News broke on Friday that the CIA had given top lawmakers a secret presentation in September that outlined Russia’s role in the American elections. Last week, members of the House Intelligence Committee gathered in a special meeting room meant for classified discussions to speak with a senior member of the FBI’s counterintelligence community. There, Republicans and Democrats asked the FBI official if the bureau concurred with the CIA’s conclusions: That Russia tried to get Donald Trump elected president.
According to those present in the meeting, the response from the FBI was far from conclusive. They described the official’s remarks as “fuzzy” and “ambiguous,” as opposed to the CIA’s clear and direct case against Moscow.
Critics of the FBI include Democrats who are chomping at the bit to see James Comey held accountable for his surprise letter to Congress which, they believe, cost Hillary Clinton the election. Now, they see the Bureau’s vague comments on Russia to be additional proof of the agency’s partisan leanings. But naturally, the CIA is above such undignified bias, right?
The truth is, the FBI is the agency being careful here. Not out of some allegiance to Republicans or Trump, but because they are a law enforcement agency. They aren’t about to spark a nationwide panic with allegations they can’t prove. The CIA, on the other hand, is a different beast. They aren’t afraid to draw inferences, even if they don’t have the solid evidence to back it up. They are giving Congress their best assessment, but their narrative of Russian involvement is not to be confused with fact. It may turn out to be fact, but there is still a great deal of speculation involved right now.
“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards — can we prove this in court,” one official told reporters. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”
The FBI does not dispute Russia’s meddling; the disagreement comes down to their motivation. Were they hacking the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to get Trump elected? Or were they merely trying to throw an element of chaos into the mix to see what would happen?
As for public opinion, it is divided down ideological lines. This is to be expected, since none of us have access to the classified material that supposedly proves Russia’s involvement. And among those who do have access, there continue to be sharp disagreements about what that intelligence proves. The President-elect himself has said that it is “ridiculous” for the CIA to allege that Russia was trying to help him win. Until the rest of us have a better look at the evidence, it all sounds extremely circumstantial and agenda-driven.