The next president of the United States is siding with Julian Assange, a man who wears his anti-Americanism proudly and acts like the textbook definition of a Russian asset, over the U.S. intelligence community – thousands of smart, patriotic people who work long hours for middling pay, some risking their lives to keep the rest of us safe.
I was once one of them, and I can only imagine how my former colleagues are feeling now. Never in our history has a U.S. president openly chosen to trust the word of a foreign adversary ahead of his own analysts.
Never, that is, until Donald Trump—who last night began a series of astonishing tweets expressing skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had hacked into Democratic Party institutions.
“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday,” Trump began, “perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” He followed up this morning with some positive vibes about Fox News’ Sean Hannity puff interview with Assange, including this gem: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ - why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
And he’s gotten support or silence from far too many Republican members of Congress, including New York Rep. Peter King, who suggested last month that “some rogue person behind a desk somewhere” had leaked the CIA’s conclusions to influence the Electoral College.
As Trump himself might say, something’s going on here. Even as he’s thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for sending him nice letters and calling him “very smart,” the president-elect is giving him political cover for an unprecedented intrusion in America’s democracy. If this kind of behavior continues once he’s in office, it’s not hard to envision Trump provoking a Constitutional crisis – not to mention a major blowup with Republican hawks on Capitol Hill.
Even more baffling, to this former intelligence officer, is why we are still debating the basic fact of Russian meddling at all. Why does anyone, especially Congress, thinks these revelations—that other countries are actively compromising our sensitive political and legislative networks—are particularly surprising? The intelligence community has been stating this for years -- in public, no less.
Had America’s legislators been paying attention, they would know that many of the overall problems we have today were anticipated yesterday. That’s because every spring, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) releases a document called the Worldwide Threat Assessment, a laundry list of challenges facing America today. For more than a decade, the director of national intelligence has trudged to Capitol Hill with most of the senior intelligence community leadership to brief members of Congress about the threats facing our country. Parts of his findings are classified while other parts are public. Sometimes Congress is receptive. Other times, not so much.
It’s a long document that few members have probably read. This is probably because few elections will be won or lost based on national security threats.
But members might want to take a second look at the accumulated wisdom of the intelligence community. Why? Because the alarm bells have been ringing on cyber and counterintelligence for years.
After all, who knew Russian hackers presented such a dangerous threat to the U.S.? Well, the intelligence community certainly did, assessing earlier this year that “Russia is assuming a more assertive cyber posture based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure systems and conduct espionage operations even when detected and under increased public scrutiny.”
These members would have also noticed the intelligence community has been saying for the last three years the No. 1 threat to the U.S. is not terrorism or weapons of mass destruction but cyber-related challenges. In fact, the ODNI published this assessment in early spring 2013, before Edward Snowden became a household name later that year, and certainly well before anyone thought Trump would run for president.
The possibility of a cyberattack linked to the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) – those networked devices that are becoming an increasingly normal part of our lives -- which occurred a few months ago on the U.S. East Coast was mentioned in this spring’s threat assessment second paragraph: “Security industry analysts have demonstrated that many of these new systems can threaten data privacy, data integrity, or continuity of services.” And more ominously: “In the future, intelligence services might use the IoT for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”
For many technology futurists and some national security folks, these warnings are old hat. And any report that needs signoff from 17 different bureaucracies with their own peculiar dysfunctions is bound to be a lowest common denominator document. Many cooks in the kitchen and all that.
Granted, the intelligence community's analysis is far from perfect. There is no crystal ball that predicts the future. And once the intelligence community’s judgments are there, in print, anyone can attack, malign, criticize—or follow—them. But those who are skeptical of the intelligence community’s findings should present an evidence-based alternative—not claim falsely, as Trump did during the third presidential debate, that “our country has no idea” who or what is attacking us. A know-nothing defense to these threats is a recipe for disaster.
For decades, a pillar of the Republican Party has been to support a strong national security state, dedicated to aggressively confronting America’s enemies. The intelligence community has always been the tip of that spear. Now, the election is over; the balloons have fallen. Trump is the president, and the vast majority of Americans accept that. It’s his job to defend and protect the people who protect us, not undermine and mock them. And if he won’t do it, Republicans in Congress must step up and do it for him.
Author: Aki Peritz