The CIA may need to call White House to clarify Russia meddling

The CIA may need to call White House to clarify Russia meddling
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When I was director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 2006 and 2009, my staff and I knew there were differences between what we called “political speak” and “intelligence speak.” Politicians say things that have to be more clear, simple, categorical, differentiated and “base-satisfying” than the often nuanced, careful, precise language of intelligence practitioners. We understood that.

Still, when political comments went over the edge, we were always prepared to make that phone call to the president’s national security advisor that began with, “Steve, with regard to last night’s statement by (whomever), you need to know that we can’t back that up and he or she needs to consider not saying that because, sooner or later, we’re going to have to say something.”

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Before this weekend’s mayhem, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Overnight Defense: Trump marks 9/11 anniversary | Mattis says Assad 'has been warned' on chemical weapons | US identifies first remains of returned Korean war troops The Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2018 midterm elections: #Vote4RUTH MORE made such a statement while being interviewed by the online news service Axios: “Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election,” a claim that he later repeated.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. After the Jan. 6, 2017, briefing to president-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE and his team on the issue of interference by Russia (the unnamed foreign power in the vice president’s statement) in the 2016 election, the Trump transition team issued a statement that dutifully praised the intelligence community, catalogued the ongoing and multifaceted cyberthreat to the nation (which was true enough, but was not the focus of the briefing they had just received), and then claimed — without actually referring to the sustained Russian efforts — that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”

That last part was incredibly misleading and totally untethered to the actual intelligence community assessment. Now, people can be uninformed and all of us can misstate things. Indeed, late last year during an interview, current CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Graham knocks South Korea over summit with North Shrapnel in Yemen strikes links US-made bombs to 63 civilian deaths: report MORE said something similar to the vice president’s remark, but Pompeo had his agency quickly and publicly reaffirm its commitment to the original assessment, which was simply that measuring any effect of the Russian effort was beyond the art and science of the intelligence community and, so, the community could have no view on that subject. Period.

That judgment, that refusal to make a call, has been so clear and so consistent that one wonders about the origins of the vice president’s inaccuracy: inattention, rushed preparation, bad staff work, a slip of the tongue, a reminted White House talking point, or the price of loyalty to a president who will not embrace the reality of the original Russian intervention?

I suspect that folks in the intelligence community are getting a little tired of this drill. It would be bad enough if a political leader simply offered the view that he or she personally believed the Russians had no effect since even that statement is pretty problematic. Obvious Russian persistence — and then-candidate Trump’s 164 references to WikiLeaks in the last month of the campaign — suggest someone believed the Russians were having an effect. It is just not a measurable effect and hence the intelligence community’s consistent “no call” on the actual impact.

But last week’s statement by Vice President Pence clearly implies that the intelligence community has a view, and it’s the one most useful to the White House. Intelligence community leadership was unified, precise and determined when describing the Russian election intervention in front of the Senate intelligence committee on Feb. 13.

They may have to be so again. Is it time for that phone call?

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.