The issue is so overtly partisan now, too, that it will remain unsettled for years to come
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the long-telegraphed assessment of Russian influence operations in the 2016 US election cycle on Friday, fulfilling one of the Obama administration’s last acts in office. But it does not offer many more answers than other disclosures to date.
The report, which follows a prior release by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI naming hackers working for Russian military intelligence (GRU), was signed off on by the “Big Three” of the US Intelligence Community (US IC): CIA, FBI, and NSA. Yesterday, President Obama was briefed on the findings and President-elect Trump was briefed today, in the presence of several of his national security picks and the current heads of the FBI, CIA, the NSA, and ODNI.
It does not substantially alter what understandings have already been put out there, whether in the form of formal remarks, on-the-record assessments, or controlled leaks to the mass media, including advance details of this report that trickled out earlier today.
Three versions of the report actually exist, this one in the public domain, a classified one for Congress, and a compartmentalized one that hardly anyone will ever see since it contains details about how the US IC arrived at its conclusions, including sources.
Apparently, the agencies judged there is no way to reveal those details without it being obvious to the Russians who and what compromised them, revelations that could lead to the deaths of the people involved, and a resetting of systems the US IC has been tapping for access on this and other matters.
The Russian government, of course, knows and counts on this reality to ensure that it is able to maintain some distance from the parties who actually did secure and release the stolen American information. And apparently, someone is still trying to pull data from the systems that were originally attacked in 2015!
The primary function of the report is to put the whole affair, the “election hacking” of 2016, on the public record. No individuals have been named in specific capacities or cutouts exposed, let alone brought up on charges. Those individuals earlier sanctioned this month are quite a broad array of actors, not all of whom have even been connected to this affair and simply represent the Russian Intelligence Community writ large.
Russia’s head of state, Vladimir Putin, for instance, is judged by the agencies to have ordered the hacking and dissemination of material, alongside a media blitz by state-run news agencies and propaganda mills. But there is zero chance he, personally, will ever be sanctioned, unlike the lower-ranking GRU and FSB personnel the US has singled out.
This final public accounting is being done in light of the hostility between the outgoing administration and the incoming one, and the anticipated bad blood that exist between the latter and the US Intelligence Community as a whole.
President-elect Trump regards these claims about the election as casting doubt in the legitimacy of his victory in November. (His dark intimations, off-the-cuff remarks, and past business associates have not put critics at ease, of course.) However, the US IC declines to speculate on the impact of the Russian operations that targeted the Democrats, this past election cycle, and also noted that the Russian cyber operations targeted both major parties.
What rankles the White House is that only the information pertaining to Democrats became available via leaks, which alongside other, undisclosed evidence is held as proof that the undertaking was orchestrated to selectively embarrass Democrats and discredit their part to play in US politics. The party’s primary organizational body, the DNC, saw its servers infiltrated for almost a full year ahead of the leaks, and these only belatedly got a hard look over once it became apparent the situation was so dire, reports BuzzFeed.
A vast array of other nongovernmental institutions, including corporations, lobbyists, universities, and think tanks have also been subject to intrusive cyber attacks, aimed at collecting information about their members. (This, though, would be routine work for the Russian Intelligence Community in any case, and not necessarily connected to the 2016 election.)
Two matters have been further clarified, at least. Despite intimations to the contrary, the assessment did not judge any of the leaked material found on WikiLeaks to be forged. Also, the Department of Homeland Security has not found any breaches affecting vote tallying machines, though state and local electoral boards were apparently targeted and accessed.
Unfortunately, the ODNI assessment also does not, as initially expected, address other cyber attacks and influence campaigns carried out in the US over the past decade, such as the alleged Chinese breach of the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns in 2008. It may have been pared back in its ambitions to ensure a release before Inauguration Day.
Is this investigating still ongoing? Are other investigations still ongoing? We cannot be sure and assume one way or the other, at this time.