As never before in US history, the shambolic US Presidential election campaign of 2016 was marred by serious controversies over the murky moves by intelligence agencies of both the US and Russia.
In 2016, a Washington political research firm paid by Donald Trump’s Republican rivals hired a retired British intelligence officer to investigate his links with Russia.
After it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee for President, Democratic clients began to pay the firm for this same ‘opposition research,’ a standard practice in US politics.
The former British intelligence agent who had had long experience in Russia, compiled several reports containing unsubstantiated claims that Russian officials had tried to obtain influence over Trump by attempting to blackmail him with sex tapes and to bribe him with business deals (Scott Shane, 2017).
The reports claimed that the Trump campaign had met with Russian operatives to discuss Russians’ hacking and their leaking of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John D Podesta.
After the election, media reports alleged that Hillary Clinton lost the election because Julian Assange, chief of WikiLeaks, had served as a conduit for disseminating documents and emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) obtained by Russian hackers working for the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The documents played a crucial role in an election decided by fewer than 100,000 votes in three swing states.
In early January, 2017, the US intelligence community (USIC) officially confirmed the allegations.
The Kremlin, however, dismissed the allegations as hogwash and ‘pulp fiction.’
President-elect Donald Trump seemed to acknowledge the Russian role but added that it had had no impact on the election.
Julian Assange denied his involvement saying that his source was a ‘non-state party.’
America’s liberal establishment (which had earlier admired Assange) began questioning his motives and viewing him as the villain of the piece who, in collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had intervened in the US Presidential election process to ensure a Trump victory. The official statement of the US Intelligence Community (USIC) confirming the allegation came to their aid.
It was convenient for the Democratic party and its supporters to attribute the defeat of Hillary Clinton to the alleged role played by WikiLeaks and avoid looking at their own failures (Sampath, 2017).
Sampath argues that while the credibility of WikiLeaks had been established over the ten years of its existence, the Western agencies who criticized Julian Assange had been guilty of selling to the public ‘the most egregious lie in the history of journalism, namely, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had helped in justifying a needless, destructive war that consumed tens of thousands of civilian lives, dismembered a country, and hatched several terrorist organisations’.
Assange, by contrast, has held that the biggest threats to democracy and freedom are the twin phenomena of mass surveillance for the powerless and secrecy for the powerful. He has sought to promote transparency for the powerful and anonymity for the dissenting citizen (Sampath, 2017).
President-elect Donald Trump has also dismissed the the so called ‘Russia dossier’ with unsubstantiated allegations publicized by the US intelligence agencies as ‘Fake News-A Total Political Witch Hunt.’ The British newspaper Financial Times, however, spent time over the claims made in the ‘Russia dossier’ and was not able to verify them.
Criticism of US/UK intelligence role on Iraq, 2003 is available from two important documents: i) ‘The Report of the Iraq Inquiry by John Chilcot’, reviewed by Philip Sands (London Review of Books, 28 July, 2016; and ii) ‘Hussein, the CIA and Me’ a review by James Risen of the book by John Nixon, ‘Debriefing the President-The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein’, by John Nixon, Blue Rider Press, The New York Times, December 18, 2016.
Donald Trump, in his campaign for US President has repeatedly expressed his lack of faith in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), mainly because of its role in the Iraq fiasco.
Briefly, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry did not find a single positive outcome from the Iraq War waged by the US and the UK. Sir John Chilcot who chaired the Inquiry, portrayed the War as a total failure of government. ‘Two hundred British troops had been killed and many more were injured; 150,00 Iraqis had been killed and ‘probably many more-most of them civilians’; and more than a million people had been displaced. Lives were ruined;Islamic State had emerged in the aftermath and ‘Britain had been diminished’.
Chilcot spreads the responsibility far and wide, covering politicians. civil servants, the military and lawyers.
UK policy was based on flawed intelligence assessments, which should have been challenged but were not. Military planning was settled too late and preparations were inadequate with equipment shortfalls and risks ‘neither properly identified nor fully exposed to ministers.Remarkably, the cabinet never discussed the military options or their implications’.
The book by John Nixon on the role of the CIA in the Iraq War, published in 2016, is even more devastating.
John Nixon was the first CIA officer to interrogate Saddam Hussein after his capture in December 2003. He reveals gob-smacking facts about the Iraqi leader that raise new questions about why the US decided to invade Iraq to oust him.
Nixon offers a stinging indictment of the CIA and what he sees as the agency’s dysfunctional process of providing intelligence to the President. He writes that the agency is so eager to please the President-any President-that it will almost always give him the answers he wants to hear.
By the way, this is exactly what the legendary intelligence chief of India, BN Mullik was good at as revealed by Neville Maxwell in his book India’s China War, 1970.
Mullik kept his job with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a legendary 14 years from 1950 to 1964!
Nixon’s book comes at an extraordinary moment, when President-elect Donald J Trump is already at war with the CIA. He has attacked the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election to help his candidacy and he has cited the agency’s failures on prewar intelligence on Iraq as an example of how the CIA was often wrong.
Reviewing the book, James Risen observes that the book will add fuel to the fire of the Trump-led criticism. It will send a ‘chilling warning’ to anyone counting on the CIA to stand up to Trump once he is in office’.
Scott Shane, 2017 What is known and not known about the Donald Trump-Russia Dossier, The New York, Times, reproduced in Indian Express, New Delhi, January 13. Page 12.
G Sampath, Julian Assange: Scapegoat or Villain? The Hindu, February 16.Page 10