Obama's Deep Dive Into Putin's Intent

President Barack Obama announced last week a "deep dive" into the question of whether the Russians hacked into Democratic Party officials' emails in order to influence elections and help Donald Trump become president.
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President Barack Obama announced last week a "deep dive" into the question of whether the Russians hacked into Democratic Party officials' emails in order to influence elections and help Donald Trump become president. A secret CIA report saying it has overwhelming evidence the Russians did it was then leaked, raising the question of how a report whose existence was made public can be called secret. The FBI said it had no evidence confirming the CIA report. Trump said he believes there is no truth to the claim. Finally, the U.S. Congress indicated that it would hold hearings on the matter.

There are a number of questions to ask. First, why did Obama announce what I assume is a major analytic and covert effort to determine whether the Russians did it? Second, why did the CIA then tell officials that it already had done the deep dive and found evidence of Russian actions? Third, why didn't the CIA tell the president that there was no need for a deep dive? Fourth, why didn't the CIA share its information with the FBI? Fifth, how would Trump know there was no Russian effort? Finally, why does Congress want to get into the act? The last is the easiest to answer: cameras.

On the surface there are two reasons, not necessarily at odds, for making the announcement. The first is that Obama was concerned about Russian activities. The second is political: Obama wanted to delegitimize the election. The rapid leak of the answer to Obama's question indicates the CIA already had done the deep dive and the president either wasn't given it or hadn't read it. Or he read it and wanted it public. As for the FBI denial, the FBI and CIA are brothers in mutual loathing. If the CIA says it's daytime, the FBI would say it's night. As to Trump's denial of the Russian hack, it puts him in the position of claiming he has a line into Russian intelligence, or it simply reflects his disgust at the utter chaos underway.

The core issues are whether the Russians wanted Trump to be president, whether they hacked the email accounts, and whether their efforts were effective. Working backwards, the efforts were far from effective. The emails revealed to former candidate Hillary Clinton's enemies that she is more monstrous than they thought, and to her supporters that this was much ado about nothing. For the undecided who shifted to Trump over the pre-election weekend, it's hard to see evidence the leaks were decisive in their decision. As an intelligence and psychological warfare operation, it was a bust.

If all the sound and fury were correct, either U.S. intelligence detected the attempt or the Russians with usual clumsiness had poor operational security - unless they wanted it public. The detection of an operation to make Trump president didn't hurt Clinton. It could devastate Trump. It was emphasized during the campaign that Vladimir Putin admired Trump, and vice versa. Given that, it would seem likely the Russians wanted Trump to be president. But of course, if they really wanted him to be president and effective, the last thing they would do is anything that would cast a shadow over him. Hacking Hillary and allowing U.S. intelligence to get wind of it would be imbecilic.

The only justification for this was wanting Trump to win, looking for dirt on Clinton to help him, and releasing it. But the most junior analyst in Russian intelligence would have to be sophisticated enough to realize they had found nothing that would swing the election. Revealing the emails could potentially damage Trump.

It's always possible Russian intelligence wasn't sophisticated enough to recognize what they had wasn't decisive. It's also possible they wanted to create a damaged presidency. The goal was not so much to break Clinton as to make sure that if Trump won, a shadow would hang over him. In this truly twisted theory, the hack occurred to give Obama the opportunity to launch an investigation that might tarnish Trump.

There is another theory. The Russians hacked the files but their primary purpose was to create chaos in the U.S. In this theory, the Russians are ultra-sophisticated and know that by hacking, they could sit back and let Americans eat their young, as they are bound to do. Their strategy was destabilization.

The problem is Americans are an operatic people. The curtain goes up on a scandal, real or contrived, and the singers howl. The orchestra screeches, and at some point, the fat lady sings. The U.S. loves operatic politics, but it is like football. Once it's over we all try on occasion to remember what it was about. The Russians have always overestimated the effects of this kind of campaign. The Soviets were still launching them as their regime collapsed.

We need to remember the geopolitics. The Russians were defeated in Ukraine, and worse, their economy is in serious trouble because of oil prices. The Russian intervention in Syria addresses no significant Russian strategic interest. Putin is, as we have said, bluffing strength he doesn't have.

This sort of ploy would fit into that scenario - whether the Russians were behind the hack or not, they could act as if they were. That would make them appear to be more of a force to be reckoned with. However, in evaluating this theory, we need to bear in mind that the intent of the Russians, if they have any, would be to destabilize the U.S. by causing deep distrust among political factions. We should also remember the U.S. doesn't need help in this direction.

The one thing I really don't understand is Obama announcing a deep dive when the CIA already indicated it has the answers to who did the hacking and why. The decision to move forward either indicates a deeper issue we are unaware of or petty politics. And that is the thing I can't figure out.

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