The ‘Slam Dunk’ That Isn’t — The CIA, Russia And The Hacking Of The 2016 Presidential Election

The CIA’s assessment that Russia hacked the DNC to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump is flawed on several levels.

The American public has been presented with a spectacle the likes of which is unprecedented in the history of modern presidential elections — the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has authored a report that concludes that Russia actively intervened in the American electoral process for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election in favor of Donald Trump. In response, Donald Trump has questioned the competency of the CIA to make such a call. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” a statement issued by the president-elect’s transition team noted.

Not since Ronald Reagan used alternative analysis to undermine the CIA’s arms control assessments in the lead up to the 1980 presidential election has a president-elect had such a poisonous relationship with the intelligence agency that serves as a direct extension of presidential power and prestige. Even in those dark days, however, the CIA did not either question the legitimacy of Reagan’s victory in the election, or suggest that Reagan’s victory was facilitated through foreign intervention. Regardless of how this incident unfolds, the high-profile nature of the rift between the CIA and Donald Trump has done real damage to the credibility of that agency in the eyes of the president-elect that will continue into a Trump administration. Upon closer examination, this may not be such a bad thing.

As someone who took a leading role in challenging the veracity of the CIA’s flawed intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, I have some insights into the validity of any comparison of that intelligence failure and the CIA’s current assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. These insights are furthered by my own background as an intelligence officer specializing in Russian issues that included a two-year tour of duty in the Soviet Union as a weapons inspector during the height of Perestroika and Glasnost. My work there garnered two classified commendations from the Director of the CIA for my analysis of Soviet missile production. It also put me at odds with those in the intelligence community who disputed my analysis, since my numbers regarding Soviet missile production were significantly lower than theirs, and as such impacted a defense budget based upon the perception of a massive Soviet threat. It wasn’t the first time my personal analysis would clash with a larger intelligence community consensus; I was ultimately proven to be correct, but by that time the Soviet Union was no more, and the issue had become moot.

The failure of the CIA to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is considered to be one of the greatest intelligence failures of the past century. This wasn’t from a lack of resources or trying — the Office of Soviet Analysis (SOVA) was the premier analytical arm of the CIA’s Directorate for Intelligence, staffed with the best and the brightest the agency had to offer. The same could be said of the other CIA directorates and offices involved with the Soviet target. Moscow Station, for example, was home to the elite of the agency’s clandestine service, while the Office of Imagery Analysis provided unmatched expertise when it came to analyzing overhead imagery of remote locations throughout the expanse of the Soviet hinterland.

The problem was in the mindset of the agency; after years of building up the Soviet threat, the CIA was blind to the rot that existed beneath the veneer of power. The main problem was, as the CIA has admitted in its own after-action report concerning its analytical shortcomings regarding the Soviet Union (”CIA and the Fall of the Soviet Union: The Politics of ‘Getting it Right’,” written in 1994), the overly politicized environment that existed in the CIA during the Reagan administration. The CIA’s political bosses wanted reports that emphasized the “Evil Empire” nature of the Soviet threat. Exaggerated assessments that linked the Soviet Union to the assassination attempt on the Pope, or over-hyped Soviet intentions in Central America and Iran, were preferred to more sober analysis about Soviet plans to withdraw from Afghanistan (the issue was largely ignored by the CIA), or the sad state of affairs of the Soviet economy.

The CIA’s track record in the post-Soviet era was even worse. Analytical resources that had been recruited and trained over the course of the Cold War were retired or transferred in the name of achieving a “peace dividend,” and the new streamlined CIA was the worse for it. As one of the senior intelligence coordinators working for the United Nations to disarm Iraq in the 1990s, I had a very close working relationship with the CIA. The Cold War-era analysts who had accumulated decades of institutional knowledge were gone, replaced instead by a new generation of intelligence specialists specifically trained to be a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none. The quality of the CIA’s intelligence briefings on the Iraqi target were uniformly poor; as had been the case in the Soviet Union, inspectors had far more perspective and insight into ground truth than the unseasoned analyst who rotated between assignments every six months. Moreover, as had been the case regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA had developed a mindset where its analysis was corrupted by pre-ordained conclusions dictated by desired political outcomes, as opposed to reality. The end result was a “slam dunk” (to quote CIA Director George Tenet’s claim to President George W. Bush that there were WMD in Iraq) that was anything but.

The CIA’s ability to provide accurate analysis on post-Cold War Russia has atrophied over the years. Russia simply didn’t factor as a threat worthy of the kind of intelligence resources and focus the Soviet Union had once inspired. A CIA assessment, Global Trends 2015, published in 2000 to help guide the perspectives of national security policymakers, spoke of Moscow’s “dramatically reduced resources” that would leave Russia “internally weak” in the decades to come, a threat to regional stability, but nothing more. This was before 9/11, and the absolute refocusing of the CIA on countering terrorism and fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Russia was placed on the analytical back burner, and the results speak for themselves. The CIA was taken by surprise by the Russian move against the Ukraine in 2014, and the Russian intervention in Syria the following year.

The issue wasn’t a problem of intelligence collection, but rather poor analysis. SOVA was no more, initially replaced by an office initially renamed “Slavic and Eurasian Analysis,” and later “Russian and European Analysis” (OREA), where Russia was not the single focus of effort. To respond to this new Russian threat, the CIA transferred analytical resources from other divisions who lacked the kind of training and experience on Russian matters that would lead to strong, independent analysis, and as such are prone to “suggestion” from their supervisors and the prevalent political anti-Moscow animus that exists in America today (pressure very similar to that which SOVA was subjected to in the 1980s). The end result was a mindset within the CIA and the American government writ large that projected Cold War-era Soviet capability and intent into a much reduced present-day Russian host (it also inflated the KGB resume of Vladimir Putin, who left the KGB as a junior Lieutenant Colonel with limited experience; the notion that Putin’s KGB background was the driver of everything the Russian President does or thinks overlooks the more formative period spent as a close associate of the Mayor of Saint Petersburg in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and misses the point that much of what Putin does is driven by economic issues, and not KGB nostalgia.)

When the job is to try and connect disparate dots of information into a quantifiable picture, the sad fact is more often than not an analyst ends up seeing what he or she was programed to see, especially when the political environment the analyst operates in is predisposed to a given conclusion, as seems to be the case here. There can be little doubt that there is a culture of Russian demonization today within the U.S. intelligence community, and the CIA in particular. The former acting CIA Director, Mike Morrell, is an openly pro-Hillary partisan who has called Donald Trump an agent of Russia. The current Director, John Brennan, is likewise no fan of the president-elect. Some CIA veterans have openly said the leaking of conclusions from a CIA report that has not been formally released (or acknowledged) smacks of “politicization.” Any CIA assessment which seeks to infer Russian intent void of any hard intelligence must be considered in this light.

The CIA’s assessment that Russia is behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and that Russia’s intent was to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump, is flawed on several levels. First and foremost, there is no direct evidence linking Russia to the hacks; assumptions were made on the basis of an earlier German security service assessment of a prior hack of its parliament that linked Russian intelligence services to tradecraft later used against the DNC. But the Germans admit that they have no hard proof of Russian involvement, and that their conclusions were simple conjecture. This is not the strongest analytical basis upon which to build an assessment possessing the gravitas of the CIA’s report on the 2016 presidential election. Moreover, the notion that a professional state-run intelligence service like Russia’s would use compromised hacking tools for high-profile hacks such as the DNC is laughable. In the intelligence world, deniability is everything, something any seasoned intelligence analyst would have factored into their assessment.

The case against Russia is far from being a “slam dunk.” As Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain’s MI-5 Security Service, told NPR about the hacks, “But then there are many people who could have hacked into those files, not only the Russian intelligence service. So you have to remember that, you know, there are many people with that capacity and many reasons for leaking. I very much doubt that it’s all as straightforward as it might appear.”

Nothing ever is ― something President-elect Trump would do well to remember as he enters his term in office, pushing a policy of reconciliation with Russia that the CIA neither supports, nor is equipped to effectively advise him on.

Scott Ritter served as an intelligence officer in the US Marines from 1984–1995, specializing in arms control and disarmament in both the former Soviet Union and Iraq. He is the author of numerous books, including the ‘Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War,’ to be published in March 2017 by Clarity Press. For speaking engagements and media inquiries, contact Jeff Norman at 626.986.3543 or jeff@normanreport.com.