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

Is the Democrats’ accusation of “obstruction of Congress” sensible?

In this clip from the Wall Street Journal’s “Journal Editorial Reports”, David Rivkin addresses the Constitutional question of whether a sitting president can credibly be accused of “obstructing Congress”. He concludes that there are severe legal deficiencies associated with this idea, and with the way the House Democrats have tried to advance their agenda.

Congress Declares War, but Only the President Can Make It

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

15 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

House Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, responded to the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by questioning the president’s authority to order that strike. But the resolution they passed last week makes a mockery of Congress’s own powers. It purportedly “directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military” unless Congress authorizes the use of force or an Iranian attack on the U.S. is “imminent.” But it’s styled as a nonbinding resolution. That means it doesn’t need Senate approval, but it also makes no pretense of having the force of law.

Which is just as well. Congress cannot limit the president’s constitutional authority to wage war in the way it pretends to here.

The resolution purports to restrict the president’s power to an even greater extent than the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The latter was enacted over President Richard Nixon’s veto, and every president since has regarded it as unconstitutional. It demands that the White House notify Congress anytime U.S. forces are introduced into hostilities abroad, then either obtain congressional authorization or withdraw troops within 90 days. The new resolution applies to all forms of military power, including drones and missiles, and claims to prohibit them effective immediately.

It’s true that the Constitution assigns Congress the power “to declare war.” Yet even in the 18th century, a declaration of war wasn’t required to create a state of armed conflict, governed by the laws of war. Today, such a declaration has to do with how citizens and property from belligerent and neutral states are treated, rather than the actual use of force. The last time Congress formally declared war was in 1942. Since World War II, lawmakers have approved U.S. military actions by other means, from the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam, to the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

The power to declare war is different from the power to make war, which belongs to the president in his role as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” There are few constraints on that power when the president is defending Americans, civilian or military, against armed attack.

True, the Framers didn’t grant the president power to initiate hostilities at his pleasure. They gave Congress, not the president, the authority to raise and support armies, to create a navy, and to make rules and regulations for their governance. It’s also up to the legislative branch to define the legal framework for armed conflict: offenses against international and military law, the procedures for their prosecution, the treatment of captured enemy property and prisoners and so forth.

Congress also has the power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia.” Military officers are subject to Senate confirmation. Congress can use its exclusive appropriation powers to limit or eliminate funding for a particular conflict—if lawmakers are prepared to take the resulting political risks. Inaction or nonbinding resolutions have no constitutional import.

Even if it passes legislation, Congress cannot dictate when and how the president exercises his power over the military forces it has provided—especially in selecting targets. Like any American, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is free to speak her mind. But her claim that the attack on Soleimani was “provocative and disproportionate” is preposterous.

Iran has been engaged in on-and-off armed conflict with the U.S. since “students” seized the embassy in Tehran in 1979. Soleimani was a uniformed member of the Iranian armed forces, and a critical player in Iran’s worldwide terror campaign. All that made him a legitimate target. The notion that Soleimani was too senior to be killed finds no support in the laws of armed conflict. Even the most senior military leaders can be targeted, as the U.S. did in 1943 when it shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane in New Guinea.

Nor is it legally relevant, as some congressional Democrats have claimed, that killing such a high-ranking officer could heighten the danger of a wider war. Any military action has the potential to escalate hostilities, as do other exercises of presidential authority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s imposition of an oil embargo against Japan in August 1941 arguably prompted the attack on Pearl Harbor four months later.

Under Mrs. Pelosi’s logic, virtually every major foreign-policy decision would require congressional authorization. Imagine if President John F. Kennedy had to ask lawmakers for approval during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 before subjecting Cuba to a “naval quarantine,” an act of war against Havana. The threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba was real, but it wasn’t “imminent” in the sense that Mr. Trump’s critics use that word today.

Kennedy acted to prevent a long-term, highly dangerous change in the nuclear balance of power that would have put Moscow in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. with virtually no warning. But there was no reason to think an attack was planned for the immediate future.

Kennedy decided that action, while risky, would enhance deterrence, as President Trump did when he ordered the killing of Soleimani. The president deserves credit for a decision that would, at any time until recently, have been considered a triumph by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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/congress-declares-war-but-only-the-president-can-make-it-11579133486

Schiff’s ‘Obstruction’ Theory

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Nov. 14, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Is it an impeachable offense for a president to resist impeachment? House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN last week that White House officials’ refusal to testify in his committee’s impeachment probe could lead to “obstruction of Congress” charges against President Trump. At a press conference last month, he warned the White House against trying to “stonewall our investigation” and said: “Any action like that, that forces us to litigate or have to consider litigation, will be considered further evidence of obstruction of justice.”

He’s wrong. In the absence of a definitive judicial ruling to the contrary, the president has a well-established constitutional right—even a duty—to resist such demands. The Constitution authorized the House to impeach the president if it has evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but it does not require the president, who heads an equal branch of government, to cooperate in gathering such evidence. Accordingly, the Trump administration has refused to honor various document-production requests, and has instructed some current and former officials to ignore committee subpoenas.

Not all officials have complied with this instruction, but those who have—including former national security adviser John Bolton, former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and deputy White House counsel John Eisenberg—are acting lawfully and appropriately.

It has long been established that the president, and by extension his advisers, have two types of immunity from making disclosures to Congress. One applies to national-security information, the other to communications with immediate advisers, whether related to national security or not. Both immunities, when applicable, are absolute, which means they can’t be trumped by competing congressional needs.

The national-security privilege was most definitively explained in a 1989 memorandum from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). It noted that the privilege is anchored in the longstanding right “not to disclose state secrets,” first asserted by President Thomas Jefferson and affirmed by the courts in 1807. Although the Supreme Court unanimously rejected an assertion of executive privilege for all presidential communications in U.S. v. Nixon (1974), it “unmistakably implied,” according to the OLC memo, “that the President does enjoy an absolute state secrets privilege.”

The privilege for communications with the small group of senior White House staff who are the president’s immediate advisers is equally well-grounded. The OLC first fully articulated it in 1971 under future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The office has reaffirmed it many times under presidents of both parties in response to all manner of congressional requests.

The privilege is premised on the Constitution’s separation of powers: “The President is a separate branch of government,” a 1982 OLC memo put it. “He may not compel congressmen to appear before him. As a matter of separation of powers, Congress may not compel him to appear before it.” The president’s immediate advisers are effectively his alter egos. Compelling them to appear is the equivalent of compelling him.

This point bears emphasis. Congress also has absolute privileges from interference with its operations, including the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause. Under that protection, lawmakers may defy the executive branch—for example, by publicly reading classified information into the congressional record—and they have done so.

Both privileges apply to the situation at hand, in which Congress seeks information from Mr. Trump’s most senior advisers about sensitive issues of national security. Ultimately, the courts must determine whether the president may invoke these privileges and whether his advisers must comply with the Intelligence Committee’s demands. Mr. Kupperman has brought a lawsuit challenging the subpoena, which is now pending before Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Mr. Schiff appears to have little confidence in his legal position, because he attempted to make the case moot by withdrawing the Kupperman subpoena. House lawyers asked the court to dismiss the action on that ground. Judge Leon refused.

The House claims it doesn’t want judicial review because of another pending lawsuit involving a subpoena. But that case is materially different. It was brought before the impeachment inquiry began and involves efforts to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about the firing of James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and matters related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It raises no question of national-security immunity, so it cannot resolve the question with respect to Mr. Kupperman—at least not in Mr. Schiff’s favor.

The House majority’s effort to avoid adjudication of its demands for testimony presents another key problem. Under Mr. Schiff’s legal theory of what constitutes an impeachable offense, the House must demonstrate that the president has engaged in quid pro quo conduct vis-à-vis Ukraine, where U.S. military aid was allegedly withheld to secure cooperation in investigating Hunter Biden’s association with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Mr. Trump vigorously denies that he intended to withhold U.S. aid.

His state of mind is of utmost importance to the House’s case. Yet, the only witnesses who have provided testimony on the question had little if any direct contact with the president. Advisers like Messrs. Bolton, Kupperman and Mulvaney, by contrast, would have been in daily contact with him. If House Democrats are serious about impeaching Mr. Trump for his dealings with the Ukrainian president, obtaining a judicial ruling that they are entitled to this critical testimony should be their top priority.

Mr. Schiff’s claim that Mr. Trump is guilty of an impeachable offense if he “forces us to litigate” is preposterous. It is the president’s right and obligation to protect the institution of the presidency from inappropriate congressional demands. If Mr. Schiff believes he is right on the law, he should welcome the opportunity to put his case to a judge. His refusal to do so exposes the entire exercise as a partisan sham.

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/schiffs-obstruction-theory-11573776120

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 »

End the Media’s Campaign Privilege

The Trump era has seen an erosion of the distinction between journalism and partisan politics, with much of the mainstream media in open opposition to the president. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator . . . to announce his candidacy,” New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote in August 2016.

Three years later, the holiday continues. Slate last month published a leaked transcript of a staff “town hall” at the Times. “We built our newsroom to cover one story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told employees, explaining that the paper’s narrative “went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” The new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

Mr. Baquet makes the Times sound like an advocacy organization working against Mr. Trump’s re-election. Such organizations are regulated by campaign-finance statutes. So are other corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, that engage in electioneering speech. But those laws exempt media organizations, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate.

The justification for this favored treatment is the media’s “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But that has changed—and not only because the media have become more partisan. “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

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