Opinion | National Security

Clapper gives Putin what he wants with 2016 election assessment

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Carved into the wall in CIA's original headquarters lobby is the biblical quotation: "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" - John 8:32. For the U.S. intelligence community, whose mission is to collect and guard the truth, analytical precision is sacred. Policymakers rely on the intelligence community to shine the spotlight accurately on the greatest threats to our national security, assess the options for dealing with those threats, and track how well policy measures achieve the mission.

That's why I was surprised when retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper delivered an unfounded analytical conclusion, which serves the Kremlin's interests, in his new memoir, "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence." Clapper wrote: "Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense and credulity to the breaking point."

According to Clapper's own January 2017 report, as director of national intelligence, on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Kremlin's goals were to "undermine public faith in U.S. democracy" and denigrate Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The report concluded with high confidence that the Kremlin demonstrated a "preference for President Trump" and "aspired to help President-elect Trump's chances of victory." The report never claimed Russian influence actually swayed the election results.


During a recent interview on CNN with Jake Tapper, Clapper acknowledged he was not privy to any new evidence since the report's publication, and called his post-government career assessment of the Kremlin's influence on the election outcome an "informed opinion," but that he did not have "the empirical evidence to go with it."

Clapper served with great distinction as under secretary of the Department of Defense for intelligence, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and as an Air Force officer in the Vietnam War. With an unparalleled record of service to our nation and deep background in the art of intelligence, Clapper surely had no interest in being a force multiplier for the Kremlin's nefarious espionage campaign. But by making this analytical leap without facts to prove his claim, he risked doing exactly that.

Clapper made it clear his analysis was presented from the optic of a "private citizen." I would respectfully suggest all private citizens are not equal in terms of their substantive expertise on national security. Clapper's assessment matters to U.S. citizens, as well as foreign governments, which track U.S. politics.  

The English word "disinformation" is a translation from the Russian word "dezinformatsia," coined by Joseph Stalin in the 1920s. Having served in the KGB and as director of Russia's security service the FSB, President Vladimir Putin specializes in delivering false information to deceive public opinion. He effectively uses espionage as an asymmetric tool to level the playing field against the West.

With a wink and his trademark Cheshire grin, Putin wanted the world - but most especially the U.S. electorate - to believe that Russia had influenced our 2016 election because this was the most effective way to soil our democracy. Putin considers the United States an existential threat to his regime security because of the Western ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy.

The rule of law and our society's respect for the truth is what separates us from Russia. Putin, and those in his coterie who are guilty of massive corruption, enjoy their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the citizens whom they exploit, rather than serve.

Putin purposely left a trail of breadcrumbs to the Kremlin in a series of discoverable influence operations - notably, the three high-profile Russians with links to the Kremlin who attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency that directed the election-related hacking carried a Kremlin return address. With a touch of not-so-plausible deniability, Putin wanted the world to know he was interfering in our internal affairs.

Implying that Putin was responsible for President Trump's victory, especially when there are no corresponding facts, amounts to a self-inflicted wound to our democratic process, already under the Kremlin's siege. Putin would greatly appreciate a retired senior intelligence officer, with the experience and gravitas of Clapper, elevating the Kremlin's throw weight to the point where Russia was able to compete on a par with its "Main Enemy," the United States.

U.S. senators, who have been so extraordinarily focused on the Russia investigation, missed an opportunity to engage on the Kremlin's threats to our national security during CIA Director Gina Haspel's testimony last month. Instead, they focused almost exclusively on the agency's use of enhanced interrogation techniques. They would do well to educate our citizens about the Kremlin's onslaught against our democracy during their next public hearing with Director Haspel.

Putin is expertly exploiting our political and societal fissures but he did not create them. Director Haspel is an exceptional substantive expert on Russia. Her sage, fact-based assessment of the Kremlin's means and motives would help inoculate us against Kremlin attacks.  

During a 1978 Harvard University commencement address, author Alexander Solzhenitsyn declared, "Truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it." Congress should ensure that the CIA and our intelligence community have every opportunity to serve our nation's democracy by guarding the truth from Putin's attacks.

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA.