Conservatives Keep Getting this Story Wrong

“17 Intelligence Agencies” and Conservative Media

Even though there are a lot of other things going on, conservative media is sort of getting lost in a tizzy over a recent boo boo made by the New York Times. Yesterday, on June 29th, the Times issued a correction to one of their recent stories on the “frustrations” Republicans in Congress were expressing over the Trump Administration’s reaction to the Russia investigation. The correction went as follows:

To give some background: The Hillary Clinton campaign said repeatedly during the final weeks of the 2016 election that “17 Intelligence Agencies” all agreed that the Russians attempted to interfere in the election. For some reason, that specific talking point has become somewhat controversial amongst conservative media outlets (we’ll get into the reasons why later). So, the recent correction by the New York Times was taken to be a vindication of the skepticism expressed early on by Trump supporters about Clinton’s allegation.

Breitbart took the correction to mean the “17 intelligence agencies” statement was “fake news.” The Washington Examiner said it was a “rather large” correction. Powerline, TownHall, and Newsbusters got in it, calling the allegation “fake” in varying degrees. The problem with all of these hot takes is that they are all almost universally wrong (to be fair, the Examiner comes the closest with its nuanced reporting).

You may be wondering why conservative media is celebrating in tandem at what seems to be — on its face — a pretty minor and narrow correction. There are two major reasons:

  1. If Russia did not interfere with the election, then the Trump/Russia investigation is unnecessary and fake.
  2. Republicans who read conservative websites may not like Trump, but they still want to read stories that say the Russia investigation is #fakenews.

Point 1 is pretty important to understand, because it is the controlling factor behind point 2.

The first point is no better illustrated than conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s “righteous” crusade for truth in the Seth Rich story (read this David French piece on that whole debacle here). From Hannity’s Twitter:

The key part of that Tweet is, “If Seth was wiki source, no Trump/Russia collusion.” Leaving aside the almost hilarious inaccuracy of that statement, it is a candid admission of something that plagues a huge portion of conservative media: Complete denial of any Russian interference in the 2016 election is necessary so any investigation into potential wrongdoing between Trump’s campaign and Russia can be dismissed.

This sort of denial is perpetrated by the less credible elements of conservative media — Hannity, Jim Hoft, Breitbart, etc. — but it still affects elements of #NeverTrump right-wing outlets, because they rely on the clicks of all Republicans, Trump-supporters and #NeverTrumpers alike. Perhaps the best example of this is from Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet run by Ben Shapiro.

Even though Shapiro didn’t and does not support Trump, he still has a blindspot when it comes to stories that run defense for him. This piece in particular is either an example of bad faith or stunning stupidity:

The piece says this about the “17 Intelligence Agencies” talking point:

The false claim is based on a misrepresentation of a declassified intelligence report published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of the role of the director of national intelligence (DNI), whose role is to consolidate intelligence from across the federal intelligence apparatus and advise the president. Left-wing and Democrat-aligned news media outlets have framed the DNI as a director of and spokesperson for a non-existent consensus across “the intelligence community.”

For good measure, it then goes on to chastise Politifact for declaring the claim “True.” But Shapiro’s outlet is either repeating the same mistakes made by other conservative outlets or straight up attempting to deceive its readers.

Here’s a pretty mind-numbing fact: The reason Politifact rated Clinton’s statement “true” is because it is. Note the date on Politifact’s factcheck: October 19, 2016.

This is because it’s based on an October 7, 2016 statement from the Director of National Intelligence which states:

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.

The USIC is made up of 16 intelligence agencies and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), meaning this statement is talking about all 17 national intelligence agencies. In addition, the CIA presented this information — calling it a consensus view amongst all intelligence agencies — to Congress in December 2016.

That wasn’t some small or insignificant story either; when the statement from DNI dropped in October — about a month before the election — it was pretty big news. So, it’s logical to assume that conservative outlets were/are aware of it.

But for some reason, they’re still pulling a bait and switch. The Daily Wire piece is probably the most egregious in this regard; when it mentions the “declassified intelligence report” from the DNI, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the statement from October 2016, but it’s not. It’s from an investigative report conducted by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and DNI, which was released in January 2017. So yes, the Daily Wire is rebutting Politifact‘s “Truth Rating” in October 2016 using a document from January 2017.

Conservative media outlets keep citing to the DNI report from January 2017 to rebut the “17 Intelligence Agencies” claim, but it is a report that was prepared by only four. Some pieces even cite to Clapper’s testimony before the Senate in January 2017, like this Daily Caller piece:

Franken: The intelligence communities have concluded, all 17 of them, that Russia interfered with this election. And we all know how that’s right.

Clapper: Senator, as I pointed out in my statement, Senator Franken, it was- there were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment plus my office.

Franken: But all 17 signed on to that?

Clapper: Well, we didn’t go through that process. This was a special situation because of the time limits and […] the sensitivity of the information, we decided — it was a conscious judgment — to restrict it to those three. I’m not aware of anyone who dissented, or disagreed when it came out.

If you’re smart, you can spot the glaring tell: It’s when Clapper says, “…there were only three agencies that directly involved in this assessment.” What assessment is he talking about? The January 2017 declassified report, which was (again) prepared only by the CIA, FBI, and NSA. That report is specific, detailed, and was written hastily so that it could be clearly understood — by those in government and the public — how Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Clapper even points out that due to time contraints, it was a “conscious judgment” to restrict it to the FBI, NSA, and CIA. This is clear from his opening statement at the hearing:

As you know, the I.C. was a coordinated product from three agencies; CIA, NSA, and the FBI not all 17 components of the intelligence community.

Now, we can get into the value of the work done by the intelligence arm of the Treasury Department, but that would obviously take a lot of time. Long story short: Sure, not all intelligence agencies are created equally. But it is incorrect to say that “only three” or “only four,” intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered in the election. For one, some groups — like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — maybe don’t have a ton to contribute beyond what the FBI, CIA, and NSA have already found. Others, like Naval Intelligence, probably have some pretty important insights, but haven’t put out their own (unclassified) report yet. But it’s worth noting that not one intelligence agency has disputed the findings of the January 2017 assessment. So, it’s unclear as to why conservative media outlets are taking the time to push back on such a minor discrepancy, especially when the DNI letter from October 2016 is freely available for all to see.

Conservative media needs to stop citing to Clapper’s testimony as some sort of debunking of Clinton’s talking point, since they are about two different things. 17 Intelligence Agencies really did agree, in October 2016, that there was foreign interference in our election process. In January 2017, in a more detailed assessment, the CIA, NSA, FBI, and DNI all agreed that the Russians interfered and that they did so to help Trump.

It’s understandable how it’s easy to mix all of this up (obviously, the New York Times mixed it up too). But it is a fact that in October 2016, the DNI spoke for all 17 Intelligence Agencies and all agreed that the Russians interfered in our election…that is something that should concern every American.

I write for a legal newspaper. I suck without an editor.