Literally and figuratively , Shakespeare described best the uneasy mood and deep concerns of millions of American men and women today. On Monday, in southern New Jersey, we awake at six a.m. on January 8 to the coldest morning, seven degrees – “feels like minus 2” on the weather channel. A bright sun shines later on our statue of Alice in Wonderland standing on the back deck of our house. She still wears the hoodie of six inches of snow on her head and shoulders from yesterday’s near blizzard. Her gaze remains serene , her hands still hold the roses behind her waist. Perhaps, she’s thinking— “ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind….” Shelley is helping with his words, reminding me of hope.
Newspapers and cable news focused over the past weekend on the Friday meeting of our four top Intelligence officers with president-elect Donald J. Trump in Trump Tower, New York City. They were: James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence; John O. Brennan, director of the C.I.A.; Admiral Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency; and James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I. During the two hour briefing, the officials reviewed the classified report that was given to Mr. Trump. This detailed report and its unanimous conclusions had been described to President Barack Obama on Thursday. After the meeting, a shorter declassified report was released to the press and public .
Here are some of the main findings in the report: “Russia’s goals were to undermine faith in the democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” They continued, “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging stragegy that blends covert intelligence operations — such as cyberactivity – with overt efforts by the Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third party intermediaries and paid social –media users or ‘trolls’.”
Making the report public was almost an unheard of event in our political history. It must have been done to counter the skepticism expressed by Trump in the weeks leading up to Friday that there was no proof that Russia had tampered with our election. He insisted by Twitter in blunt language that “China or a 400 pound man sitting on a bed “ could have authored the cyber attacks. Just three hours before his briefing by the intelligence officials, Trump held a telephone interview with The New York Times. He derided the focus on the Russian hacking as nothing more than a “political witch hunt” carried out by his opponents who were “embarrassed by their loss in the election.” His exact words, “China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names”, referring to U.S. computers in the Office of Personnel Mangement in 2014 & 2015. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
Fascinating parts of the report describe why Vladimir Putin sought to denigrate Secretary Clinton early in the campaign. When she held that office, he believed she encouraged the pro-democracy protests in Moscow against him that broke out in 2011. That rankled as a personal grudge against her. In addition, although she put together the framework for the Iran Nuclear Deal which Russia and China took part in, he saw her as a tough negotiator and did not consider her a “friend”. In contrast, once Donald Trump became the Republican candidate, Putin reached out and cultivated him whenever possible.
The one significant conclusion that was NOT included in the report was whether the Russian massive involvement tipped the election to Trump’s victory. Director Clapper made that clear at a Congressional Hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that was held after the report surfaced. After the meeting at Trump Tower, the president-elect did call it “constructive”. Vice-president -elect Mike Pence said that he and Mr. Trump had “appreciated the presentation” and found it “respectful.” Trump did concede that “Russia, China, outside groups and other people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democratic National Committee.”
The report also reached into the future. “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.” William J. Burns, former American ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008 and a deputy secretary of state wrote an important Op Ed in The New York Times on Sunday, January 8, 2017. It was titled “How We Fool Ourselves On Russia”. He has deep personal experience when he writes, “The reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future. At its core, is a fundamental disconnect in outlook and about each other’s role in the world. It is tempting to think that personal rapport can bridge this disconnect, and that the art of the deal can unlock a grand bargain. That is a foolish starting point for sensible policy. It would be especially foolish to think that Russia’s troubling interference in our election, can or should be played down.”
In his piece, Burns gives three steps we should take: First, sustain, and if necessary amplify the steps the Obama administration has taken in response to Russian hacking. Second, reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. Third, stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe and Russia.” Burns sums up with passion and strength, “I’ve learned a few lessons during my diplomatic career, often the hard way. I’ve learned to respect Russians and their history and vitality. I’ve learned it rarely pays to underestimate Russia or display gratuitous disrespect. But I’ve also learned that firmness and vigilance and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir Putin embodies.”
Donald Trump has said he reads The New York Times among other papers. I hope he reads this Op Ed by William Burns. He would learn valuable information and insights about Russia and Vladimir Putin — as he prepares to take the oath of office for President of The United States.