A Note to DNI Clapper: There Are No Slam-Dunks When It Comes to Signals Intelligence

By | 2017-01-06T15:17:22+00:00 January 6th, 2017|
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The use of signals intelligence (SIGINT) has become the preferred method for the Intelligence Community  to gather information on America’s enemies. Essentially, SIGINT is electronic surveillance as opposed to Human Intelligence (HUMINT), which is when human beings—as opposed to distant satellites—do the actual spying. Since the end of the Cold War, America has come to rely predominantly on SIGINT collection, since it minimized the risk to human life and and of capture. However, the over-reliance on SIGINT has led to many mistakes. It is often unreliable and lacking context.

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell presented evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program to the United Nations in 2003, much of his presentation relied on communications intercepts of senior Iraqi military personnel. In one such intercept—a snippet of a much longer conversation, really—the public was presented with what appeared to be a phone conversation between two Iraqi leaders discussing the need to cover up Iraq’s extensive chemical weapons program.

It would later turn out that the conversation was taken out of context. In fact, the snippet in question had nothing to do with chemical weapons at all. Of course, by that point, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet had already assured a skeptical President George W. Bush that the CIA’s reporting on Iraqi WMDs was a “slam dunk.”

Now, 13 years later, the Intelligence Community is once again using snippets of conversations between high-ranking Russians as proof that Russia was manipulating the U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favor. Their evidence consists of nothing more than celebrations between senior Russian leaders after it was announced that Trump had won.

What  James Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence, neglected to mention was that the Russians were similarly caught celebrating President Obama’s victory both in 2008 and 2012. After the perceived hawkishness and extreme militarization of U.S. foreign policy under Bush, Vladimir Putin apparently hoped that Obama would prove to be a more positive influence on U.S.-Russia relations. Or rather, Putin hoped Obama would prove to be an American president that he could push around. (It turns out Putin was prescient in having such hopes.)

But if American weakness in the face of Russian attempts at world dominance really troubles the the Intelligence Community, then why wasn’t there any objection from the IC when Obama assured former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would be more flexible after he won the 2012 election?

When listening to Clapper’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, one is left with the impression that the entire ordeal was all hype. There was absolutely nothing concrete presented (aside from the signals intelligence that high-ranking Russians were celebrating Trump’s electoral victory). The DNI claimed that the Intelligence Community is convinced that Russian hacking was designed to help Trump because the president-elect’s worldview conformed more closely with that of the Kremlin’s. But how could this be? We are told that the Russians value predictability in foreign leaders above all else. How is Donald Trump more predictable than seasoned political operator, Hillary Clinton?

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Yet, even the intelligence experts involved in the report admitted to the Washington Post that the intercepts “were not regarded as conclusive evidence of Russian intelligence agencies’ efforts to achieve that outcome [the election of Donald Trump].” Also, U.S. officials said “there are no major new bombshell disclosures even in the classified report.” Those statements alone illustrate just how unserious these charges are.

Trump did not win the presidency because of Russian interference. He soundly defeated a bad Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, Americans voted for him not because they were all bamboozled by Russian hacking of the Democratic Party, but rather, because they were tired of the failed policies of the Left.

Trump is right about the U.S. Intelligence Community: serious reform is needed. The men and women in our intelligence-gathering agencies are generally among the most patriotic and dedicated in the country. But there are some bad apples among them (as there are in any large organization) who stand in the way of true reform. These great organizations have been hijacked by Leftists, now intent on damaging Donald Trump—thereby doing greater damage to America’s political system and national integrity than Russia ever could have hoped to do.

Clapper is also right: Russia has been engaged in a cyber war against the United States.  But Trump’s election is not a part of that campaign. Indeed, there remains little conclusive evidence that it was, in fact, the Russians who hacked the DNC servers. Very few in our defense policy community understand or care much for the threat of cyber war. Often those who do acknowledge the dangers of cyber warfare can offer little in the way of prevention—only retaliation (at which point it is already too late to stem the damage).

The kind of reform our intelligence agencies require to be more capable of resisting cyber attacks is the kind of innovation and reorganization that the Trump Administration proposes to implement. Yet the same Democratic political appointees who issued this suspicious, politically motivated report on Russian meddling abhor the kind of reform that threatens their ideological and personal fiefdoms.

Clapper and the Intelligence Community should have learned from Iraq: there are no slam dunks in signals intelligence. SIGINT exists in the eye of the beholder. Absent the proper context, it will be misused for political gain—as happened in the run-up to the Iraq War.

The sloppy analysis that went into this politically charged report will end up doing more damage to the strained credibility of the Intelligence Community than any Russian cyber attack could ever accomplish. Further, this will only slow down the implementation of necessary reforms to America’s cyber and intelligence policy. That’ll be a bigger boon for Putin than the President Trump of the Left’s more imaginative nightmares.

About the Author:

Brandon J. Weichert
Brandon J. Weichert is a former Republican Congressional staffer and national security expert who now runs The Weichert Report, www.theweichertreport.com, an online journal of geopolitics. He holds Master's degree in Statecraft & National Security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is also an Associate Member of New College at Oxford University and holds a B.A. in Political Science from DePaul University. He is currently completing a book on national security space policy due out next year.
  • psrieth

    Great article. The Intelligence community needs to understand two things and fast:

    1. We the people are boss – not them. The President of the United States is our executive acting at the behest of the people – not them. They – the CIA – are threatening to undermine American democracy by publically denigrating the incoming President. Clearly the CIA is suffering from a case of European Commissionism: a deadly virus now plaguing Europe which infects unelected civil servants with a brain rotting disease that makes them think they – who never stood for any election – are the embodiment of democracy and not those who legally stood for and won elections. The intelligence directors should be ashamed for attacking President Trump.

    2. As an American citizen I suspect I do not speak only for myself when I say that it is an insult to my intelligence when the CIA – who got Ukraine wrong despite a multimillion dollar budget (while I got it right using a smartphone and some old books) – now tells me that my vote for Donald Trump was the result of me being swayed by “Russian hacking.” That is frankly so utterly contemptuous of the American voter. I thought very long and hard about which candidate to support and would have supported Bernie Sanders had he been nominated (I wonder if a President Elect Sanders would likewise be hearing that his election was the result of Russian hacking?) In any event – it is utterly insulting. Every citizen (including the CIA director) has a right to disagree, but to claim that millions of Americans like me were just decieved and don’t understand why we voted as we voted… who is he to say that? What achievements does he have? The FBI director likewise is not very bright when it comes to Eastern Europe as his smear of Polish people highlights (he said they were responsible for the murder of Jews when it was the Germans who in fact were while Poles -Jewish and otherwise – were murdered in the millions). These people are incompetent arrogant fools and I am proud of President Trump for how he has conducted himself. I trust he will put the intelligence community in its place.

  • psrieth

    This is a good article. I am alarmed that unelected intelligence officials would publically attempt to undermine an incoming legally elected President. If they wish to try to convince the President of something, let them do it with the kind of confidentiality that ought to typify intelligence agencies and not make political theatre of it. Furthermore, it is insulting to the American people for the CIA to suggest that they were swayed by foreign intrigue in their vote. I trust President Trump will move quickly to ensure that the duly elected Constitutional executive rules his administration and not the other way around.

  • ricocat1

    A very well-written article that clearly states what should be obvious to anyone who pauses to think for themselves. While Clapper might be good for turning lights on and off Clapper is no help analyzing possible intelligence breaches, in any event Clapper is soon leaving. One obvious problem with ‘intercepts’ is the risk of having false ‘intercepts’ put out by other nations. Let us hope that the intelligence team of PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP does a better job than recent past administrations.