Should intelligence community declassify Russia findings?

Getty Images

After weeks of political machinations and handwringing, it is finally official: the Electoral College electors finally cast their “ballots” and Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States. There are no more last minute options upon which Trump’s opponents can cling for some sliver of hope. There will be no intelligence briefings for the electors either. We know for certain who will be the 45th president of the United States.

The drama of the election may be finally and truly moving into the rear view mirror, but the extent to which the Russian Government sought to influence our Nation’s electoral process remains an unresolved debate.  Even before the election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was publicly warning that the Russian government had directed compromises of email accounts of private U.S. citizens and institutions (effectively referencing, but not identifying, the hacks of the email accounts of the DNC and Clinton campaign head John Podesta).

{mosads} In the past month, repeated leaks from across the Intelligence Community have only added fuel to the fire. Media reports now indicate that the CIA assesses with high confidence not only that Russia hacked the DNC and Podesta’s accounts, but also that the actions were done with the intent of aiding Trump and apparently were authorized by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. President Obama has ordered that a review of the hacking be conducted and a report produced prior to the end of his term.


These anonymous leaks of inflammatory and controversial findings have understandably been met with considerable resistance from the Trump team. Reince Priebus, who is slated to become chief of staff in Trump’s White House, laid down the gauntlet this last weekend, demanding that the intelligence community “stand in front of a camera and make the case.” Several Members of Congress have similarly called for declassification of the classified findings that have formed the basis for current “high confidence” assessment that was leaked to the media.

All of this puts the country’s national security apparatus in an impossible position.

Declassifying the information has obvious public interest benefits. It would erase the “trust me, I can’t tell you how I know but I know” stink that permeates these vague and anonymous leaks of alleged classified findings. It would separate fact from fiction regarding exactly what the Russian government did (or did not do), and who authorized the hacks. It would provide clarity for the American public writ large through a single comprehensive report, as opposed to scattered and self-serving leaks. And it would be a clear and unequivocal warning to the Russian government that the American people (and the world) are aware of what they did.

On the other hand, there are real and significant risks that come with declassifying this information. Presumably the majority (if not all) of the information that serves as the basis for the “high confidence” assessment is derived from human assets or intelligence gathering methods that the intelligence community would rather not risk exposing. If the intelligence community has penetrated the Russian government to the point that it can demonstrate Putin himself authorized the hacks, would you really want to let the Russians know that? It is worth compromising what would otherwise be a major source of vital information?

After all, what would it change at this point? Claiming that the hacks convinced significant percentages of people in various swing state counties who had previously supported Obama to switch their support to Trump would be giving unwarranted and outsized degrees of credit to the impact of the hacks themselves.

Plus, given the manner in which Trump has pushed back on the current leaks about the source of the hacks, is it really in the intelligence community’s interests to antagonize him further? In approximately one month Trump will become president and he will preside over the entire intelligence community. Do you really want to anger the new boss before he has even stepped in the door?

There simply are no easy answers here and anyone suggesting that one or the other is “common sense” is glossing over the real complexities of the debate. Should Obama, in his final weeks in office, do all that he can to bring clarity to the matter? Of course. Should he arguably even press the intelligence community to declassify as much as it reasonably can regarding its findings? Yes, I believe the country deserves it.

When push comes to shove, however, the long-term national security interests of the country are paramount. If that means that the general public is not made privy to some granular level of detail on what the intelligence community knows on this matter, but rather has to put its faith in Congress to properly exercise its oversight authorities, that’s an uncomfortable reality with which we, as citizens, might just have to live.

Bradley P. Moss (@BradMossEsq) is a Washington, D.C. national security attorney and Partner at the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, PC.

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

Tags Bradley Moss cybersecurity Defense Democratic National Committee cyber attacks Hacking intelligence community Russia United States intelligence agencies Vladimir Putin
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video