Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference is providing current and former U.S. intelligence officials with a sense of vindication, affirming many of the conclusions they drew following the 2016 election.
At the same time, however, some suggest the report released on Thursday by the Justice Department should serve as a warning that Moscow’s efforts to degrade and undermine American democracy, already extraordinarily successful, continue unabated.
Specifically, these former intelligence and national security officials warn the evidence in the special counsel report shows Russia was able to find and exploit U.S. citizens who were willing to go along with Moscow’s means, described as “sweeping and systematic,” to achieve their desired results.
“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the Mueller report said, adding that President Donald Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
The January 2017 unclassified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, issued in the aftermath of the presidential election, concluded Russia aimed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence agencies wrote at the time, adding, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”
The assessment, though, has been attacked repeatedly by Trump.
In November 2017, Trump slammed former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Former CIA Director John Brennan as “political hacks,” while deferring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
Trump again deferred to Putin following their July 2018 summit in Helsinki.
“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said at a joint news conference.”President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Already, the U.S. has taken action, indicting members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin, as well as charges against 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking into Democratic Party computers.
Some former officials worry nonetheless that without a more forceful U.S. response, Russia or other adversaries will seek to get away with such behavior again.
“Those in America who cheered foreign intelligence attacks on our democratic processes, particularly for their own gain, should pay a price,” Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told VOA.
But if they do, it will not be in a U.S. court of law. The Mueller report concluded despite numerous contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, and evidence that campaign members “deleted relevant communications,” the evidence, “was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government.”
As frustrating as that may be for some former officials, experts like Frederic Lemieux, a professor of applied intelligence at Georgetown University, warn it was to be expected.
“The report is a traditional criminal investigation,” Lemieux said. “We’re certainly not seeing the counterintelligence investigation.”
“I am mostly certain that there are several intercepts that exist that have been made on Russian targets and those Russian targets were talking about Trump and his associates,” he said. “You don’t see anything what they were reporting back to Russia when we know those individuals are important enough to be under surveillance 24-7.”
Hints of that type of information, which could reveal sources or methods, or harm ongoing intelligence operations, may be contained in parts of the report that have been redacted. But Lemieux said it is just as likely they were not included at all, as many counterintelligence investigations rarely produce the type of “damning evidence” needed for a criminal conviction.
“It’s probably there [in the counterintelligence investigation] that maybe not collusion but maybe a sense of being compromised might emerge,” he said.
Other factors, as well, have complicated U.S. efforts to hold individuals accountable for working with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Among them, according to intelligence officials, has been the quality of the Kremlin’s spycraft, which left many Americans in the dark.
“Some IRA employees, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated electronically with individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the Mueller report said. “The investigation did not identify evidence that any US persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”
U.S. media outlets and numerous “high-profile” individuals were also taken in by the IRA.
t other times, Russia seemed to proactively play-off of the Trump campaign, such as in July 2017 when then-candidate Trump said he sarcastically challenged Russia to find tens of thousands of missing emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” the Mueller report said.
Despite such findings, some former officials say the Mueller report shows the U.S. intelligence community is not blameless.
“One of the lessons should be, we were pretty sloppy with our counterintelligence and our ability to counter stuff that was going on over the internet,” said Steve Bucci, an assistant to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington.
“We need to be more sophisticated about that aspect of it, at least more cognizant of it, and at least gin up our counterintelligence efforts a little bit around people that are involved in campaigns to make sure they don’t get caught up in this sort of thing and, regardless of their intent, that they don’t get tricked into doing stuff that’s counter to the general interests of the United States of America as far as us having fair and free elections,” he said.
Intelligence and Homeland Security officials have warned that Russia tried to meddle again in the recent 2018 midterm elections, with at least one Russian national connected to the IRA charged as a result.
And some analysts suggest Moscow is saving its best and newest tricks for the next U.S. presidential election in 2020.
Large swaths of redacted information in the Mueller report’s accounts of Russia’s IRAand “Project Lakhta,” would seem to back that up. (VOA)
As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.
NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2% of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.
Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.
The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.
NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.
The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.
“In 2016, only four allies spent 2% of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S., meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.
“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.
Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.
“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.
Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.
The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.
Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”
“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”
Diverging European responses
“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace” developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”
Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,” Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.
Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.
“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.
Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.
Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.
“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”
Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.
The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”
Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”
The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)