And we did some very heavy research,” Mr. Trump continued.

This is the guy whose very impressive research team took 5 years to conclude that Honolulu is not in Kenya.

“It turned out to be three or four — it wasn’t 17 — and many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize, and they had to correct.”
Mr. Trump was also correct about inaccurate news reports. Some, including an article in The New York Times, incorrectly reported that all 17 American intelligence agencies had endorsed the assessment.

An aside — often it seems the the only controversial things the president says that aren’t lies are his contradictions of the media and the Democrats.
TRUE: As stupid as it sounds, a 400 pound teenager in a bed could create a successful phishing email that look like a notice from Google — or get lucky trying passwords like “123456" and “password” and get into John Podesta’s account without help from the KGB or GRU. The expert and publisher of the emails, Assange, agrees.
TRUE: “It could” have been non-state actors and Russia and others that interfered in the election. Wikileaks, with its perfect track record for accuracy and source protection, relies on multiple sources whenever it can, and never reveals the details…

Astonishingly, the Times is still doubling down. First they admit — 6 months late — that their reporting was wrong, along with the rest of the media. Now they try to cover their negligence by pointing out they finally noticed that most of those agencies aren’t even relevant or qualified to assess such a report. (The satellite photo monitoring agency??) And in the same article they struggle to thread the needle, even claiming that though none of the other 13 agencies was consulted, none of them has objected to the report either! (Perhaps the head of the Coast Guard could sue the Times for defamation.)

Real Meddling — not by Russians — Is Rampant
This is especially dangerous in our new environment where actual domestic voter suppression evidently did affect the 2016 election outcome, with very little reporting, with much more planned in cooperation between the administration, this Congress, Senator Kris Koback and Attorney General Sessions, a voter suppression fan going back 50 years. It is discussed briefly in the recent Hafner/Mossberg/Clinton interview, where true to form, it’s lost in a context where Clinton and Mossberg are far more eager to make exaggerated and false assertions about Russia meddling allegations.

I should stress that in the interview Clinton cites figures that show that the number of people who were prevented from voting in key midwestern states that wound up mattering in 2016, exceeded the margin of her loss. But it’s not as sexy as Russia and you’ve never heard about it.

With Watergate nostalgia in the news I hope readers understand — Republicans are infamous for their long tradition of illegal dirty tricks in elections going back before Nixon, Don Segretti (whose team called it “ratfucking” in All the President’s Men), Attorney General John Mitchell (who was jailed —with today’s dark money they no longer let criminals cash checks made out to Campaign to Elect) and G. Gordon Liddy. They just never had incompetent, lazy reporters so eager to believe that foreigners are better at it than domestic Republicans — until now.

CNN Bends Over to Inaugurate Russia Gold Mine
Until this year the president, widely known as a compulsive liar, could rarely make the case that criticism of him in popular media was biased — FAKE NEWS! — without eliciting skepticism or open laughter. CNN’s first stumble into this space was also the president’s big breakthrough, and of course the media overreach was about Russia. For weeks a different, more ridiculous document with no named sources or other credible evidence, sometimes called the pee-pee dossier, had been shopped around, with no takers among self-respecting journalists.

But on January 10th, the day Buzzfeed decided to publish the dossier with caveats that it was ‘unsubstantiated’, CNN followed suit and set the tone for the past 6 months, by begging the president to answer just one question in a press conference. The president, wisely and predictably, refused to hear it. The CNN reporter decided his power move was to beg the president 11 times with half-sentences, in rapid succession. While I could not see his body from my vantage, the sound of his voice suggests a reporter jamming his head up a president’s ass 11 times, deeper each time, and being interrupted “NO!” 11 times until the president’s final crescendo, “FAKE NEWS!” shuts him down.

This may be the moment when the president realized he can shed his vast international reputation as a brazen liar whenever the press over-reaches or prints dubious claims, and that they’re especially vulnerable to stories about Russia.

Here’s a quick timeline of the NY Times articles:
• the January 6 article heralding a new US Intelligence report outlining Russian efforts to interfere in US elections
• the January 7 follow up summarizing reactions from Russia TV and others
• the article for which the Times ultimately issued a correction of the widely repeated but false claim that “17 intelligence agencies” vetted the January 6 report
• the June 29 NY Times correction
• the July 7 effort to spin the error as inconsequential

How the CIA Thinks Russia Television Undermines Democracy
Most of the report is an Appendix created in 2012 focussed on RT and complaining that Russia’s equivalent of CNN International or Voice of America was doing things to undermine the US democracy like this:

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a “sham.”

Got it? Across US television, most of the candidates on US voters’ presidential ballots are banned from participating in the televised presidential debates on any US corporate TV network: all but the two wealthiest candidates were banned from debating on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC and even CSPAN. Only viewer supported Democracy Now! showed all the candidates — using a feed from RT.

So our intelligence agencies consider RT’s revelation that there will more than 2 choices on voters’ November ballots is a kind of foreign propaganda — a challenge to the “US two-party system”. In fact, officially there is no such system — the idea contradicts our voting laws and printed ballots, but US TV networks nonetheless enforce the 2 party dogma so rigidly that many voters first learn the names of most of the candidates (though not their policies or platform) when they read their ballot on election day, seconds before they vote. By telling US voters the names of all the presidential candidates in advance, and letting them see candidates debate their policies and views, Russia seeks to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”.

By now millions have heard of the intelligence report but few have opened it. Some who have read it are puzzled or burst into laughter from the absence of evidence, documents, named sources or links.

The NY Times actually reported this, but in a terribly sly and dishonest way — not in their article on the Intelligence Report, but in their follow up reporting Russians’ and RT’s reaction, Russians Ridicule U.S. Charge That Kremlin Meddled to Help Trump. It includes key details (bold) that weren’t clear in the original ballyhooed report:
the absence of any concrete evidence in the report of meddling by the Kremlin was met with a storm of mockery on Saturday by Russian politicians and commentators, who took to social media to ridicule the report as a potpourri of baseless conjecture.”

They’ve Kept This Up for 6 Months
In a White House Memo article on June 25th, 2017, the NY Times, in a clear attempt to shame the president into accepting the theory of significant Russian interference in the 2016 election, finally crossed the line and got pushback when it wrote:

Trump “still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies,”

But in testimony back on May 8th — 4 full months after the report was released and the “17 agencies concur” lie had been spread worldwide — James Clapper had testified that the claim was false. Nonetheless, minutes later Senator Al Franken repeated the claim while questioning him and Clapper had to issue the correction under oath again! Check out how smug Franken is until he’s corrected. That’s been the tone for half a year:

FRANKEN: I want to thank both you and the ranking member for — for this hearing and these hearings.

And I want to thank General Clapper and — and Attorney General Yates for — for appearing today. We have — the intelligence communities have concluded all 17 of them that Russia interfered with this election. And we all know how that’s right.

CLAPPER: Senator, as I pointed out in my statement Senator Franken, it was there were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment plus my office…

FRANKEN: But all 17 signed on to that?

CLAPPER: Well, we didn’t go through that — that process, this was a special situation because of the time limits and my — what I knew to be to who could really contribute to this and the sensitivity of the situation, we decided it was a constant judgment (ph) to restrict it to those three. I’m not aware of anyone who dissented or — or disagreed when it came out.

FRANKEN: OK.

I was blown away that Franken and Clinton and so many others had been peddling this false and misleading information. Now that it was corrected, I wondered how media organizations who had been repeating or ignoring these false claims would report it.

I found it in only two places the next day: the transcript of the hearing from the Washington Post, where it appeared without comment; and gleeful Breitbart News, the publication that fans of the president understand to be the only trustworthy source of news besides the president himself. The Daily Caller declined to post Clapper’s clarification for two months — until today, July 8th.

Despite Clapper’s multiple clear statements in the hearing, news organizations repeated the claim or failed correct almost daily claims about those 17 agencies’ vetting, throughout May and June. You would hear them on Bill Maher, from journalists, and from Hillary as she made her comeback on Recode:

Clinton: I assume that a lot of people here may have — and if you haven’t, I hope you will — read the declassified report by the Intelligence community that came out in early January.

Mossberg: This is 17 agencies …

Clinton: Seventeen agencies, all in agreement, which I know from my experience as a Senator and Secretary of State, is hard to get.

Finally someone in the White House must have pushed back on the NY Times’ openly smug June 25th article, and on June 29th the Times wr0te:

Correction: June 29, 2017
A White House Memo article on Monday about President Trump’s deflections and denials about Russia referred incorrectly to the source of an intelligence assessment that said Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.

And then finally:

On June 30th the Associated Press printed a short, special story:
In stories published April 6, June 2, June 26 and June 29, The Associated Press reported that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump. That assessment was based on information collected by three agencies — the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency — and published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which represents all U.S. intelligence agencies. Not all 17 intelligence agencies were involved in reaching the assessment.

There’s SO much material, I have no more time to further organize it. But I promised you a relevant scene from the brilliant film The Grifters:

A gifted master of the long con played by JT Walsh convinces a wealthy mark he’s got a roomful of equipment that gives him a 7 second advantage on stock pricing that guarantees profitable trades. When he’s challenged, he eagerly offers to show the mark his roomful of computers. But — like a stamp of approval from 17 trusted analysts — the con man’s infectious High Confidence is so persuasive, the mark is too busy writing his investment check and flirting with an equally excited shill to bother walk through the door and see the room is really EMPTY.

If you haven’t clicked the renowned Jan 6 Intelligence Report link and tried to find compelling evidence of Russia’s effect on our election — only to find no evidence, no links, no specific examples of fake news, and no documented troll or bot deployments from Russia or anywhere else, along with a clear caveat that the report’s authors didn’t look for or find any effect on the election — then you may be the mark who didn’t bother to look inside the door.

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