CIA investigation may have implications for upcoming French and German polls, even raising doubts over integrity of Brexit vote
By Simon Tisdall
Donald Trump speaks at a Thank You USA rally on Friday.
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
The CIA’s conclusion that Russia covertly intervened to swing last month’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump but its actions did not place the overall credibility of the result in doubt will be hard to swallow for some.
The classified CIA investigation, which has not been published, may also have implications for the integrity of Britain’s Brexit referendum last June, and how upcoming elections in France and Germany could be vulnerable to Russian manipulation. The latest revelations are not entirely new. What is fresh is the bald assertion that Moscow was working for Trump.
Democrats have been agitating for months for more decisive action by the White House following earlier reports of Russian-inspired hacking designed to undermine their candidate, Hillary Clinton. Some of the thousands of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and members of Clinton’s campaign staff that were leaked, reportedly by Russian proxies, were used to reinforce a key Trump campaign narrative, that of “Lying Hillary”.
Pre-empting the CIA’s disclosures, Barack Obama finally acceded on Friday to public pressure to investigate the full extent of Russian meddling, ordering a review reaching back to previous elections. “We have crossed a new threshold,” said Lisa Monaco, a top security adviser.
The suggestion that Russia’s interventions had limited or no impact on the outcome of one of the most divisive US elections in modern history will sit badly with ordinary voters, especially in closely-fought states such as Michigan, where a legal battle has been in progress over a possible recount.
Earlier in the year, the US government officially accused Russia of directing efforts to disrupt the election process, interfere with electronic voting machinery, spread disinformation, and generally discredit and confuse the democratic system.
In the event, Clinton lost the election in the electoral college, but won the popular vote. According to the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan organisation, Clinton obtained at least 65,527,625 votes, over 2.6 million more than Trump.
Confidence that Russian interference did not have a decisive impact will also be strained by Trump’s reaction to the CIA revelations. He derided the CIA as an organisation that had been wrong in the past about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Trump is already at odds with the CIA director, John Brennan, who recently stated publicly that the president-elect’s pledge to tear up last year’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran would be “disastrous”.
Washington insiders say Trump is not even bothering to read the daily national intelligence briefs prepared for the president, which are traditionally shared with his incoming successor. That omission suggests Trump does not want to know some inconvenient truths about the election – and is heading for a tempestuous relationship with the US intelligence community.
Trump’s previous, favourable statements about Russia’s authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin, and suggestions that the Trump administration, once in office, will attempt to reach an accommodation with Moscow, have intensified critics’ concerns about possible collusion between the two self-styled strongmen.
Putin’s precondition for any meaningful reset in bilateral relations would be the lifting of US sanctions on Russia and de facto recognition of its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Achieving that goal would be seen as a considerable bonus for Moscow.
Obama’s role in this developing scandal is also coming under scrutiny. Members of Congress and White House officials told the Washington Post that Obama was worried that if he went public with evidence of Russian meddling during the election, he would be accused of using national intelligence resources to boost Clinton’s chances.
In the light of the CIA findings, which are supported by other US agencies, Obama’s approach now looks excessively cautious. Conversely, Republican senators who privately opposed earlier release of the Russia-related information because they feared it would harm Trump are now also open to criticism.
The CIA revelations shed new light on the timing and content of this week’s unusual public speech by the head of Britain’s MI6, Alex Younger. In remarks that were plainly directed at Russia, Younger said the UK and other European democracies faced a “fundamental threat” from hostile states employing cyber-attacks, propaganda and “subversion of the democratic process”.
“The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty. They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values,” Younger warned.
Since MI6 is likely to have known in advance about the CIA’s latest findings concerning Moscow’s role in Trump’s election, there will be speculation that Younger was basing his statements, in part, on suspicions of Russian meddling in Britain’s Brexit referendum campaign.
Putin’s government was widely seen as favouring Brexit, as a way of assisting its long-term strategic aim of weakening and dividing Europe and Nato. Any evidence of direct or indirect Russian interference in the British referendum campaign would be politically explosive.
Concerns will also now be heightened over forthcoming presidential elections in France, where Marine Le Pen’s pro-Moscow Front National has sought Russian election funding, and in Germany, where Europe’s most influential leader and a long-time Putin adversary, Angela Merkel, faces a re-election battle against far-right groups in September.