Intelligence and foreign policy specialists were aghast Saturday at President-elect Donald Trump’s latest disparagement of the intelligence community and perturbed by the Republican National Committee’s accusation that intelligence officials are hawking politically motivated narratives.
The condemnation came after Trump’s transition team and the RNC rejected news reports posted Friday night that said the CIA and other intelligence agencies had determined in a secret assessment that the Russian government had interfered in this year’s election specifically to help elect Trump — not just to rattle confidence in the U.S. political system.
“Appropriate skepticism … is healthy,” said Raj De, the former general counsel at the NSA. “Outright denial is not.”
“That does not bode well for the future,” warned John Cohen, who served in intelligence posts under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee who has been pushing the White House to release more details about Russia’s alleged digital meddling, went further.
“This is dangerous,” he tweeted.
The reactions came after a whirlwind 12 hours that started when The Washington Post reported on the secret CIA assessment. The New York Times followed with a piece reporting that intelligence officials had concluded “with high confidence” that the Russians had also hacked the RNC’s computer systems but had intentionally withheld any pilfered information or documents.
In an unsigned, late-night press release, the Trump transition team blasted both findings.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the brief statement said, referring to the imperfect claims that spurred the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
De said the outlash “just felt a little flip,” reflecting the sentiment of several former intelligence professionals.
But Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist and communications director, admonished the Times for what he said was simply false reporting and insisted the RNC had not been hacked.
“The intelligence is wrong,” he said in a CNN interview Saturday morning. “It didn’t happen. We offered The New York Times conclusive proof that it didn’t happen. They refused to look at that. They ignored it because it didn’t fit the narrative.”
He then accused intelligence officials of pushing the story for political purposes.
“I believe that there are people within these agencies that are upset with the election and are pushing a personal agenda,” Spicer said.
Cohen called the remarks “amazing” and “disturbing.”
“I don’t think the answer to making sure the intelligence community feels listened to is to attack it publicly,” De remarked. “I’m not sure that’s a productive solution.
“If there were really an agenda, wouldn’t this have happened before the election?” he added.
Spicer’s accusation echoed a line Trump himself had used last week in a Time magazine interview, when he said he believed politics played a role in the Obama administration’s late October decision to formally blame Moscow for the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other election-related operatives. The administration suggested that the Kremlin had launched the digital campaign to broadly “interfere” in the election.
“Perhaps, once he has taken office, Mr. Trump will go to CIA and look at the rows of memorial stars in the lobby — each representing a fallen officer — and reflect on his disparagement of the intelligence community’s work,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“How can you serve as commander-in-chief while running a political campaign against your own intelligence officials?” Wyden tweeted.
Trump’s ongoing dismissal of intelligence community findings is especially disturbing to foreign policy experts after reports surfaced Saturday that the incoming president is expected to tap Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of energy goliath Exxon Mobil, to be his secretary of state.
Tillerson has long-standing business ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and was awarded the country’s Order of Friendship in 2013.
“With selection of Tillerson, all the most important for US Congress to establish an independent, bipartisan commission on Russian meddling,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia under Obama.
Lawmakers are pushing for such a commission, as well, calling on the White House to turn over its eventual findings from a just-announced review of election-related hacking so Congress can conduct its own probe.
On Friday night, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who will take over as minority leader in the new Congress — demanded a congressional commission, vowing to “join with our Republican colleagues next year.”
But it’s unclear how much Republican support there will be for such an investigation, outside of several vocal proponents, such as Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “voiced doubts” when intelligence officials briefed him on their findings that Moscow had dispatched its hackers to help elect Trump.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said he could not relay “what did or didn’t happen in a classified briefing.”
“But obviously any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing, and the White House has just announced an investigation to see if that has occurred and will formulate a response,” Stewart added.
However, there’s no guarantee that Trump — or his allies in Congress — will accept the conclusions of the White House report, which is expected before Obama leaves office on Jan. 20.
The prospect is unsettling to foreign policy-focused Democrats.
“President-elect Trump should welcome such a review, rather than continue to smear the judgment and professionalism of the intelligence professionals who work every day to keep Americans safe at home and abroad,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Many see the report — which will present a thorough review of all election-affiliated hacking going back to 2008 — as the president’s attempt to put pressure on his successor to strike back at Putin over the alleged election hacks.
Critics have long feared that Russia’s cyber warriors will run wild under Trump, as the president-elect has shown little desire to castigate the foreign power over its digital mischief around the world.
“Having been around government for a long time,” Cohen said, “you can’t govern based on conspiracy theory, you can’t govern based on conjecture, you can’t govern based on what you read on social media.”
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