Obama, Russia, the Election, and a Visitor From Mars
So, as chance would have it we are currently hosting a newly arrived visitor from Mars, who has been avidly following the headlines. Having studied our world for some time, he is intrigued by the news, as reported first by the Washington Post on Friday: "Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House."
This is the story in which U.S. "officials" told the Post it is "now 'quite clear' that electing Trump was Russia's goal." Earlier in the week, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, President Obama "instructed the intelligence community to conduct a full review of the pattern of malicious cyber activity related to our presidential election cycle." Obama wants this report completed and submitted to him before the end of his term, Jan. 20 -- now less than six weeks ahead.
Since this story broke, we have been trying to field questions from our inquisitive Man from Mars, who seems oddly disinclined to take things at face value. (We think our visitor is a he, so I'll proceed on that assumption, though we have not inquired about gender identification).
I'm sharing below some excerpts from our chat. For convenience, I've abbreviated "Man from Mars" as MFM. Our replies, I am attributing simply to "Us."
MFM: This is shocking news about Russia, but surely meddling in America's elections is not new. What were the findings of the deep-dive report produced at speed by the Obama administration, its concerns leaked in advance to the press, over the effects, starting early in his first term, of the IRS targeting conservative groups?
Us: There was no such report. There were congressional hearings in which a prominent witness from the IRS took the Fifth. There were tussles over destroyed hard drives, emails not turned over, or some turned over long after the deadlines, and this year brought news that the targeting may still be going on -- see Kim Strassel's May 19 column in the Wall Street Journal on the "The IRS's Ugly Business as Usual."
MFM: But wasn't Obama deeply worried that this targeting might silence a lot of conservatives, skew public debate and warp America's political process?
Us: Nah. In 2014, Obama in a TV interview dismissed it all as nothing worse than "bone-headed decisions," saying there was "not even a smidgen of corruption." So much for that.
MFM: OK. But what about the deep-dive report Obama demanded, urgently, prior to the 2012 presidential election, to shed light on his own administration's lies about the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. You remember, all that "messaging" about an ad hoc mob, and blaming the "video." That sure looked like Obama was trying to mislead the American public in order to bolster his campaign line that "the tide of war is receding," plus his administration's claims that leading-from-behind in Libya was a success. I mean, there were four Americans murdered, including -- as I discern from your Earth records -- the first American ambassador killed on the job in 33 years. Obama, who had the authority to send help directly to Benghazi, never did. What does Obama's urgently ordered, in-depth and surely impartial report tell you about what Obama himself was doing that night?
Us: Get real. Obama was hardly likely to order an all-out urgent investigation of himself and his team, especially during the final weeks of his reelection campaign. He was already booked to go to Vegas, he needed his sleep. Anyway, by the morning after the Benghazi attack, the damage was already done. So -- as somebody-or-other told Congress -- "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
MFM: Right-o. I can see that a president needs his sleep. But I'm still puzzled over these latest news stories that imply President Obama thinks Russia is an enemy trying to subvert the United States. Yes, but...wasn't Obama a buddy of Vladimir Putin?
Us: Well, yes. But only for the first six or seven of Obama's eight years in office. There was Obama's chummy 2009 "Reset" with Russia -- you remember that mislabeled red button Hillary Clinton presented to Russia's foreign minister. Obama threw in, as a bit more swag for Putin, the gift of shelving missile defense plans for Eastern Europe. And when NATO missile-defense plans became a sore point with the Kremlin during Obama's 2012 reelection campaign, there was that open-microphone moment in which Obama was caught promising Putin's sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, "After my election I will have more flexibility." To which Medvedev replied, companionably, "I will transmit this information to Vladimir, and I stand with you." Pretty friendly, actually. But, hey, dude, that was like four years ago.
MFM: Fair enough. But wasn't there a bit more to it?
Us: OK, yeah, but let's not get too bogged down in the past. There was Obama's 2013 red line in Syria over chemical weapons, which he erased by way of basically turning over the Middle East to Putin -- and, of course, to Iran. And of course there was the case that same year of Edward Snowden, the guy who fled the U.S. with a trove of National Security Agency secrets. After a quick sojourn in Hong Kong, Snowden washed up as Putin's guest in Russia, where Putin has not gotten around to sending him back. Obama apparently didn't like that, but he didn't let a transient thing like wholesale plundering of the NSA, or Moscow's asylum for the plunderer, interfere with buddying up to Moscow to clinch the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
MFM: Well, at least when Putin snatched Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Obama made him give it back.
Us: Umm, actually, no, he didn't. Russia now owns Crimea, has roughed up more of Ukraine and seems to be eyeing the Baltics. Though Obama did impose sanctions on Russia, which Putin didn't like.
MFM: And those sanctions, of course, stopped Russian aggression and put Putin back in his box?
Us: Would you like more coffee?
MFM: Thanks. You Earth people have such nice customs.
Us: Coffee's even better with sugar, not salt. Try it.
MFM: Wow. Who knew? Which brings me to just a few more questions. In the stories this week about the urgent report Obama has ordered -- following up on conclusions reached secretly with "high confidence" by U.S. "intelligence agencies" that Russia acted covertly to promote Donald Trump over Hillary -- why are all the official sources anonymous? I see a couple of officials quoted by name, commenting on the need for such a report, including Obama's counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, who had breakfast recently with some reporters. But the whole thing seems based on specifics which the press has attributed only to anonymous "officials briefed on the matter," or officials "who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters."
Us: Look, this is delicate stuff. The intel guys have to worry about exposing sources, and there are clearly big secrets involved. Check out the cloak-and-dagger stuff in the penultimate paragraph of the Washington Post story, telling how administration officials briefed select members of Congress, in " a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information." That ought to tell you just how extremely secret and classified this stuff is.
MFM: Call me an idiot, but how secret is an assessment that has details of its contents leaked to one of America's major newspapers, including the sweeping conclusion that, as one nameless "senior U.S. official" told the Post, "Russia's goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected." Isn't Obama, with his concerns for the integrity of state secrets, trying frantically to stop these anonymous officials from leaking these secrets to the press? Haven't people lower down the food chain gone to prison for leaking classified information?
Us: Yes, but as you say, those jailbirds were lower down the food chain. Maybe Obama doesn't know who exactly is leaking this information to the press. As you say, they're anonymous.
MFM: Give me a break. If these anonymous officials have it right about Russia's cyber abilities, I'd bet the Russians already know who these same anonymous officials really are. Surely Obama could find out. If he can't find out direct, maybe he could order U.S. intelligence to steal the information from the Russians? Can't he order up another urgent report, to get to the bottom of who's leaking some of the state secrets that inspired him to order up the original urgent report?
Us: Enough already. You may know plenty about Mars, but you've got a lot to learn about White House politics under Obama.
MFM: Speaking of Mars, we Martians love conspiracy theories. There's lots here that we don't know, but all this leaking seems tilted toward delegitimizing the victory of Donald Trump, even before he takes office. I mean, how does someone defend himself, when accusations are all over the headlines, conveyed by anonymous officials, while the actual basis for these stories is officially secret? Is that what Obama meant when he promised to run the most "transparent" administration ever?
Us: Give it a rest. U.S. elections are sacred to our democracy, and if anyone -- and we mean anyone -- tries to fiddle them, we have to get to the bottom of it.
MFM: Calm down. I'm just curious. If the Russians did try to intervene, by hacking and flooding the public with emails humiliating to Hillary and the Democrats, but not to Trump, then did Trump have any control over this? Wasn't it the responsibility of Obama to protect the country, and the election, from any such intrusions?
Us: You've been reading too much fake news. Obama's a busy guy. He's been trying for years to control the level of the oceans. He can't cover everything.
MFM: And if the Russians, emboldened by Obama's reset and flexibility and vanished red lines, did actually try to tip the 2016 American election, did they succeed? Did it make a difference?
Us: Look, please stop with the questions. We're just the little guys here. Normal Americans. We don't have time to read reams of emails dumped out by anybody. We come home tired from our day jobs. Or we've been reading about the wealth and fashions of the liberal elite, and the fat pensions of the federal bureaucracy, while we work the part-time night shifts, and look for any extra income we can scrounge up.
I'll tell you what we read during the recent presidential campaign. We read the letter that arrived a week before the election, from our health insurance company, informing us of the double-digit rate hike slated for our premiums, yet again. We read about the terrorist attacks -- in Paris, Nice, San Bernardino, Orlando -- inspired or linked to ISIS, the "JV team" that was expanding its murderous reach while Obama was still boasting about killing Osama bin Laden. We listened to Obama exhorting people to vote for Hillary, in order to cement and extend his legacy. We listened to Hillary denouncing tens of millions of Americans as "deplorables." Did Russia make her do that?
MFM: Don't ask me. I'm from Mars.
Us: We get it. But watch out. If you keep asking questions like these, someone's going to report you as part of a Russian plot. Speaking of... enough with the coffee. It's gonna take more than caffeine to get through these next six weeks. Ever tried vodka?