It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war, which is bad enough, but it should not be the first casualty of a democratic election. There should be little doubt that the Russian disinformation campaign affected the presidential election. What we cannot know for certain is how significant or decisive it was as a factor. What should concern us more is that many Americans, including it appears the President-elect, believe strongly that it played no role at all.
This is not just a matter of getting our history right; it's a matter of being forearmed before the same organs of disinformation play games with other major elements or events in our country in the years to come. One of the lessons of the 2016 election should be that as citizens, we need all the help we can get to differentiate truth from fake news.
In his moving Farewell Address, President Obama subtly acknowledged the problem of fake news, saying that "without some common baseline of facts...we're going to keep talking past each other." And he may believe that by instructing the intelligence community to release a public version of the highly classified report, "Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections," that he has laid the foundation for a healthy national conversation about the reality of Moscow's assault on US sovereignty during the 2016 campaign. However, as the purveyors of fake news are gaining increasing power, the need for even more transparency is growing.
Although he has a little over a week in his term, our outgoing president remains the only person in a position to ensure a frank and accurate national discussion on Russian intervention
in the 2016 election by making more documentation public.
How can a President make a difference?
Presidents have the authority to declassify anything. On rare occasions when they believe it to be necessary, Presidents reveal signals intelligence and other highly sensitive sources. In April 1969, in response to the downing of a US reconnaissance plane off the coast of North Korea, Richard Nixon appeared to reveal
that the United States could intercept North Korean radar signals. In April 1986, to pin the blame on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for a terrorist attack at a discotheque in West Berlin where a US soldier and a Turkish civilian had died and 230 were wounded, President Ronald Reagan disclosed
that the US could read confidential Libyan government messages, implying that we had broken their ciphers.
I believe that we now find ourselves in one of those rare moments in our history when our president may need to risk a foreign source or two for the sake of our country. Although at his press conference Wednesday, for the first time, Mr. Trump acknowledged that Russia hacked during the campaign, his statements to date suggest that, for whatever reason, he is not interested in public understanding of the extent of what Russia did in 2016. The issue is not the legitimacy of his election. It gives too much credit to Moscow that it cracked Hillary Clinton's "blue wall." Nevertheless, Trump's defensiveness about Russian disinformation suggests that his administration will not be forthcoming about any intelligence about Russia come January 20.
As a result, President Obama should consider bridging that gap and declassifying in the remaining days of his presidency some of the intelligence behind the following points from the US intelligence community's assessment of Russian intentions and activities in the 2016 presidential election:
- The statement that "We assess with high confidence that the GRU [Russian military intelligence] relayed material that it acquired from the DNC and senior democratic officials to Wikileaks." The public, those who voted for Mr. Trump even more than those who did not, needs to understand the basis for our intelligence community's belief that Julian Assange was, at the very least, a tool of Russian national security policy.
- The statement that "Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a similar disclosure campaign." This information might weaken the harmful, widespread notion that the Russians did not steal anything from Republicans.
- In addition, were the Obama White House to release a redacted intelligence community assessment of Putin's role in the events in Ukraine in 2014, this would also help inform the public on the nature of the Russian leader's administration.
The roles of precedent and preservation
This is not the first time an American president faced the dilemma of whether to release highly classified information about secret activities that might have influenced a presidential election. Three days after the 1968 election, after FBI surveillance of the South Vietnamese Embassy picked up more conspiratorial discussions between a representative of the successful Nixon campaign and South Vietnamese diplomats, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow wrote to President Johnson, "With this information I think it's time to blow the whistle on these folks." Johnson, presumably not to scuttle any hope for Vietnam peace negotiations, decided not to.
Had he accepted his aide's suggestion, the American public and the media would have been forewarned about the dark side of its President-elect and the motives of the South Vietnamese government; but because he didn't take that advice, it would be 40 years before the public had a full sense of what became known as the Chennault Affair
, in which Nixon attempted to sabotage the peace negotiations. Given current information, the parallel between 1968 and 2016 is inexact, but what is clear is that once again a foreign power put a thumb on the scale to help a presidential candidate.
There is something else President Obama can and should do for the future. Under the Presidential Records Act, President Obama's materials, which include anything sent to his White House, will go to an archival facility after January 20. These will only include materials created or received by the President or his staff. In the days remaining, President Obama and his NSC staff should ensure they have as full a record as possible of raw intelligence backing the key judgments in the processed or finished intelligence he received on Russian hacking, disinformation and "trolls" aimed at the US in 2016 and Putin's role.
Last week's public report refers to "supporting information, including specific intelligence on key elements of the influence campaign," which is included in the top-secret report sent to President Obama but not made public. The report did not address the issue of possible contacts between the Russian government and any American politicos. It's critical to have as complete an intelligence record on Russian disinformation at the Obama Presidential Library as possible and as full a collection of key all-source raw material as possible on relevant covert Russian contacts with Americans during the campaign, if any existed, should also be preserved for the Obama Library.
None of these highly classified materials is likely to be released to individual private researchers for some time, but as part of the Obama presidential collection, they would be protected forever by statute and by impartial federal archivists. Not only that, but should a Congressional committee begin an inquiry into Russian influence in the 2016 election, they would be more readily accessible than if Congressional investigators had to request documents agency by agency. At Johnson's request, for instance, Walt Rostow created an "X" file with the highly classified evidence of the Nixon campaign's skullduggery in 1968. Today, though regrettably some elements still remain classified, researchers can consult that file at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.
In an era that desperately needs real news to push out the fake, President Obama should consider taking some risks to release and preserve more real news, especially when it involves a matter of national security.