The Intelligence Community has released more information regarding the Russian hacking and attempts to influence the 2016 election, coming shortly after their briefing to President-Elect Trump. While Trump has been dismissive of the assessment and has been tweeting a barrage of ad-hominems against the US intelligence agencies, his tone seems to have softened after the classified briefing. Perhaps he finally had to face yup to the fact that he doesn’t know everything about everything.
In any case, the assessment is hardly news by now. The IC laid out (to the extent that they can) the evidence linking the hacking to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and then to Wikileaks, in an unclassified joint publication (CIA, FBI, and NSA). So we are very certain that Russia committed cyber attacks, stole data, and then leaked the stolen data in a deliberate attempt to influence the election.
Importantly, the IC has not commented on whether the Russian activity actually did influence the election, as that is beyond their scope. I’m not sure how one would definitively quantify the level to which people were influenced by the information Russia hacked as opposed to any of the other political information and disinformation being promulgated during the election. We might intuitively assume that the information provided by the Russians had some influence, but would the outcome have been different without their input? It’s hard to know – and, this seems as good a time as any to revisit the fact that President-Elect Trump actually lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. So to determine that the Russian hacking influenced the outcome one would have to demonstrate that people in key states were influenced away from voting for Clinton specifically because of the hacked information. That has not been asserted by anyone via any actual data points.
Also, the IC does not say that the Russian in any way impacted the actual voting or vote-counting. They also do not make any assertions that Donald Trump, as Presidential Nominee, had anything to do with or any knowledge of the Russian hacks. His comment that he wished that Russia would hack Hillary is hardly evidence of any collaboration with a foreign power. So, ultimately, does this even matter?
It matters that a foreign power attempted to influence the outcome of our elections. That outcome will not be changed by this knowledge, but we need to understand what and why they did this time in order to prevent future attacks from Russia or any otehr actor. We also need to know that our President and his administration will take threats seriously, regardless of their origin. As much as Mr. Trump likes to cite the IC’s failure with regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction, that failure was primarily because of bias in the administration as opposed to bad analysis. To avoid future failures Mr. trump needs to check his bias, and accept that the Russians are… competitors, at least, if not outright adversaries.
Our Congress needs to make sure they are watching and are prepared to mitigate any bias or conflicts of interest as well. Business relationships of Mr. Trump and some of his cabinet nominees, and appearances by LTG(R) Flynn on a Russian propaganda station, are potentially huge problems for the incoming administration. Congress needs to be prepared to step in where warranted, to ensure that the interests of the US do not take a back seat to the administration’s personal interests.