Election Mirage: Why Claims of Russian Meddling Should Be Questioned

The winner in this deepening struggle between the White House and the intelligence world is not yet clear. But the loser is already evident: American national security.

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe

28 February 2020 in The National Interest

What does one do when the country’s intelligence leadership is acting, well, not very intelligently? That is the inescapable question prompted by last week’s reports that a senior representative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) told members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in an official briefing that Russia is interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and hopes to see President Donald Trump re-elected.

According to the New York Times account, Trump learned of this briefing only after the fact. And if press reports are accurate, the briefer cited no direct evidence of meddling on Trump’s behalf or of Russia’s broader intentions regarding U.S. presidential elections. Rather, the case was apparently based on inferences from such inherently ambiguous evidence as Russian hacking of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, supposedly done to help Trump dig up dirt on Hunter Biden. Such inferences were evidently reinforced by an assessment, lacking in analytical merit but redolent with politics, that the Kremlin would somehow naturally favor Trump over other 2020 presidential candidates.

Republican HPSCI members reportedly erupted in response. They disputed the plausibility of an assessment that Russia would prefer a president who has built up the U.S. military, proved willing to use force in the Middle East, greatly stiffened sanctions on Moscow, fought Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, and toughened other policies affecting Russia. Why would Russians not favor Democrats who would cut the U.S. defense budget, balk at using military force, and impose a ban on fracking that would drive up global oil and gas prices and benefit Russia’s energy export earnings? Trump, in turn, called the allegation of Russian support a “hoax.”

Should Intelligence Assessments Be Taken with a Grain of Salt?

Should intelligence overseers in Congress, the White House, and media subject the judgments of professional analysts to tough scrutiny? History says yes. Formulating intelligence assessments is an inherently uncertain and difficult business. Even establishing basic facts is a challenge when dealing with adversaries, who attempt to shroud their capabilities in secrecy. Intelligence assessments of the Soviet nuclear forces buildup, for example, were plagued by both over- and under-estimations, leading first to erroneous American concerns about a “missile gap” under Khrushchev, and later to surprise when the Soviets tried to put missiles in Cuba and then pushed well past nuclear parity in the 1970s.

In fact, one of the key reasons for the consistent underestimations of the Soviet nuclear force posture circa 1970s–1980s, was not a failure of the U.S. technical collection capabilities, but the CIA’s failure to accept that Moscow’s key strategic goal was to be able to fight and win a nuclear war. Ironically, Moscow was not trying to hide its thinking on this issue, as numerous Soviet military officials laid out their nuclear war-fighting ethos in published books and articles. However, U.S. intelligence analysts discounted this evidence, believing that Moscow, whatever it might have been publicly saying and doing, somehow subscribed to a mutually assured destruction theory as the best way to both maximize deterrence and minimize the risks of nuclear war.

By contrast, in earlier years, the CIA greatly overestimated the then-existing Soviet nuclear capabilities. By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was locked in a strategic arms competition with the United States, and it was losing badly. America enjoyed a considerable and growing advantage in both long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces. Yet, having embarked on an ambitious foreign policy designed to test American resolve, and possibly drive U.S. forces out of Berlin, Khrushchev was not prepared to curtail his aspirations.

To enhance his military capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, he could have deployed a number of costly, inaccurate and vulnerable first-generation ICBMs. Alternatively, he could have chosen to invest the USSR’s large, but not unlimited, resources in the development of more advanced land-based missiles (with deployment many years in the future) and other, more reliable, strategic delivery systems that might tip the nuclear balance in his favor.

Sensibly enough, he chose the latter course. However, to maintain the highest quality deterrence against the West and, even more to the point, to support the enhanced Soviet prestige necessary for an ambitious foreign policy, Khrushchev also engaged in an elaborate deception designed to make the West believe that Moscow had already fielded strategically meaningful numbers of advanced ICBMs. The Soviet leader’s public statements were supported by a carefully tailored intelligence disinformation campaign that not only tried to hide Moscow’s actual capabilities but also masked Soviet insecurities by suggesting Khrushchev wanted to challenge directly the United States in building up nuclear forces.

From Khrushchev’s perspective, the plan worked like a charm, at least temporarily. The alleged “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR was seized upon by a young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to discredit the Eisenhower Administration and to defeat then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Not only did the Soviet Union avoid wasting billions of rubles, but Khrushchev concluded that he could outmaneuver the inexperienced Kennedy.

To be sure, Moscow’s gambit ultimately failed, as the U.S. eventually discovered that Moscow was not “cranking out missiles like sausages,” in Khrushchev’s oft-used expression, and blocked the Soviets from installing medium and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. This did not, however, negate the fact that for a considerable period of time U.S. intelligence estimates about Soviet capabilities were profoundly wrong.

Divining Intentions Is Extra Hard

Discerning adversary capabilities is difficult enough, particularly when dealing with closed societies with strict government controls on information. But divining an adversary’s intentions is an even more challenging task. In part, this is because capabilities, even when ascertained with the utmost precision, often lend themselves to multiple explanations of intent. Americans accurately recognized that Japan would have enormous disadvantages in an extended war with the United States, but they did not imagine that Tokyo might nonetheless attempt a knock-out blow of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Israelis correctly understood that Egypt could not hope to defeat their forces on the battlefield, but they failed to consider that Sadat might still see some advantage in launching a surprise offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Moreover, decisions made by heads of state can often surprise even their closest aides. Intelligence reporting can accurately convey information from highly-placed foreign officials, yet still miss the mark when it comes to portraying foreign intentions. This problem can arise either because the officials just do not know enough about the intentions of their superiors, or because their superiors changed their minds, or simply because their superiors chose to lie to them. Saddam Hussein, for example, deceived his own generals in leading them to believe that, despite the international sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Iraq retained operational weapons of mass destruction

The difficulty in grasping intentions is particularly acute when it comes to foreign influence operations. Often, media operations are aimed at little more than reinforcing a state’s diplomatic messaging. The BBC and Voice of America have long broadcast content into countries dominated by state-controlled media, hoping to provide audiences with alternative perspectives on events. But sometimes media campaigns are not intended to persuade, but to deceive and even subvert—to tear the social and political fabric of their target audiences and undermine government authority.

The objectives of such subversion, however, can be agonizingly difficult to ascertain with much confidence. Sometimes the goal of subversion can be to topple a foreign authority—to so damage the operations of a regime so that it can no longer function effectively and crumbles from within. In other instances, the aim is less ambitious and more pragmatic—to force the target leadership to do things it would rather not do, such as refrain from behavior perceived as threatening. And when creating controversial online content also happens to be the most effective way to attract views, generate clicks, and bolster advertising revenues, separating subversive intent from other more mundane motivations in digital media campaigns becomes even more challenging.

More generally, given the past record of intelligence failures—particularly when it came to the analysis of intentions of various hostile powers, and the fact that there are still ongoing debates about such key Cold War episodes as the real Soviet motivations that drove a series of Berlin crises, and the Cuban Missile Crisis—the notion that the judgments of the Intelligence Community about Russian intentions virtually delivered in real-time today should be accepted without skepticism is nothing short of risible.

What Does Moscow Want?

In view of such inherent challenges, what can we say about the renewed controversy over Russian electoral meddling? There is no doubt that Russians are continuing to post digital news and social media content aimed at American audiences. It is also clear that Russian hackers have targeted American electoral databases and vote-counting systems in the past. What is less clear are the motivations that lie behind this activity.

That it is aimed at securing the victory or defeat of any particular candidate or party is an unproven hypothesis at best. The Kremlin cannot fail to realize that any significant pro-Trump meddling would be exposed and would hurt rather than help his electoral prospects. This being the case, one might plausibly argue that the real reason Moscow might unveil some footprint of a pro-Trump campaign is because it would expect this to be discovered and actually harm Trump. In fact, such a scenario illustrates perfectly how difficult it is to ascertain Putin’s intentions, even if one had perfect evidence of what Moscow was actually doing in U.S. elections.

Source: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/election-mirage-why-claims-russian-meddling-should-be-questioned-127992

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Sept. 29, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

The effort to sink Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation cries out for investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding alleged material misstatements by lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick. And a new book by two New York Times reporters contains a potentially explosive revelation.

In “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly report that Leland Keyser —who was unable to corroborate high-school friend Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of youthful sexual misconduct—says she felt pressured by a group of common acquaintances to vouch for it anyway. The book quotes an unnamed male member of the group suggesting in a text message: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is”—a remark the reporters describe as reading “like a veiled reference” to Ms. Keyser’s “addictive tendencies.” (The authors quote her as saying she told investigators “my whole history of using.”)

A concerted effort to mislead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate, especially if it involved threats to potential witnesses, could violate several federal criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. 1001 (lying to federal officials), 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of official proceedings) and 18 U.S.C. 1622 (subornation of perjury). Investigating and, if the evidence is sufficient, prosecuting such offenses would deter similar misconduct in the future.

It’s bad for the country when nominees are subjected to what Bill Clinton calls “the politics of personal destruction.” It intensifies political polarization and bitterness, traduces due process, dissuades good people from government service, and injures the reputation of the judiciary and other institutions.

The Senate and FBI could also consider changing the background-check process for nominees. Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents seem to have expected a full-fledged criminal-style inquiry into Ms. Ford’s allegations, although Senate Democrats had sat on them for months. But that’s not how background investigations work. They’re carried out by a special unit whose job is to verify information the nominee has provided and gather additional information that may reflect on his character and reputation. This process does not involve the same sort of searching questions that are characteristic of a criminal investigation. Nor do FBI background investigators routinely assess individual witness credibility. They reach no conclusions but collect information and then forward it to the White House and Senate. It is then up to the elected officials to decide who and what to believe. It is a political, not a criminal, process.

This is a matter of practice and tradition, not law. The FBI could be asked to conduct background investigations in a manner more comparable to its criminal and intelligence work, where agents will assess witness credibility and use those assessments to guide the focus and course of the inquiry. It should be especially vigilant to the possibilities of collusion and witness tampering, which are uniquely troubling in high profile confirmation battles.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/probe-the-effort-to-sink-kavanaugh-11569786380

How to put citizenship back in the census

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Gilson B. Gray

5 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration said Wednesday it will attempt to add a citizenship question on the 2020 census while complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York. Five justices held that the Census Act allows the question, but a separate five-justice majority found the rulemaking that added the question was procedurally deficient. There is a way forward. The Constitution itself requires the collection of citizenship information.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides that if a state denies the franchise to anyone eligible to vote, its allotment of House seats shall be “reduced in the proportion which the number of such . . . citizens shall bear to the whole number of . . . citizens . . . in such state.” This language is absolute and mandatory. Compliance is impossible without counting how many citizens live in each state.

The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, and this provision meant to secure the voting rights of newly freed slaves. But it wasn’t limited to that purpose. An earlier version of Section 2, introduced in 1865, specifically referred to limits on suffrage based on “race or color,” but the Senate rejected that limitation. The amendment forbids state interference with the rights of all eligible voters (then limited to males over 21).

Section 2 also applies to every state, a point Rep. John Bingham, the amendment’s principal drafter, emphasized during the floor debate: “The second section . . . simply provides for the equalization of representation among all the States in the Union, North, South, East, and West. It makes no discrimination.”

Congress has dealt with suffrage-abridgement problems through other constitutional and statutory means, especially the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn’t change the constitutional obligation to obtain citizenship data. A future Congress could decide to rely on Section 2 to enforce voting rights, particularly as the VRA’s core provision, requiring Justice Department approval when certain states change voting procedures, becomes irrelevant because of changing attitudes and Supreme Court precedent.

Read more »

Alito Teases a Judicial Revolution

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

23 June 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.

The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.

The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.

In their quest to control governmental power and protect individual liberty, the Framers separated federal power among three branches of government. As Justice Gorsuch notes, they also “went to great lengths to make lawmaking difficult,” requiring consent of both houses of Congress and the president, or legislative supermajorities. The veto was the executive branch’s only role in the legislative process.

That was deliberate. Justice Gorsuch quotes Montesquieu, who was quoted by James Madison in Federalist No. 47: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.”

Read more »

Congress Can’t Outsource Impeachment

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

31 May 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

It’s as if nothing happened. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department found no wrongdoing by President Trump, so House Democrats stepped up their calls for impeachment. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena for millions of pages of evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, including grand-jury material, which is secret under the law. When the department didn’t comply, Democrats said there was a “constitutional crisis,” and the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

Yet if there is a constitutional crisis, its source is the Democrats. They are abusing the powers of investigation and impeachment in an illegitimate effort to unseat a president they despise.

Congressional Democrats claim they have the power to investigate the president to conduct “oversight” and hold him “accountable.” That elides an important constitutional distinction. As the Supreme Court said in Watkins v. U.S. (1957), Congress may “inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government.” Executive departments and agencies are created by Congress and therefore accountable to it. The president, by contrast, is not a creature of lawmakers. He is Congress’s coequal, accountable to Congress only via impeachment.

To commence impeachment, the House has a constitutional obligation to articulate clear evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A two-year Justice Department investigation did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes. On the Russian collusion issue, Mr. Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” so the duty to do so fell on his boss, Mr. Barr—who, with senior Justice Department officials, concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Read more »