After months of anticipation, speculation, and hand-wringing by politicians and journalists, American intelligence agencies have finally released a declassified version of a report on the part they believe Russia played in the US presidential election. On Friday, when the report appeared, the major newspapers came out with virtually identical headlines highlighting the agencies’ finding that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to help Donald Trump win the presidency—a finding the agencies say they hold “with high confidence.” A close reading of the report shows that it barely supports such a conclusion. Indeed, it barely supports any conclusion. There is not much to read: the declassified version is twenty-five pages, of which two are blank, four are decorative, one contains an explanation of terms, one a table of contents, and seven are a previously published unclassified report by the CIA’s Open Source division. There is even less to process: the report adds hardly anything to what we already knew. The strongest allegations—including about the nature of the DNC hacking—had already been spelled out in much greater detail in earlier media reports. But the real problems come with the findings themselves.
The report leads with three “key judgments”:
1. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”;
2. “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’”;
3. “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”
It is the first of these judgments that made headlines, so let us look at the evidence the document provides for this assertion. This evidence takes up just over a page and contains nine points. The first four make the argument that Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. I will paraphrase for the sake of brevity and clarity:
- Putin and the Russian government aimed to help Trump by making public statements discrediting Hillary Clinton;
- the Kremlin’s goal is to undermine “the US-led liberal democratic order”;
- Putin claimed that the Panama Papers leak and the Olympic doping scandal were “US-directed efforts to defame Russia,” and this suggests that he would use defamatory tactics against the United States;
- Putin personally dislikes Hillary Clinton and blames her for inspiring popular unrest in Russia in 2011-2012.
None of this is new or particularly illuminating—at least for anyone who has been following Russian media in any language; some of it seems irrelevant. (Though the report notes that the NSA has only “moderate confidence” in point number one, unlike the CIA and FBI, which have “high confidence” in it.) The next set of points aim to buttress the assertion that Putin “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump over Secretary Clinton.”