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Spies are trying to influence the election — US spies, that is

Spies are trying to influence the election — US spies, that is

During last Thursday’s presidential debate, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE lofted a “Hail Mary” pass from the five-yard-line that had no chance of landing for a score, but he flung it anyway, desperate to deflect Donald Trump’s mention of the now infamous laptop belonging to Biden’s son, Hunter — who soon may be inducted into the Hall of Fame of loose cannons.

Biden stunningly stated during the debate that the laptop — containing emails and text messages that raise troubling and embarrassing questions for the Democratic presidential nominee — was part of a Russian disinformation campaign.  

He said this, straight-faced, after a week of a steady stream of facts that established the laptop and its contents legitimately belong to his son. So why would Biden risk looking like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist while on the biggest stage of his long political career? 

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Well, lo and behold, a sizable group of former executives of U.S. spy agencies earlier in the week had given Biden some top cover — thin as it might be — that he could use as a deflector shield when confronted with the uncomfortableness of the laptop’s existence.

“There are 50 former national intelligence folks who say that what he (Trump) is accusing me of is a Russian plant,” said the former vice president during the debate. “Five former heads of the CIA, both parties, say that what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage.”

Err, not exactly. Fifty former spy masters and State Department officials indeed had published a letter, dated Oct. 19, 2020, just three days prior to the debate. But they didn’t say that the existence of the laptop and its contents was part of a Russian disinformation operation — they admittedly had zero evidence of that. What they said was actually worse: They were merely “suspicious” of Russian involvement.

They based their suspicions on their collective experience dealing with Russian intelligence operations, which led them to assert that the “laptop op,” as they called it, fits the shaky narrative that the Russians want Trump to win and Biden to lose.

Make no mistake, their letter is a political statement, not an intelligence assessment. A legitimate intelligence assessment would have to acknowledge the unlikeliness of a scenario where the Russians would rely on such a complicated set of dependencies to ensure their disinformation was made known to the world:  

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“Let’s plant some incriminating emails and texts into Joe Biden’s son’s laptop,” the imaginary Kremlin schemers would have reasoned, “and then get it to an obscure computer repair shop in Delaware and hope that the owner waits long enough to turn it over to the FBI and Rudy Giuliani and somehow make its way into the press and…” Should I go on?

Those of us who have worked Russian counterintelligence know that Russian plotters are not that subtle and, frankly, not that imaginative. A more common Russian operation would be to use trusted cutouts to feed disinformation directly to a political campaign in the form of, say, an obviously contrived dossier. The last time that was tried, no former “intelligence folks” wrote a letter expressing deep concern about Russian disinformation efforts.

So why was a letter written this time? To help Joe Biden politically, and nothing more. The signers now probably wish they had waited a few additional days before releasing their letter, since facts have emerged surrounding the laptop that make their professional “suspicions” look silly.  

The laptop is Hunter Biden’s and its contents are his as well. If Joe Biden truly believed the suspicions advanced by the former “intelligence folks,” he would have used the opportunity during the debate to clearly state that the eyebrow-raising communications found on the laptop were not his son’s. But he didn’t — and he can’t.  

By advancing a hastily constructed theory that the laptop is indicative of a Russian disinformation campaign — when there is not only no evidence, but rather, evidence to the contrary — the former “intelligence folks” have become distributors of disinformation themselves.    

Their letter becomes a form of election interference because it is based on an untrue premise made to look legitimate since it is being pushed by former intelligence community luminaries.  Foreign-generated election interference is damnable and must be countered. But disinformation is disinformation, even when sourced by our own spies. It is an attempt to persuade based on falsehoods. 

If anything has been learned during the past four years it should be that the inappropriate involvement of the law enforcement and intelligence communities in partisan politics is unsettling, distasteful, and does nothing but erode confidence in those two vitally important functions of our government.  

While the letter signers are no longer in government service, their coming together in a large number in effect reanimates their intelligence community voice and makes their disinformation more damaging. Media sympathetic to Biden now can append any story about the laptop with the dismissive suspicions of our former spies that it is nothing more than “a Russian plot,” even though that is not true.

On the flip side, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE’s campaign is urging the FBI to acknowledge an investigation into the laptop and disclose findings prior to the election next week. The FBI is correct to resist such requests so close to Election Day, particularly when an investigation is ongoing and all facts are not yet known. Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThe new marshmallow media in the Biden era McCabe defends investigation of Trump before Senate committee: We had 'many reasons' The Memo: Trump retains narrow path to victory MORE’s foolish public antics regarding the Hillary Clinton email investigation leading up to the 2016 election haunt the bureau to this day. 

It is not the job of the FBI to broadcast incomplete findings in order to inform a public getting ready to vote. That is the job of the political parties and news media. Investigations aren’t subject to timetables; they are subject to the careful acquisition of actual evidence. Evidence is our best defense against disinformation — because disinformation, after all, is the real “bunch of garbage.”   

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.