How Obama tried to undermine the president-elect

The New York Times reports that in the last days of the Obama administration, “some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Trump and [the] Russians — across the government.” According to the Times:

As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.


At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information.

What was the purpose of this crusade? Times reporters Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman, and Michael Schmidt claim there were two aims: “To ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

This makes little sense to me. Leaving a clear trail did not require “as wide a readership as possible across the government.” The intelligence was the intelligence, with or without that level of dissemination.

It seems likely that the purpose of “ensur[ing]” widespread readership was to increase the likelihood and the number of leaks, and maybe to provide leakers with deniability. The more people who saw the material, the more difficult it would be to figure out who leaked it to the press.

And what about providing the material to Europeans? The excuse for this is the need to make them aware of Russian election-meddling so that they can protect themselves in the future.

Maybe. But according to the Times, it was “American allies, including the British and the Dutch, [who] had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to. . .Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump” in the first place.

If so, the Europeans were already aware of the possibility of Russian election-interference. In fact, it seems clear that they were. British intelligence officials believe that the Russians launched a cyber attack during the 2015 British general election. And according to this report, Russian hackers are believed to have interfered in European elections “for at least a decade.” The victimized countries include Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, France and Austria.

Thus, it probably wasn’t necessary to provide Europeans with intelligence about Russian interference in our 2016 election in order to alert them to this kind of danger. Is it implausible to think that part of the purpose of the Obama administration’s sharing was to embarrass the incoming president, undermine his legitimacy in European eyes, and enhance the narrative that the Democrats didn’t really lose the election?

I don’t think so.

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