Intelligence, the Iraq War and Russian Hackers


Unfortunately, the biggest news story of the last couple of months, arguably even longer than that, is not the election of a blathering, proto-fascist, narcissist to the most powerful office in the world. Instead, the biggest story is the probable role played by Russia in helping said blathering, proto-fascist, narcissist to that position.  Vladimir Putin stole the show–again.

Now there has been plenty of good commentary on this topic. At this point, the CIA and the FBI are in agreement that Russian, state supported hackers, did hack the Democratic Campaign and post sensitive e-mails and they did this with the intent to push the election toward a Trump victory. Whether or not the hacks influenced the election results is unclear. In any normal election this might be a side note issue that certainly merits concern and investigation, but would not threaten the very legitimacy of our electoral process. But in such a close election, where the vote came down to fractions of a percentage in crucial districts, even the slightest effect from the hacked e-mails could prove to be significant. So I concur with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman that it is impossible to believe that this particular case of political sabotage didn’t matter.

That being said, it must also be admitted that much of what we know about this matter is based on speculation from analysts working for the FBI and the CIA. Strong speculation, but speculation nonetheless. It’s true that there are holes in their analysis and we do not have anything close to a clear picture. And if President-elect Trump has anything to say about it, and he does, we never will. True to form, when unflattering information comes to light about the Narcissist-in-Chief, his first impulse is to discredit the source. Earlier this month, the Trump transition team responded to CIA revelations about Russian interference in our election by revisiting an old trope:

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump transition team said in a statement late Friday. “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.'”

It’s clear that the Transition Team is making good use of the Trump handbook of public relations. When faced with criticism, the formula is  simple: Lie about the source to discredit it + Compound the lie with another lie + deflect with meaningless sloganeering + let the mindless following take care of the rest. We see all of these elements in this one quote. “These are the same people…” Lie! “…one of the biggest Electoral College victories…” Lie, unless you consider being in the top 50 as qualifying for “one of the.” Make America Great Again…blah…blah…blah.

But the first lie, the one about failed intelligence leading up to the Iraq War, is the one I want to elaborate.  First, the claim is literally false. The people providing intel on Russian hackers are very different people than those who analyzed Iraqi military dispositions almost fifteen years ago. They are not the same people. But let’s just accept the inference, that the same institution is providing the same level of analysis that misled us into a costly and geopolitically disastrous war.

This plays on a recurring and intentional misreading of history, that a well meaning Bush Administration was convinced by flawed intelligence that Iraq was a threat to U.S. sovereignty and reluctantly invaded the nation for fear of a looming mushroom cloud. This is false. As I’ve written previously on this blog, the Iraq War was not a mistake. Intelligence analysts were clear that there was not enough evidence to support the belief that Iraq had WMD, nuclear or otherwise. Nor did the evidence suggest that there was collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but admitted that the evidence was irrelevant to Bush Administration plans to invade. In a speech before NATO in June of 2002, Rumsfeld stated unambiguously that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”He said this to clarify his previous argument from the same speech.

Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no “knowns.” There are thing we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.

Um…yeah…that about summarizes Bush Administration policy on Iraq.

Bush and Company wanted to attack Iraq. The intelligence did not exist to justify this course of action. So the Bush team made shit up and extracted whatever unrelated tidbits they could mine from the intelligence to justify what they were going to do from the beginning. At least this was the conclusion of the Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated the disconnect between the administration and the intelligence community.

The disconnect was simple to explain. The Bush Administration didn’t care about the intelligence, so they lied. When it was clear that the consequences of the Iraq War were catastrophic, the Administration blamed the intelligence community. The Republican establishment, having been discredited by the Bush Administration, picked up on the strategy and ran with it. During the Republican Primaries last year, when asked if they would have invaded Iraq, most candidates, especially Jeb Bush, couched their answers with the phrase, “knowing what we know now…” Ironically, the only candidate who did not answer thus was Donald Trump. He claimed to be against the war from the beginning…which was a lie (of course).

This is one of the many consequences of presidential, or high government lying. The lies take on a life of their own and become imbedded in our history. Over time, if not diligently confronted, the lie becomes accepted history. We cannot afford to let this particular lie become entrenched in our mainstream consciousness only to have the truth defined as “historical revisionism” when some future historian shows the temerity to publish the truth. We must preserve our history by shouting down any attempt to perpetuate the “faulty intelligence” lie.

Another consequence of such high placed dissembling is that someone has to take the blame when the lie comes out. In this case, the blame serves to discredit the very institutions tasked with giving our leadership true and accurate information on which to base their decisions. Not that there isn’t enough grist to discredit the FBI and the CIA. However, Trump’s immediate dismissal of these agencies is an indication that he intends to be just as unencumbered by the facts as president as he was as a candidate. By further delegitimizing our intelligence agencies, he’s setting the field so that he can get away with it.

Look, any responsible leader would be demanding more intelligence, more investigations into what could be the most important act of political sabotage in history. Getting the facts, clarifying the picture, should be the singular priority of the one man tasked with perpetuating the legitimacy of our governing institutions. That’s almost certainly not going to happen. Even if leaders like John McCain and Chuck Schumer get their way and seat their committee to investigate these serious allegations, it is clear that Trump will discredit their work, lie about them personally, offer another string of lies followed by a patriotic sounding platitude, and move on to the next scam. And his followers will bleat with approval.

This is troubling considering the veritable foreplay Trump offered Putin during the campaign, including removing from the Republican Party Platform strong, language condemning Russia for its invasion of Crimea.  We know that Trump has financial ties to Russia,  mostly indirect and difficult to disentangle. Might a Congressional investigation of possible motives for Russian interference in our elections clarify some of these financial relationships? We don’t know. We can only speculate.

Now Trump selects Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Tillerson is famous for the half trillion dollar exploration deal he was making with the Russian oil company Rusneft before those pesky sanctions were put in place because of some nonsense in the Crimea.  Half a trillion dollars…pffft! Might this much money be a motive for hacking some e-mails?

It is clear that Trump, like the Bush Administration leading up to Iraq, is not beholden to the truth. We cannot afford to let another president lead us with lies into catastrophe. This time we are not dealing with a second rate power with no weapons of mass destruction. We are dealing with Russia, a brutal dictatorial oligarchy with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

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