How They Know What They Know–And How Can We Know They Know? Really?


Our latest fracas over Russian hacking and what our intelligence agencies know about it is symptomatic of the incompatibility between democracy and a national security/national intelligence state. Informed citizens and voters are the bedrock of democracy. To be informed, information must be valid and reliable, yes, but also accessible. It is in the latter category that our national intelligence bureaucracy is lacking.

The Russian Hacking scandal came out last summer when some embarrassing but not altogether surprising DNC e-mails were published in Wikileaks and other venues. These documents suggested that the Democratic Party establishment was favoring Hillary Clinton at the expense of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Shocker! By October, the Obama Administration was reporting with a high degree of confidence that Russia was the source of the hack. During the debates, Hillary Clinton vainly attempted to use this conclusion against her opponent and to discredit his campaign as being supported by Russia. Trump, despite being privy to the same information as Clinton, denied any such interference and suggested other culprits, from the DNC itself to a mythical four-hundred pound hacker in a bed somewhere–motives unclear.

The Obama Administration was running the investigation and keeping the candidates up to speed on the conclusions. All parties had a vested interest in a particular conclusion. Out of the information loop was…


The citizens had no way of really assessing the validity of Administration claims placing blame for the DNC hacking  on the Russians. We were, in essence, expected to take  the conclusions of the intelligence community on faith.

It is the position and bias of the Mad Sociologist Blog that, in a democracy, citizens should take nothing from the ruling class on faith alone. Faith based information leads to people making decisions based not on information and analysis but rather on reference group participation. Indeed, this is enough of a problem as it is. In other words, Clinton supporters, with a vested interest in their candidate, are more than happy to accept the Russian Hacking claim of the Administration…which was also supporting Hillary. Trump supporters had, arguably, an equally faith-based reason to reject the conclusions of the intelligence community and accept the four-hundred pound man thesis.

As it stands, however, three intelligence agencies are reportedly in agreement on the details: The Russians, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, hacked the DNC and encouraged domestic propaganda in order to push the election toward their favored candidate. Trump and his cult claim that there is no way that this can be known. Trump claims to have special information that he knows, that nobody else knows, but has thus far failed to come forward with this information. Of course, Trump also claims that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. He has also openly lied about the contents of the very report that we can all read. Edward Snowden claims, based on his knowledge of U.S. intelligence capabilities, that the NSA certainly can pinpoint the source of hacking. That’s all great, but where does that leave a skeptical public that has clearly lost faith in its elite institutions.

Click Here to access the full report

To temper this skepticism, the intelligence community needs to release more substantial and foundational information on which they base their conclusions. This is the position of the increasingly important on-line source, The Intercept. The most recent declassified publication of the intelligence community report offers no solace. According to The Intercept’s Sam Biddle, “The immensely confident report, based on the combined findings of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, includes virtually no new details about why the nation’s intelligence agencies attributed the attacks to the Russian government…” Yes, the nation’s three premier intelligence agencies are telling us that they agree with the conclusion that Russia intentionally tried to influence the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump. They are telling us what they know, presumably. However, they are not giving us, the citizens, the means to understand how they know what they know. We have no way of checking their conclusions. We are still reduced to accepting their conclusions on faith.

The intelligence community admits to this flaw in their report even in the opening pages of the document. Among the very first statements in the report…

This is a valid concern on the part of a spy network. Revealing the sources of their information jeopardizes those sources in a very dangerous world. On the other hand the needs of our intelligence institutions contradicts the needs of the citizens in a democratic society.

That elite institutional structures pose a direct conflict to the requirements of a healthy and informed democracy is nothing new. A hundred years ago, social theorist Robert Michels pointed out the inherently oligarchical nature of institutional structures. Whereas Michels was describing institutions that promoted specifically democratic principles, his analysis must surely be especially pointed when considering the intelligence establishment which makes no such claims to democratic ideals.

The only way to balance the requirements of an informed demos against the realities of international intelligence gathering is for those institutions involved to have legitimacy among the people. But they don’t. And they shouldn’t. From the Palmer Raids in the 1920’s, to the J. Edgar Hoover FBI to COINTELPRO to the Snowden revelations on domestic spying, the intelligence community has demonstrated time and again that it cannot be trusted with this kind of power. Perhaps no institution really can. It is, however, critically important to find a way to figure this contradiction out in a manner respectful to democratic ideals.

Democracy is always an ongoing debate and balancing act between the popular, demotic will and oligarchic power structures. In any given society, both structures are present. In any given society the balance between these structures is in a state of flux. We are now entering a period of history in which our president has an obviously disdainful relationship with the truth. He is not trusted by a majority of Americans as revealed by the popular vote. His selections filling the cabinet and executive offices are in no way alleviating that distrust. They are either white nationalists, corporate cronies or swamp monster insiders.

We are going to see this inherent conflict come to a head in the next four years should present trends continue. We are already seeing the institutional gamesmanship taking place as the intelligence community rallies for its own legitimacy in the face of Trump’s disparagement. Chuck Schumer, interviewed on the Rachel Maddow show, suggested in a rather creepy and ominous manner that Trump was “dumb” for challenging the intelligence community and suggested that neither the Democratic nor Republican Party should endeavor to break it up. Is this an indicator of how much power our intelligence community has in the face of the national executive? Was I the only one creeped out by that statement? Regardless, there will be contest between the legitimacy of two towering institutions in our society, neither of which with a particularly strong claim to that legitimacy based on past abuses. The only question becomes, who gets caught in the middle?


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