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Russia and the us presidential election

January 21, 2017 | Expert Insights

Do intelligence agencies need to re-establish their credibility?

On Friday (06 Jan17), US President-elect Donald Trump is finally expected to attend the intelligence briefing, on alleged Russian interference in the US Presidential election. While 16 US Intelligence agencies including the FBI, CIA and Director National Intelligence shall attempt to substantiate Russian involvement, so far, little tangible evidence has been put out in the public domain.

Why is Alleged Russian Involvement So Important? 

Republican candidate Donald Trump was the surprise winner of the US Presidential election. Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was widely expected to win the election but she failed to secure adequate electoral college votes, though she won the popular vote. The Democrat Presidential campaign was smeared by a series of confidential disclosures on WikiLeaks. Hillary Clinton and other supporters have stated that they believe the contents and timing of the leaks, swung the campaign, away from the Democrats. There have also been allegations that Russian Intelligence agencies, conduct the hacks and released the stolen documents to WikiLeaks, who placed them on their Website. Russia has consistently denied any role in the hacking, while US Intelligence agencies claim evidence to prove Russia’s hand. 

Theatre of Conspiracy 

In the absence of evidence, unsubstantiated allegations point towards a larger conspiracy. Some of the questions US Intelligence agencies shall attempt to answer, for the President-elect should be: -

  • Did Russian leadership order the hacking of computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Convention (DNC), Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and Campaign Manager John Podesta?
  • Did Russian Intelligence services actually hand over the stolen material to WikiLeaks?
  • Did the revelations influence the outcome of the election?
  • Do the stolen revelations indicate law-breaking activity on the part of Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party?

None of the questions are easy to answer and the heads of Intelligence should be keen to create a good first impression with the Commander-in-Chief, designate.

Larger Issues

Some senior US leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden have advised President-elect Donald Trump, to desist from publicly questioning the competence of the nation’s intelligence services. However, that may be a frivolous argument, which could end up protecting incompetence. US Intelligence agencies failed to give early warning of the 9/11 attacks, though subsequent investigations revealed that there were at least 23 opportunities, to disrupt the attack. False Intelligence reports regarding Iraq’s WMD led US in to the 2nd Iraq War and a tragedy for the Iraqi people. In India, Kargil (1999) and Mumbai (2008) may have been prevented by a more competent intelligence organizations.  In recent years, across nations, there has been a systemic failure in the quality of national intelligence.


In 1944, during the 2nd World War, Allied Intelligence were able to successfully keep Nazi Germany guessing, about the likely beach heads of Operation OVERLORD. In the many weeks leading up to the invasion of Europe, the Germans was unable to discern if the attack would center on Pas-de-Calais or the beaches of Normandy. Since that time and particularly since the advent of the Internet, Intelligence communities are facing unprecedented professional challenges. Firstly, the quality of National Intelligence faces a continuous audit from OSI (Open Source Intelligence). Secondly, proliferation of satellites provides unprecedented transparency and that too on the Internet. Thirdly, the Snowden leaks have suggested that there are perhaps no more secrets left to access on computers. President-elect Donald Trump’s ‘showdown’ with US national intelligence, should find resonance in the larger intelligence community. Intelligence professionals need to adapt to the new challenges to remain relevant.