Opinion

The Politics Around the Mueller Probe Distract Us from the Real Russian Threat | Opinion

The question of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia never kept me awake at night, but the failure of our intelligence community to counter the threat from Russia did, and still does. Allowing politics to creep into what should have been a counterintelligence effort weakened our country and fundamentally damaged our national security. It is a disturbing trend that seems to carry on, once again, in the name of politics and elections, with Republicans dismissing outright any truth to Russian aggression and Democrats talking up the proceedings in hope for political gain. Putting politics ahead of national security is a what brought us here in the first place. If we are to move forward, analyzing the Russian threat independently of political interloping is essential. 

In the letter released Sunday by Attorney General Barr, he does not actually deny Russian attempts to disrupt our election: “attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election,” he writes, adding that  “second element involved the Russian government's efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.” 

However, Barr does downplay what I believe is an equally important component: the targeting of US persons in and around the Trump orbit in the run up to the election. Barr presents this as a minor point, saying that there is no evidence of collusion or conspiracy besides the “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

To brush off the threat of a concerted effort by a hostile intelligence service to target Americans for both recruitment and intelligence gathering efforts, regardless of its legality, is a significant misstep and a danger to our national security. After all, it seems unlikely that Russia would have had its spies sit this one out, relying solely on hacking and disinformation operations launched from the safety of Moscow. By excluding this component, Barr downplays the ongoing threat to the safety of the United States, an assessment not shared by the previous administration.  

To understand the gravity of the Russian threat, one must objectively review the Obama administrations reaction to it. From the December 2015 RT Gala that pictured soon-to-be Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seated next to Vladimir Putin, to fear of Russian election day interference, the Obama White House was faced with a unique and challenging set of problems vis-a-vis aggressive Russian intelligence efforts.

These issues were compounded by the fact that Republican candidate, Donald J Trump, was seemingly the beneficiary of Russian activities. Trump’s bizarre and goading response to the dump of DNC emails by WikiLeaks and the Russian tinged DCLeaks was to say “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing…I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” 

For the Obama administration, the fear of the Russian threat had to be balanced with concerns about the effect of public disclosure and the appearance of putting their thumb on free and open elections. Former Vice President Joe Biden explained the dilemma that President Obama faced: “Can you imagine if the president called a press conference in October, with this fella, Bannon, and company, and said, ‘Tell you what: Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it…What do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better, or would it further look like we were trying to delegitimize the electoral process, because of our opponent?” 

As the election drew near, the concern of Russian interference grew beyond just email hacks and propaganda. In August of 2016 Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, asked the F.B.I. to investigate evidence suggesting that Russia might try to interfere with the upcoming November elections. Reid wrote in a letter to then FBI director, James B. Comey Jr, that the threat of Russian interference “is more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.” Additionally, Senator Reid, citing classified briefings, said he was fearful that President Vladimir V. Putin’s “goal is tampering with this election.” 

Senator Reid was not alone in his assessment of Russia’s intentions, it was shared by US intelligence who, in a 2017 report, wrote “that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at the US presidential election.” The seriousness of the threat was clear to the Obama White House, and the time to act both publicly and privately would have been in the summer of 2016. Instead, they reached across the aisle looking for bipartisan support for what would have surely been viewed as a partisan effort.

What they found was rejection of a unilateral front by Senator Mitch McConnell who agreed to release a letter in September of 2016 warning of threats to our election system, but steadfastly refused to mention that the fear was focused on Russia. It was that move that closed the window on objectively disclosing the threat to the American public. It did not matter that President Obama warned Putin over the red phone of a “grave” threat. With the Democratic capitulation to the Republican majority leader, the die had been cast.

Indeed, Democrats are not blameless in this. Their steadfast focus on the criminality of Trump’s actions over Russia have further politicized the process. After all, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division’s primary goal is “to neutralize national security threats from foreign intelligence services” and it’s “the lead agency for exposing, preventing, and investigating intelligence activities on U.S. soils…[using] its full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities to combat counterintelligence threats.”

Asking the likes of James Comey and John Brennan whether they believed this was a failure of the intelligence community to detect and neutralize an operation would have been a topic equally as important as Trump’s potential criminality. Instead, our national security has been compromised, and an opportunity to properly assess the threat and have a candid discussion of how to counter it was wasted.  If we are to counter the Russian threat moving forward, we must start by removing politics from the equation—on both sides.

Naveed Jamali spent three years working undercover for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. He tells the story in his book "How to Catch a Russian Spy."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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