Even before he is sworn in as president, Donald Trump’s team has picked a fight with US intelligence officials.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in this year’s presidential election to help Donald Trump win, and the president-elect’s transition team was quick to shoot back a dismissal of the claims—and to bring up a painful bit of CIA history, highlighting the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq war in 2003. The team released a statement late yesterday that said:
These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’
The retaliatory remarks could threaten a relationship between the president and intelligence staff that’s important to the security of America. Some have already raised concerns about Trump’s attitude to security issues, following reports that he’s only getting one intelligence briefing a week, even though it’s available daily.
The Washington Post report goes beyond previous reports that Russian involvement was to undermine confidence in the US election process, to say that the Kremlin’s intention was to actively help Trump win. There were Russian connections to the Wikileaks exposure of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Party and other people to weaken Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning.
While the transition team’s statement offers no categorical denial of claims of Russian interference in the election, Trump has repeatedly said he didn’t believe the claims. He told Time magazine this week that the hacking “could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
Separate reports from the New York Times said that Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems as well but didn’t release anything found there. The Times said it’s not entirely clear if the original purpose was to help Trump win the election.
In the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald criticized the Washington Post report as “classic American journalism of the worst sort.”
“The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret,” he wrote. “Critically, none of the actual evidence for these claims is disclosed; indeed, the CIA’s ‘secret assessment’ itself remains concealed.”
Indeed, the Post reports that the CIA gave its view in secret to senators and so does not amount to a formal US assessment that would be produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. The Washington Post also said there were some “minor disagreements” among officials about the agency’s assessment because some questions remained unanswered.
Regardless, the reaction from the transition team indicates that some distance is emerging between the White House and the country’s top intelligence officials. Aside from the swipe at the CIA, the transition team’s claim that Trump’s electoral college victory was one of the biggest isn’t true. Using current projections the margin of victory was the 12th narrowest out of 57 elections.