Intelligence community should put up or shut up when it comes to Russia
© Getty Images

So much for the “most transparent administration ever.”

A series of anonymous leaks from or about the CIA to the Washington Post have suggested a consensus among the intelligence community that Russia tried to interfere in this year’s U.S. presidential election. President Obama has ordered a review of hacking aimed at influencing American elections going back to 2008 be completed by the time he leaves office, but the leaks have appeared to float conclusions before such a review is complete. The latest leak claims that John Brennan, the CIA director, sent a memo to employees that the FBI agreed with the agency’s conclusion that Russia wanted to help Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE get elected president.

ADVERTISEMENT

 Despite the severity of the allegations, the intelligence community has not gone on the record with any of them. That reality demonstrates a stunning lack of regard for transparency at the tail end of an administration that touted itself as the most transparent ever. The Obama administration has prosecuted more individuals for leaks under the Espionage Act than all its predecessors combined, while at the same time trying to keep tight control over all kinds of information about how government operates under the guise of national security. 

Administration critics have long complained of politically motivated leaks that “paint the president as a strong leader,” as Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCheney unveils Turkey sanctions legislation Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House MORE (R-S.C.) complained in 2012. The anonymous leaks about Russia’s alleged election-related hackings also appear politically motivated. The Obama administration should brief Congress and, given the strong public interest, that briefing should not be behind closed doors.

Instead, the House Intelligence Committee cancelled a hearing on the issue last week after the CIA declined to show up. "All we’ve heard from the intelligence community over the last several months is that they could not say that there was any attempt to undermine Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE, to help Donald Trump,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told Megyn Kelly on Fox Newslast week. “The consensus was that there was an attempt by the Russians to put a cloud over the election, to create disunity. Well, that’s what’s happening right now, but it’s the intelligence community that’s doing it.”

King’s not wrong—the leaks have set off an intense debate about the electoral process, President-elect Trump’s legitimacy, and especially U.S.-Russia relations. In an interview with NPR, Obama complained about the “politically expedient” shift in some Republicans’ position on Russia. “Some of those folks during the campaign endorsed Donald Trump, despite the fact that a central tenet of his foreign policy was we shouldn't be so tough on Russia,” Obama said. 

Now, with just about a month left in office, anonymous leaks from the administration are driving a decidedly more bellicose stance on Russia than that advanced by the administration in the last eight years.

The substance of the alleged interference, meanwhile, appears to be Russia’s responsibility for the hack and subsequent leak of Democratic National Committee emails—hackers, according to the anonymous leaks, also entered the Republican National Committee’s email system, but did not leak the contents of those emails. Reince Priebus denied the RNC’s system was hacked while he was chair. The DNC hack, meanwhile, is undeniable, as the email contents became a subject of discussion during the election campaign.

John Podesta’s emails, meanwhile, appear to have been hacked when a campaign aide called a phishing attempt a “legitimate” email. Despite the aide also writing that Podesta should change his password “immediately,” Podesta clicked on the link, compromising his email system. When his emails began leaking via WikiLeaks, Podesta questioned their authenticity. Now, Podesta insists, based on anonymous leaks describing undisclosed reports and memos, that Russia “clearly intervened” in the election because it wanted Trump as a “lap dog” in the White House. Russia President Vladimir Putin was “personally involved,” Podesta suggested.

Questioning the source, or legality, of disclosures is a time-tested strategy for deflecting attention from the contents of leaks. The problem with the kinds of leaks like the ones implicating Russia in election-related hackings is that they aren’t disclosures in any meaningful sense. They offer no new information—Russia’s alleged role in hacking came up months ago—but instead fuel intrigue and conspiracy theories, contributing to the kind of environment in which bellicose politics thrive. Were the Obama administration to disclose in clear terms what it has on Russia’s alleged hacking, it could go a long way to dispelling the fever.

Ed Krayewski (@EdKrayewski) is an associate editor at Reason.com.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.