Russian Influence: More Questions Than Actual Answers

After FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into alleged Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, we are left with only one “bombshell” revelation- that the FBI initiated an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians in July 2016.  As Politico noted, there are five conclusions that can be taken away from that testimony: (1) Comey is not a lackey for Trump, (2) Trump’s words matter in his Tweets, (3) the GOP is centered on the leaks, (4) the Democrats are smelling blood and seeking out imaginary fires based on nothing but smoke, and (5) this will drag on for some time.

To date, we know that only two crimes have been committed.  The first was the hacking of the DNC and the e-mails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.  Let’s look at this one first.  The FBI was not permitted to examine the Party’s servers which were allegedly the targets of the hacking activity.  Instead, the link to Russia comes from an independent security consulting firm called CrowdStrike who notes that the malware was similar to that used by Russia in hacking servers in the Ukraine.  For the sake of brevity, let’s just concede that it was the Russians and that they did this for some reason.

The alleged reasons are important.  Was it to tarnish Hillary Clinton and the Democrats?  If so, what did Russia have to gain from a Trump presidency?  Or was it part of a broader Russian intelligence operation that, according to many, was designed to undermine faith in Western democracy?  From this writer’s standpoint, it is hard to believe that Vladimir Putin feared a Clinton presidency.  Clinton’s foreign policy was considered more hawkish than that of Obama, yet under Obama and Clinton at the State Department, Putin certainly sounded and behaved as if he had nothing to fear from Clinton (Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria).

On the other hand, Trump sounded more conciliatory towards Russia than Clinton.  However, sounding and acting are two different things.  Perhaps Russia was just playing the odds and going against the greater of two evils, but in the end would have to deal with an “evil” nevertheless.

The other explanation- that this was just another Russian campaign to undermine Western values in democracy- is more plausible.  In that regard, this was not an anti-Clinton/pro-Trump effort, but a continuing anti-Western campaign by Russia that has been played out before in Europe.  As Marco Rubio has noted, having succeeded here what is to stop them from interfering in important policy debates in Washington?  Even that question infers naivete since foreign governments- through diplomats and lobbying- have always tried to sway and influence debate.  It is just that the means has now changed and there is another layer of influence laid down.

The second known crime committed was the leaking of apparently classified transcripts of phone calls between eventual national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  That is an equally disturbing crime and one for which there is greater evidence although the motives are again in dispute with various theories floated.  The allegation that some British spy agencies were involved makes some sense in that one of the calls involved a vacationing Flynn in the Dominican Republic.  Telecommunications in the Dominican Republic are handled by a British company making them a legitimate target of British intelligence gathering.

For his part, Flynn was an experienced intelligence officer.  He would be seriously stupid to not realize that his conversations between a Russian ambassador and himself would not be intercepted by the NSA or foreign intelligence services.  Why he would lie about it is a mystery, but that is what cost him his job, not the content of those calls.  Hence, there was nothing for him to hide and he chose a bad option in his denials to Mike Pence.

Equally important is the Christopher Steele dossier on Trump.  Steele is a former operative in British intelligence and it is likely that some of the information in that dossier was compiled by British intelligence agencies.  Thus, that would lead one to suspect that British intelligence was indirectly involved and they were interested in Trump who was then a candidate.

As for Comey, he was not forthcoming as to whether anyone in the White House knew about or authorized the investigation that started in July, 2016.  Investigating a candidate for President for alleged ties to a foreign government is a political minefield and it is doubtful that Comey initiated this without someone in the White House or Justice Department knowing about it.  The question is then who knew about or authorized the investigation?  Where was Loretta Lynch in all this?

We also do not know whether there is an active investigation by the FBI or any other agency to determine the source and motivation of intelligence leaks that look detrimental to Trump and people in his administration.  Was it because Trump made some rude comments towards the intelligence community?  This writer doubts that was the motivation since no one in that line of work would damage a president because their feelings were hurt (or at least one would hope not).  Was it a legitimate whistle blower who feared that Flynn could be eventually blackmailed and they were taking preemptive action to avoid that scenario?  That makes more sense than the hurt feelings theory.

A third theory is that it was simply Obama holdovers exacting revenge for (1) Trump’s victory and (2) Trump’s comments against the intelligence community.  This one makes greater sense since Obama himself one week before the Inauguration approved the sharing of raw intelligence between the 17 intelligence agencies.  Why he did not do so in the previous 7+ years of his administration is unknown since many had been calling for such since 2009.  The greater number of people viewing the intelligence, the greater the chance of leaks.

The final theory- and one that makes sense- is that someone or some group wanted to influence policy by damaging the new administration.  According to some sources, the leaks came from multiple sources.  That alone excludes some of the other theories.  This may be a coordinated effort by the IC to influence White House policy towards Russia which is no longer seen as a competitor or adversary in certain areas, but as an enemy.  In that regards, using Flynn and others and alleging nefarious ties to Russia in conjunction with the many Congressional and FBI investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign further pushes Russia and Putin into the demon category.

So who are the winners and the losers?  The biggest winner, ironically, is Valdimir Putin.  Assuming Russia has embarked on an international cyber campaign to undermine Western values with the implied tacit approval of Putin (and there is evidence from Europe to prove it), then he is succeeding.  It is like setting off a smoke bomb to draw the fire department out, but in the end there is no fire.  That only plays into Putin’s hand.  For every allegation of Russian meddling or collusion with the Trump campaign or transition team, it detracts attention from more serious foreign policy decisions.  In effect, the Democrats, in their zeal to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s victory, are doing Putin’s bidding.

The biggest losers are the American people.  If the outgoing administration laid the seeds for the leaks and if holdovers from the Obama administration are responsible, then the worst fears of libertarians have been realized.  Intelligence gathered under our FISA laws and the Patriot Act is being used for political purposes to (1) damage an incoming administration and/or (2) influence policy, a debate rightfully left to the administration and Congress.

The longer this drags on- and there is no indication it will be definitively decided any time soon- the greater our democratic ideals are undermined.  And isn’t that, according to many, the ultimate goal of Putin?