In debate on Russian interference and disinformation, there’s a lot we still don’t know

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2016 (SPIEF 2016) in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2016.   REUTERS/Grigory Dukor/File Photo - RTX2H4NL

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We dig deeper now into the debate over Russian hacking and the CIA’s conclusion the goal was to sway the U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favor.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And we’re joined by two men with extensive experience with intelligence and diplomacy.

James Woolsey was CIA director during the Clinton administration. He’s now with Booz Allen, one of the largest defense and intelligence contractors. He also serves as a senior adviser to President-elect Trump on issues of national security and intelligence. And Michael McFaul was U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He’s now a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Mike McFaul, let me start with you first.

Your reaction to the news that Russia may have played an active role in helping President-elect Trump?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, for some of us, it’s not news. Some of us have been talking and writing about this for many months now, especially after the hacking of the DNC computers and the data dump from WikiLeaks.

I think the two pieces of news that are new is that the intelligence community is now claiming that they have evidence to show that the Russians gave it to WikiLeaks. That was uncertain. Now we know that.

And the second piece is about the Republican — the hacking into the Republican side. They now have evidence to show that.

And what it all means to me, to be clear, my bottom line is, we need an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate this. It’s not enough for the Obama administration to do their review. And, frankly, it’s not enough to have hearings on it at the U.S. Congress.

This is way too big to be handled in those places. We need to know the facts.

And, here, I agree with President-elect Trump in the piece you played with him. He said several times, we don’t know.

Well, as an academic, I want to know the facts. And I think the only way you’re going to get it is if you set up that commission.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Woolsey, do you agree; is that the right course?

JAMES WOOLSEY, Former CIA Director: I don’t see anything wrong with a well-assembled commission going into an important issue.

I think what needs to be focused on here, though, from the beginning is that we have got a couple of different things going on. And conflating them causes a lot of confusion.

One is what the Soviets and then now the Russians call disinformation, dezinformatsiya, otherwise known as lying. And they propagate disinformation throughout the world on all sorts of subjects.

But they particularly focus on organizations and groups that embody values that they find abhorrent, such as the Catholic Church and Judaism.

They are apparently moving into disseminating disinformation about Western political parties. It’s not any different in principle from what they have been doing for decades.

I think that’s one set of things that’s going on. Another set of things that conceivably could go on is hacking into the records of the voting in order to change those votes. I don’t know that there is any indication that we have that this latter is taking place, counting people who are dead as voters and the sort of things that you read about in the American system.

So, I think, insofar as someone says that the Russians were not participating in anything may not be correct, because they may have been participating in disseminating disinformation, but not participating in what most of us think of as voting fraud, namely, counting people who vote who are dead and so forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Woolsey, I hear some hesitation on your part. Do you doubt the credibility of your former agency in coming to this conclusion?

JAMES WOOLSEY: No, I think they’re conflating — they may well be conflating the issues as well.

One really needs to separate these out and talk about them separately. I don’t know what the CIA would decide. I haven’t read anything they have written in years on something like disinformation. But I’m sure they are up to speed on that.

And if one steals some portion of software — or, rather, of material that has a particular cant on it hostile to the United States or one of its political parties and then disseminates that, I guess you could say that that was trying to work the election or change it in some way through persuading people with lies.

But that’s not what most people mean by this. What most people mean is fiddling with the outcome, having, for example, no paper trail. So, a recount just based on fingers touching screens can be extremely misleading. About a quarter of our voting machines in the United States, very stupidly, don’t have paper trails.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mike McFaul, James Woolsey is drawing this distinction here on two different kinds of possible interference. Is that too generous?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: No, I think those are good categories. I think both of those categories need to be investigated.

I have personal experience with that first category. I had lots of disinformation published about me when I was ambassador.

But I want to be clear. There is a third category that Jim was leaving out, which is stealing data from the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, the chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and then disseminating that information through WikiLeaks — by the way, I want to underscore, WikiLeaks is a foreign organization as well — and that then having an impact on the campaign.

Most certainly, the people that worked in the Clinton campaign think that the WikiLeaks data dump was a devastating impact on their electoral candidate’s prospect to become president of the United States.

If that was provided by Russia — and that is what we learned over the weekend — that is something we need to investigate, know the facts, as President-elect Trump said, and then think about what measures can be taken so that our election in 2020 is free and fair.

JAMES WOOLSEY: I agree with Mike on getting it clear with what is right. I think that’s important.

But, Sanjay, the head of the WikiLeaks operation says it wasn’t the Russians that gave him the material, so there’s all sorts of things going on here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Woolsey…

MICHAEL MCFAUL: And the CIA over the weekend said it was. We need to know the facts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Woolsey, you used to run the CIA, and you are also advising President-elect Trump.

Have you given them any guidance, the transition team or the president-elect’s inner circle, on doing anything other than debasing the credibility of the entire intelligence organization and saying, you know what, these are the same people that gave us that weapons of mass destruction slam dunk that wasn’t?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, I have not talked to anyone in the campaign in the last couple of days, so I haven’t talked to anybody about this issue. It has just very recently arisen.

My old agency was, of course, taken very heavily to task for the weapons of mass destruction issue. The thing that I think is interesting is that two of the three weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical, were in the hands of Saddam the whole time. It was the third kind that everybody was particularly worried about, nuclear, that was lied about and so forth.

But two-thirds of the types of weapons of mass destruction were, in fact, in Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mike McFaul, are you concerned about the potential shadow that hangs over the information that none of us have seen, meaning, it is not just the Podesta e-mails? It’s the e-mails that haven’t been released, whether it’s from the RNC or somewhere else, that perhaps that could be used as leverage in the future?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes, of course.

The Russians are very good, they’re one of the best in the world, at gathering intelligence. They do it not just through hacking, by the way, but all kinds of different ways. And we should look at what — try to look at what we have.

By the way, I don’t think we will ever know completely what they have. Any person who ever travels to Russia or lives in Russia, like I have, knows that they are monitored 24/7 in that country. And we should just try to dig down to the facts.

And I want to be clear. You know, it doesn’t mean that the Russians made Trump president. I think many people conflate that too, that they say because they tried to influence the election, they then jump to the conclusion that he is only president because of the Russians. I don’t want to connect those dots at all until I know the facts.

But even if they didn’t produce this outcome, right, the fact that they tried, that they did steal this data, that they tried to influence the elections, that’s something we need to investigate. And, again, it won’t happen in a partisan context. It won’t happen if the White House is the only one responsible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, we will have you back when we have more data to work with.

Mike McFaul, James Woolsey, thank you both.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Sure.

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