Can declassified evidence create consensus on Russian hacking?

The US intelligence community hasn't reached a consensus on why Russian launched cyber-attacks around election time. But making classified intelligence public might help bring together a polarized US public.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Va.

Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) cast doubt on an earlier CIA assessment of Russian hacking operations that found Russia specifically aimed to help President-elect Donald Trump win the 2016 election, saying neither ODNI nor the FBI were ready to endorse the analysis.

"ODNI is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can't prove intent," one of the officials told Reuters, on condition of anonymity. "Of course they can't, absent agents in on the decisionmaking in Moscow."

The ODNI, which oversees 17 agencies that make up the US intelligence community, did not dispute that Russia had launched cyber-attacks to undermine the US electoral process. But their unwillingness to endorse the CIA’s conclusions adds extra inducement to a “deep dive” review ordered by a president, as pressure builds from Congress to clarify Russia’s role in the hacks.

Pressure is building from the press, too. The White House has said that it will declassify portions of the report – an unusual step, given how recently the alleged incidents occurred. Some experts say that decisions over which portions are made public and which remain obscured could have far-reaching implications in nudging the public toward a common understanding of just what happened this election season.

“Developing a consensus about the reality of the world we live in is fundamental to good policy because the public ultimately has to pay – in ballots, bucks and blood – the foreign policy that’s executed by the United States,” says Michael Colaresi, a Michigan State University political scientist and author of “Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security,” in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The White House and the intelligence community, says David Barrett, a political scientist at Villanova University who has written at length about the CIA and Congress, might see a public explanation of what the CIA believes and why as a way of cooling paranoia and conspiracy theories around the topic.

“Arguably, if a document is declassified, it can clarify things for the public and news media, and members of Congress who aren’t on committees or subcommittees, thereby making the political environment less polarized over a given issue,” he tells the Monitor. 

It will also come at a moment of unprecedented hostility between the CIA and the incoming president. Over the weekend, Mr. Trump rejected the CIA’s assessment as “ridiculous,” then went a step further, claiming it was unclear whether Russia had been at all responsible for high-profile hacks that targeted both Democratic and Republican national committees and the Clinton campaign. 

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” his transition team said in a statement, according to The Guardian.  

Republicans and Democrats have defended the CIA from public attacks, and several high-profile Republicans, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as well as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have called for a congressional investigation into Russian interference.

Dr. Colaresi says he believes the incident should lead to new ways of improving congressional oversight over surveillance, with more experts with technical know-how and independent groups acting as arbiters. “What I see is public skepticism of underlying institutions that haven’t evolved to meet the informational challenges of the digital world,” he tells the Monitor.

“We haven’t developed new institutions to counteract [public] skepticism with information to bring people together.” 

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Dr. Barrett's first name.]

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