One of the most enduring data points of the whole Trump-colluded-with-Russia fantasy was the idea that there was a unanimity among US intelligence agencies that a) the Russians had intervened in some way, and b) that intervention was calculated to help Trump. The collusion conspiracy theorists have thrown on a third layer which is that members of Trump’s campaign were working hand-in-glove with the Russians to do something nefarious. What? Well, we don’t know.
This is sort of the genesis of the tale. On October 7, the press office of the director of national intelligence — that would be the known perjurer, James Clapper — and the department of homeland security issued a statement titled Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security:
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
The statement is tailored narrowly and only speaks to encouraging states to seek federal help in securing their voting systems (though, given the federal government’s track record in keeping stuff secure, I’m not sure that’s a great idea.)
A week later, in the final Clinton-Trump debate, Clinton made this claim
“We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”
PolitiFact ruled her claim true:
However, as the head of the 17-agency intelligence community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, headed by James Clapper, speaks on behalf of the group.
From that point on, the story had a life of its own. By some counts, nearly 4,000 stories in mainstream outlets have featured the “17 agencies concluded…” claim. As late as May 31, Clinton, herself, was going on about it.
“Seventeen agencies, all in agreement, which I know from my experience as a Senator and Secretary of State, is hard to get. They concluded with high confidence that the Russians ran an extensive information war campaign against my campaign, to influence voters in the election. They did it through paid advertising we think; they did it through false news sites; they did it through these thousand agents; they did it through machine learning, which you know, kept spewing out this stuff over and over again. The algorithms that they developed. So that was the conclusion.”
This, itself, is a lie on a different level because the NSA never moved off it’s “moderate” or “meh” level of confidence and the FBI’s initial confidence level was the same as NSA’s, but Comey, ever the loyal servant of the Republic, upgraded it later. In fact, as late as November 1, the FBI was saying there was no conclusive evidence of any collusion and that Russians efforts were aimed at disrupting the election, not at favoring a candidate. It wasn’t until January 6 that the inflammatory report was released claiming that the Russians had favored Trump. And in Clapper’s May 8 testimony, if we choose to believe it, he makes clear that not everyone was on board (via the Washington Examiner):
He said specifically that the conclusion that Russia meddled in the election to benefit Trump was a “coordinated product” from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency, “not all 17 components of the intelligence community.”
Clapper added that the CIA, FBI and NSA analysts were “hand-picked.”
Though the three agencies worked independent of one another, and each came to the same conclusion, it’s inaccurate to claim the entire community came up with the agreement, the former ODNI chief testified in response to questions from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“[T]here were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment plus my office,” Clapper said.
Franken pressed, “But all 17 signed on to that?”
This was a special situation because of the time limits,” Clapper said, adding, “the sensitivity of the information, we decided, it was a conscious judgment, to restrict it to those three. I’m not aware of anyone who dissented, or disagreed when it came out.”
Now we find that Clinton’s story was not true, PolitiFact, unsurprisingly, was unable to distinguish its ass from a hot rock, and the subsequent stories claiming the 17 agency number are wrong and, to a great extent, were known to be wrong when they were published.
Now the reckoning has arrived.
It started with this interesting update to a New York Times article that ran on June 25 titled Trump’s Deflections and Denials on Russia Frustrate Even His Allies. At the bottom is this:
Correction: June 29, 2017
A White House Memo article on Monday about President Trump’s deflections and denials about Russia referred incorrectly to the source of an intelligence assessment that said Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.
Yesterday, the AP ran this story: CLARIFICATION: TRUMP-RUSSIA STORIES
WASHINGTON (AP) — In stories published April 6, June 2, June 26 and June 29, The Associated Press reported that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump. That assessment was based on information collected by three agencies – the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency – and published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which represents all U.S. intelligence agencies. Not all 17 intelligence agencies were involved in reaching the assessment.
But this lie, like so many other lies from this election season, lives on. It lives on because some people are so invested in the Trump-Russia-collusion story that they can’t accept how shaky the entire premise is and without the “17 agencies” formulation they are adrift. Some just hate Trump and are willing to tell any lie that they think will hurt Trump or his administration. Some are simply idiots. Regardless of motivation, one thing we can count on is that we have not seen the last of this story.