New York Times Still Stoking Alarm At ‘Russian Hacking’

Forget what Vice President Pence has suggested he might do this week regarding counting the votes for president and forget President Trump’s ominous military buildup near Iran, the Sunday New York Times two-column, above-the-fold lede tells us what we should really be worried about: "Scope of Russian Hacking Far Exceeds Initial Fears." The on-line title was "As Understanding of Russian Hacking Grows, So Does Alarm."

Forget, too, that this latest NYT indictment of Russia, does not substantially advance the story beyond the information available two weeks ago, when "neither the actor, nor the motive, nor the damage done [was] known for certain in this latest scare story." Although no evidence is adduced to show that Russia is behind this latest flurry of hacking – Russia no doubt sits toward the top of a long list of suspects. The Times ominously quotes Suzanne Spaulding, a senior cyber official during the Obama administration, saying Russia is the foregone conclusion:

"We still don’t know what Russia’s strategic objectives were," she said "But we should be concerned that part of this may go beyond reconnaissance. Their goal may be to put themselves in a position to have leverage over the new administration, like holding a gun to our head to deter us from acting to counter Putin."

The Sanger Sewing Machine

NYT Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger is listed first on the byline for Sunday’s story together with Nicole Perlroth and Julian Barnes. That should give us a clue, given Sanger’s record for sewing things out of whole cloth. In a word, Sanger enjoys an unenviably checkered record for reliability. Until we are shown more in the way of evidence attributing the recently discovered hacking to the Russians, we would do well to review his record.

Sanger’s reporting on Iraq before the war was as wrong as it was consequential. Those who were alert at the time may remember that Sanger was second only to Judith Miller in spreading the party line on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Seldom do historians obtain documentary evidence of plans for a war of aggression, but on May 1, 2005 the London Times published a paper (now known as the "Downing Street Memos") that recorded what Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 (the UK counterpart to the CIA) relayed to Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 23, 2002 about what he was told by George Tenet at CIA headquarters on July 20, 2002. (No one has challenged the authenticity of the minutes.)

"C (Dearlove) reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. … There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." [Emphasis added.]

With David Sanger and his colleague Judith Miller having cried wolf on WMD so many times over the prior two years, the Times decided it would be best to suppress the embarrassing revelation that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." So the Times ignored it for more than six weeks, when Sanger wrote an article to put the whole thing in perspective, so to speak.

The title of Sanger’s June 13, 2005 article was "Postwar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn’t Made." Those looking for a measure of Sanger’s credibility could do no better than read this masterpiece of deceptive circumlocution. Here’s the lead paragraph:

WASHINGTON, June 12 – A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made “no political decisions” to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced. …"

And those asking how Sanger could write that with a straight face need only to read the Downing Street Memos, which are quite succinct and clear.

One could almost sympathize with Sanger, who had co-authored a piece with Thom Shanker, on July 29, 2002 in which WMD were flat-facted into Iraq no fewer than seven times. See: “U.S. Exploring Baghdad Strike As Iraq Option of July 29, 2002.” That was about a week after CIA Director Tenet had briefed Dearlove on the fixing of the intelligence and the facts. It is a safe bet that Sanger’s sources in the intelligence community briefed him on what line to take on those (non-existent) WMD.

Years Later Still Drinking at the Government Trough

On July 26, 2016, Candidate Clinton reportedly approved a "blame-Russia" plan. According to a letter from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sept. 29, 2020, CIA Director John Brennan briefed President Obama on "Russian intelligence analysis" regarding "alleged approval by Hillary Clinton of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services."

The Russian intelligence analysis report was deemed important enough that on Sept. 7, 2016, US intelligence officials forwarded an "investigative referral" to FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok regarding it. ( Such a referral usually indicates that a leak has occurred about a particularly sensitive issue or program. Thus, it is possible that the putative leaker wished to get the information out into the open.)

But it is one thing to leak; quite another to get an Establishment journalist to write about it without checking beforehand with the intelligence community for a nihil obstat. There has been no additional reporting about the "investigative referral." But if it was about a leak, the information never saw the light of day at the time.

July 26, 2016: The exact date timing may be coincidence, but on the same day Mrs. Clinton was alleged to have given the go-ahead for Russia-gate, Sanger co-authored an article with Eric Schmitt titled: “Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C.”:

“WASHINGTON – American intelligence agencies have told the White House they now have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee, according to federal officials who have been briefed on the evidence.”

There is much more that can be said about Sanger’s reporting on very consequential issues. On Iran, for example, taking Sanger’s reporting at face value, one would think he never read the National Intelligence Estimate that helped prevent a war planned by Cheney/Bush for 2008. I refer to the November 2007 NIE the unanimous, "high-confidence" key judgment of which was that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003 and had not resumed such work. That key judgment stands, but you would never know that from Sanger’s reporting.

Beware chief Washington correspondents; or at least look at their record.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).