President-elect Trump must heed advice of his intelligence agencies
President Barack Obama’s parting shot to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is a necessary repudiation of what appears to have been an unprecedented violation of US democratic sovereignty. If, as alleged, the Russian intelligence service hacked sensitive information from the Democratic party, it may have contributed to Donald Trump’s narrow margin of victory. At the very least, the stolen data subsequently published on WikiLeaks was damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
No wonder Mr Trump would prefer to change the subject and “move on”. The suggestion that Russia interfered on his behalf raises questions about the legitimacy of his victory. But instead of acknowledging the threat posed to US interests, Mr Trump has repeatedly rubbished the assessment by US intelligence agencies of a high level of Russian complicity. The rational response would have been to make it clear that there are red lines, and on this occasion Moscow crossed them.
America is no innocent when it comes to intervening in other democracies, and using the internet and internet freedom as a foreign policy tool, including in Mr Putin’s own back yard. Certainly the Russian president would argue as much.
Nevertheless, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was one of the most brazen examples of cyber warfare yet, and an act of aggression that has plunged US-Russia relations to their lowest point since the end of the cold war. To roll over would be to encourage Moscow to invest further in this form of meddling.
This would not only be damaging to US interests. It would also encourage Russian agencies to pursue similar tactics in forthcoming elections in Germany and France, where the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen is, like Mr Trump, inclined to cosy up to Mr Putin.
Whether the US response will prove a sufficient deterrent is another matter. Washington is expelling 35 Russian “spies”, closing two properties and imposing sanctions on Russian agencies. It was canny of Mr Putin to resist retaliating in kind. Mr Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian president, who has good grounds to hope that relations will thaw when his admirer enters office.
Mr Obama’s actions have not necessarily boxed his successor in. But they have made it more difficult to dismiss the allegations at hand. Should Mr Trump pursue an entente with Mr Putin regardless, the subject of cyber intrusions, and the parameters of what is acceptable, should form part of any discussion — even if it would be naive to believe Mr Putin could be a reliable partner.
More importantly, it is to be hoped this episode will encourage the US president-elect to adopt a more constructive approach to the intelligence agencies. It should also make clear to Congress the need to subject the incoming administration’s nominations to key security posts to thorough scrutiny, especially those who have also taken aim at the intelligence agencies.
The dangers of having a US president fundamentally at odds with the FBI and CIA should not need spelling out. First, there is self interest. The CIA knows a lot. Pursuing good relations with its spies is a prudent course for any president. The second point relates to the integrity of institutions that are vital to the running of the US federal government. Mr Trump needs to underline his support for independent intelligence advice that is not politically directed, and that produces actionable findings. The alternative, where no information is deemed reliable, is a scary one.
Source: Financial Times
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