The Washington Post late Friday night published an explosive story that, in many ways, is classic American journalism of the worst sort: the key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.
These unnamed sources told the Post that “the CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.” The anonymous officials also claim that “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails” from both the DNC and John Podesta’s email account. Critically, none of the actual evidence for these claims is disclosed; indeed, the CIA’s “secret assessment” itself remains concealed.
A second leak from last night, this one given to the New York Times, cites other anonymous officials as asserting that “the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.” But that NYT story says that “it is also far from clear that Russia’s original intent was to support Mr. Trump, and many intelligence officials — and former officials in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign — believe that the primary motive of the Russians was to simply disrupt the campaign and undercut confidence in the integrity of the vote.”
Deep down in its article, the Post notes – rather critically – that “there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered.” Most importantly, the Post adds that “intelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin ‘directing’ the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks.” But the purpose of both anonymous leaks is to finger the Russian Government for these hacks, acting with the motive to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Needless to say, Democrats – still eager to make sense of their election loss and to find causes for it other than themselves – immediately declared these anonymous claims about what the CIA believes to be true, and, with a somewhat sweet, religious-type faith, treated these anonymous assertions as proof of what they wanted to believe all along: that Vladimir Putin was rooting for Donald Trump to win and Hillary Clinton to lose and used nefarious means to ensure that outcome. That Democrats are now venerating unverified, anonymous CIA leaks as sacred is par for the course for them this year, but it’s also a good indication of how confused and lost U.S. political culture has become in the wake of Trump’s victory.
Given the obvious significance of this story – it is certain to shape how people understand the 2016 election and probably foreign policy debates for months if not years to come – it is critical to keep in mind some basic facts about what is known and, more importantly, what is not known:
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