American Tribal Warfare

This can’t be happening. The two tribes went to war on a Thursday night in Washington, with the intelligence agencies – the CIA and FBI and NSA and all the rest – dropping the hammer on Tribe Trump:

Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials – including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election – contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.

Donald Trump says he knows all about hacking, and that he knows things no one else knows, which seems to mean he knows what the CIA and FBI and NSA and all the rest don’t know – but he’s not telling yet. He says that no one, no one at all, knows if the Russians did the hacking-the-election thing. The intelligence agencies really don’t know – and that sort of thing seems to have pissed them off. Okay, fine – but why are these guys in Moscow celebrating? They have the “signals intelligence” – they have it on tape. Explain that, Donald.

But wait, there’s more:

Other key pieces of information gathered by U.S. spy agencies include the identification of “actors” involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to the WikiLeaks website, and disparities in the levels of effort Russian intelligence entities devoted to penetrating and exploiting sensitive information stored on Democratic and Republican campaign networks.

Those and other data points are at the heart of an unprecedented intelligence report being circulated in Washington this week that details the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and catalogs other cyber operations by Moscow against U.S. election systems over the past nine years.

The classified document, which officials said is over 50 pages, was delivered to President Obama on Thursday, and it is expected to be presented to Trump in New York on Friday by the nation’s top spy officials, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and CIA Director John Brennan.

They’re going to shove it in his face on Friday morning, so this is an understatement:

Given the president-elect’s skepticism about the intelligence community – particularly its conclusions about Russia – the Trump Tower briefing has taken on the tenor of a showdown between the president-elect and the intelligence agencies he has disparaged.

It’s more like a war, and they’re not backing down:

U.S. officials who have reviewed the new report said it goes far beyond the brief public statement that Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued in October, accusing Russia of having “directed” cyber operations to disrupt the U.S. election, and concluding, in a reference to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Trump is going to find it harder and harder to defend Putin:

Senior lawmakers have called for a full investigation of the Russian hacking. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Clapper said that Moscow’s cyber assault on the election went beyond interference and into “activism.”

At Thursday’s hearing, Clapper said that U.S. spy agencies “stand actually more resolutely” behind conclusions they reached last year on Russia’s determination to undermine the U.S. election. He also appeared to take aim at Trump’s social media sniping at U.S. intelligence services, saying that “there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”

One simply does not mess with these guys. They hit back, but Trump is not Obama:

Obama last week announced a series of measures designed to punish Russia, actions he characterized as “a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests.” Obama moved to impose economic sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies, expelled dozens of alleged Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, and shuttered two compounds that for decades had purportedly served as retreats for Russian diplomats but were described by the administration as locations for espionage activities.

Meanwhile, Trump continued his string of Twitter attacks, accusing U.S. intelligence agencies – with the word “intelligence” set off in quotation marks – of delaying a planned briefing on Russia and the election, a charge that U.S. officials disputed. He also appeared to side with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has denied that his organization got the hacked emails from Russia, over U.S. spy agencies, which think that WikiLeaks got the material through middlemen with ties to the Kremlin.

The intelligence agencies cleared that up on Thursday night too. Now they know:

US intelligence has identified the go-betweens the Russians used to provide stolen emails to WikiLeaks, according to US officials familiar with the classified intelligence report that was presented to President Barack Obama on Thursday.

In a Fox News interview earlier this week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denied that Russia was the source of leaked Democratic emails that roiled the 2016 election to the detriment of President-elect Donald Trump’s rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

He can say that, but our intelligence agencies have the names of the middlemen – the cut-outs – and dates and times of the exchanges. Explain that, Julian. Explain that, Donald.

Things were getting nasty, but they had started out nasty earlier in the day:

Three U.S. spy chiefs testified publicly for the first time Thursday that the Kremlin’s most senior leaders approved a Russian intelligence operation aimed at interfering in the U.S. presidential race, a conclusion that President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly challenged…

“We assess that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets,” they wrote in joint remarks submitted for the hearing…

U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that the Russian cyber operation sought to damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and to help Trump’s bid for the White House. Clapper did not confirm that judgment Thursday, although he indicated it would be included in the classified report. “Yes, we will ascribe a motivation,” he said. “I’d rather not preempt the report.”

The full House and the full Senate will be briefed on a classified version of the review next week, Clapper said. After those briefings, a declassified version will be made public, he said… “I intend to push the envelope as much as we can in the unclassified version because I think the public should know as much about this as possible,” Clapper said.

Each of these “spy chiefs” was asked about Julian Assange of course, and each said the guy had done major damage to the United States, compromising operations and outing agents at risk of being  killed. They didn’t get any push-back on that. No one was siding with Trump.

But were they out to “get” Trump? Kevin Drum doesn’t think so:

The intelligence community doesn’t really have any motivation to make this stuff up aside from a generalized dislike of Russia. They are interested in keeping everyone on edge about cyberattacks, but that doesn’t require Russia to be involved in what happened. In fact, doubling down on the Russia story, even after Trump won, is nothing but bad for the CIA. All they’re doing is pissing off the incoming president, something they could easily avoid by keeping the cyberattack story but downplaying the Russia angle.

So this is sort of an admission against interest. The CIA’s interest is in getting more money for cyber security and cultivating a strong relationship with a new president. The fact that they’re doing just the opposite suggests pretty strongly that they believe in no uncertain terms that Russia really is behind this.

That’s a real problem, and then the other news broke:

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey Jr., a veteran of four presidential administrations and one of the nation’s leading intelligence experts, resigned Thursday from President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team because of growing tensions over Trump’s vision for intelligence agencies.

Woolsey’s resignation as a Trump senior adviser comes amid frustrations over the incoming administration’s national security plans and Trump’s public comments undermining the intelligence community.

“Effective immediately, Ambassador Woolsey is no longer a Senior Advisor to President-Elect Trump or the Transition. He wishes the President-Elect and his Administration great success in their time in office,” Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for Woolsey, said in a statement.

No one saw that coming – and immediate and abrupt resignation with no explanation all from Woolsey and no comment from the Trump team – but there’s always an explanation:

People close to Woolsey said that he had been excluded in recent weeks from discussions on intelligence matters with Trump and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the incoming White House national security adviser. They said that Woolsey had grown increasingly uncomfortable lending his name and credibility to the transition team without being consulted. Woolsey was taken aback by this week’s reports that Trump is considering revamping the country’s intelligence framework, said these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

“Jim is very uncomfortable being considered an adviser in an area where one might consider him an expert when he is not involved in the discussions,” one person close to Woolsey said.

It seems that Trump and Flynn don’t like experts. They patted him on the head and told him the “big boys” would handle things. He walked, as he’s not part of the tribe:

Woolsey has been a key player in the national security firmament since the late 1970s, when he served as undersecretary of the Navy in the Jimmy Carter administration. He has held other roles under former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, culminating with the post as director of the CIA between 1993 and 1995.

The person close to Woolsey described him as having chafed at Trump’s loose style on Twitter. They described Woolsey as a “very principled” diplomat who takes care to communicate the right message with just the right words. “This is a guy [for whom] commas, periods, etc., all have special meaning,” this person said.

There was no place for someone like him, and he was being used as prop, to add gravitas – whatever that is – to the Trump Tribe. He’d had enough of that. He walked. He embarrassed them. There was nothing they could say, but a day earlier, Josh Marshall suggested something that Woolsey might have seen up close:

First, Trump wants payback against an agency that he believes is his enemy. Period. He is undoubtedly encouraged in this by his closest advisors.

Second, Trump’s chief foreign policy advisor Michael Flynn wants payback against the people who ended his career. Flynn was a career intelligence officer and one with a very strong reputation – working within specific and defined parameters. People who had worked with him earlier in his career said they couldn’t recognize the person he became when he was placed in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was a disastrous manager, was taken in by numerous conspiracy theories and eventually had to be fired. Other generals got crosswise with the civilian appointees in the Obama administration. But they left with their reputations intact. Flynn was different. Flynn’s personal beef is clearly the source of his animus against the DNI and the CIA.

Flynn is simply nuts and he wants to get even. This suggests Trump is going let him do just that.

All that James Woolsey gets out of this is his self-respect and honor, by walking away. The tribe didn’t kick him out. He left the tribe, or escaped the cult.

This Trump tribe may be a cult, although the distinction between the two may not matter very much. Something strange is going on here. Michael Gerson sees something strange:

Donald Trump’s, Sarah Palin’s and Sean Hannity’s embrace of Julian Assange – who has made a career of illegally obtaining and releasing documents damaging to U.S. interests – is not just a puzzling policy shift. It is the triumph of political tribalism over, well, every other principle or commitment.

All three leaders of right-wing populism once saw the risk. Not long ago, Trump recommended the death penalty for Assange. Now he publicly sides with him against U.S. intelligence services. Palin urged the United States to go after Assange “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda.” Now, we have seen her abject pleading: “Julian, I apologize.” Hannity once called for Assange’s “arrest.” Now he provides a sympathetic platform for Assange’s (and thus Vladimir Putin’s) views.

Political tribalism is a strange thing, and dangerous:

Let’s be clear about what this means. The president-elect of the United States is elevating a man whom the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., holds responsible for putting the lives of operatives in direct danger. The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee is bowing and scraping to the man who materially aided the Taliban. Fox News is now an outlet for the Russian version of events.

All this raises practical questions. If I were a prospective intelligence asset – an Iranian nuclear scientist, say, or a North Korean general – why in the world would I cooperate with a country that can’t keep secrets and apparently doesn’t care to? How will the CIA and other intelligence agencies deal day to day with a president who distrusts and publicly defames them?

But the most illuminating question is this: What changed about Assange between these dramatically evolved judgments? Nothing. Except that Assange hurt John Podesta, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

It would be difficult to formulate a purer example of motivated reasoning and tribal politics. We are dealing with political and moral argument at this level: Trump is good. Assange helped him. So Assange is good.

That won’t do:

It does not require Aristotle to understand that this is a child’s view of ethics. The enemy of my enemy may be my friend. Or he may be an international fugitive who effectively exposed intelligence sources and methods and gave advantages to America’s enemies.

It is Ethics 201 that some principles should be universally applied, even when they conflict with our immediate interests or the interests of our own tribe (however that is defined). Where do those principles come from? There is the Golden Rule, which pops up, in different forms, in many religions. There is the moral example of parents and mentors, imprinted on our souls. There are various philosophic systems that force us to consider the views and interests of others.

It needs to be said that loyalty to a tribe is not always a bad thing. Being an American is to belong to a flawed but wonderful tribe. Considering yourself a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, the member of a church or club – all can be appropriate forms of loyalty. Our views and loves naturally bring us into contact and friendship with those who share our views and loves.

The problem comes in the order of the loves (with credit to Saint Augustine). The argument we are seeing on Assange – if it hurts liberals, it is good – is a disordered and destructive form of service to Trumpism. And it is particularly disturbing in this case, because Assange has purposely and undeniably hurt our country. So it appears that the tribalism of ideology is actually deeper and more profound than the tribalism of being an American.

No good will come of this:

For some right-wing populists, anyone who opposes Trump is the enemy. The same attitude, shifted to the White House, might be applied by the president as: Anyone who opposes me is the enemy.

This would be the beginning of a nightmare.

Kevin Drum explores that nightmare:

Twenty years ago, a Washington Post reporter wrote that followers of television evangelists were “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” The blowback was huge and immediate and the Post apologized the next day. To this day, conservatives will quote these words as evidence that the mainstream press has it in for conservatives.

But what else explains what’s happening now? Donald Trump has essentially commanded his followers to defend Putin and Assange, and with barely a whimper they’ve complied. And when the press starts to point out what’s going on, we get this – “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange – wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people.”

“It is for the people.” Everything is “for the people.”

Expect to hear a lot more of that, and Jonathan Chait offers this:

The cruelest, most condescending, and also devastatingly correct indictment of Donald Trump’s supporters was uttered not by a member of the liberal media but by Donald Trump himself, when he mentioned that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose support. Trump’s insinuation that his fans will ignore any evidence of his guilt, however plain, has been vindicated. Perhaps no episode has demonstrated the Fifth Avenue Principle more dramatically than the case of the Russian email hack.

That’s a fine example:

The very firm conclusion by 19 U.S. intelligence agencies that it was Russia that carried out the email hacks of Democratic emails, as well as the conclusion by both the CIA and the FBI that it did so in order to benefit Trump (a candidate it had openly touted for months) is inconvenient for Trump. We don’t and can’t know whether Russian hacking tipped the balance of the election, but it’s possible to believe it did; the election was extremely close, and the emails, while substantively minor, fed into the narratives of embittered Bernie Sanders supporters and generated more news stories with “Clinton” and “emails” in their headlines. Trump has thus set out to convince his supporters that Russia did not conduct the hacks.

To this end, Trump has employed many of the same techniques he used to attract attention to the cause of disputing President Obama’s citizenship. He has exploited popular distrust of institutions, portraying their documentation and conclusions to be suspicious, and promised that he alone either has obtained the real facts, or will soon get to the bottom of them. He has supplied his fans with plausible-sounding alternative suspects – the Chinese, a morbidly obese man, teenage boys – or attributed the issue to the general complications entailed by computers.

So, welcome to the nightmare:

Trump made his comment about shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue during the primary, a time when he faced fierce opposition from within his party. Since then, the incentives for conservatives to oppose him have weakened, and the incentives to support his ravings, or to redirect any dissent against his liberal opponents, have grown enormously. Trump’s bizarre lies about Russia and Assange are designed not only to defend the legitimacy of his election but also to prove, once again, that his control over the supple minds of the conservative base is total.

He now has his tribe, and that makes all sorts of things normal:

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition staff has issued a blanket edict requiring politically appointed ambassadors to leave their overseas posts by Inauguration Day, according to several American diplomats familiar with the plan, breaking with decades of precedent by declining to provide even the briefest of grace periods.

The mandate – issued “without exceptions,” according to a terse State Department cable sent on Dec. 23, diplomats who saw it said – threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain.

The tribalism of ideology is deeper and more profound than the tribalism of being an American working for American interests until a new ambassador is named and eventually confirmed by the Senate in a month or two, or longer if they’re the slightest bit controversial. That’s dangerous:

W. Robert Pearson, a former ambassador to Turkey and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the rule was “quite extraordinary,” adding that it could undermine American interests and signal a hasty change in direction that exacerbates jitters among allies about their relationships with the new administration.

With the world already primed to be worrying about such an abrupt change, “this is just a very concrete signal that it is going to happen,” Mr. Pearson said.

Our allies should be worried now, and so should a few others here at home:

House Republicans this week reinstated an arcane procedural rule that enables lawmakers to reach deep into the budget and slash the pay of an individual federal worker – down to $1 – a move that threatens to upend the 130-year-old civil service.

The Holman Rule, named after an Indiana congressman who devised it in 1876, empowers any member of Congress to propose amending an appropriations bill to single out a government employee or cut a specific program.

The use of the rule would not be simple; a majority of the House and the Senate would still have to approve any such amendment. At the same time, opponents and supporters agree that the work of 2.1 million civil servants, designed to be insulated from politics, is now vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.

You’re part of the tribe or you’re not, right? Or maybe it’s a cult. It’s hard to tell now, but at least there are two tribes at war now. That’s the only comfort in all this.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to American Tribal Warfare

  1. Rick says:

    Just as we saw split screens of, on the one side, the Iran hostages being released, and the other, Ronald Reagan’s swearing-in in 1980, might we now see all our ambassadors flying home during the inauguration on the 20th?

    Or is this just another trial balloon from the Trump Transition Disinformation Machine that they float on one day, just to shoot down a day or two later, all as a way to discredit the mainstream media?

    (a) First, one of your staff calls his contact at Wall Street Journal and leaks something, then

    (b) the Journal prints something like, “Donald Trump Plans Revamp of Top U.S. Spy Agency“, then

    (c) you have your new press secretary, Sean Spicer, go tell someone

    “There is no truth to this idea of restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure,” Spicer added. “It is 100 percent false.”

    Then return to (a), and repeat the process with some other appalling lie.

    You do that often enough, and you pull the rug right out from under the media. After a while, nobody will believe a word they say. It turns out, there is no such thing as provable truth, in which case your truth is as good as any other for people to buy into.

    Won’t it be ironic that the world’s most infamous liar ends up holding the trademark on “truth”?

    Along those same lines, this brings us to another reason Trump might be doing all this denial about Russia:

    Trump ran against the establishment in the 2016 election, with all their fact-checkers and pants-on-fire little truth-meters and conference rooms full of generals and cabinet secretaries. The media can look everywhere and, finding absolutely no evidence that there were Muslims celebrating on New Jersey rooftops back on 9-11, conclude that Trump was wrong about that.

    But here’s how Trump sees that:

    “I won the election! And not only does that mean there now actually were those Muslims celebrating in Jersey that I told you about, but also that if I say Russia had nothing to do with interfering in our elections, then they had nothing to do with it! You know how I know? Because the intelligence community, the people who know about this stuff? They all report to me! After all, isn’t this why we have elections?”

    Which reminds me of something else we should add to the Constitution, the requirement that anyone running for our highest office first take a physical —oh, and also a psychological evaluation, administered by a bipartisan panel of competent professionals!

    After all, it wouldn’t do if we accidentally elected a president who had a bean-bag for brains, now would it?


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