Ever notice how the Russia-gate scandals are coming faster now, one after another, like plot twists in a noir film? As an experienced reader of spy fiction, I don’t think all the leaks are coming from low-level staff---looks more like they’re coming from retired (that is, fired) intelligence analysts. How do I know? The information is organized so neatly the journalists don’t even have to edit it that much.
This becomes clearer when one reads Malcolm Nance’s fascinating book "The Plot to Hack America---How Putin’s Cyberspies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election." It’s a quick read, and at present easily the best book on the subject. But what’s really killer about the Nance book is the appendix, which contains extremely revealing assessments made by American intelligence agencies, all presented in an unclassified format.
Nance, besides being a good writer, also has a background in intelligence work, which shows in the professionalism of his analysis. “Many of the conclusions that were included in the consensus opinion of the principal three intelligence agencies, the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, are identical to The Plot to Hack America,” says the appendix.
Appearing in this same appendix was also intriguing comment: “It should be noted that the intelligence community conclusions in this and the CIA report were written at the same time that the author was writing this book, and delivered to the president on the exact same date, September 23, 2016, [while] The Plot to Hack America was released in an online edition. This is because both the intelligence community and the author worked on the exact same subject, for the exact same time period, using the same methodologies and came to the exact same conclusions at the exact same time.”
Remember how Trump picked a fight with the intelligence agencies, calling them incompetent and stupid? Big mistake.
But why are the intelligence professionals — some cashiered and some perhaps still on the job — involved at all? Because it has become increasingly clear that Trump and his retinue have engaged in some extremely un-American attacks on the U.S. Constitution, not to mention the election statutes, that are slowly, but surely, taking us into an ugly constitutional crisis.
And when push comes to shove, intelligence professionals are patriots who refuse to stand aside and let America get sold out to the authoritarian thugs in the Kremlin.
The result is a new and extremely interesting alignment of political interests. In the past, the liberals, the democratic Left, and thoughtful centrists, have generally considered themselves the enemies of the intelligence services---and for good reason. During the Cold War, the CIA undermined democracy throughout the developing world, set up death squads throughout Latin America, supported Pinochet’s concentration camps in Chile, and unleashed a genocide against the Ixil people in Guatemala.
But that was during the Cold War. Things have changed a bit since then.
With time’s healing hindsight, we can see what went wrong. Collecting intelligence is absolutely necessary for modern nations to navigate a complex and dangerous world. Problem is, collecting information is rarely enough for the conflicted types who run intelligence agencies, and sooner or later they want to go operational. Instead of trying to understanding how the world works, they want to change it, usually violently.
But the original, primary impulse of intelligence work—understanding how power works in real time---is still good. And that brings me to my main point.
I propose a truce---cooperation, actually---between political and cultural progressives and intelligence operatives who are in the best position to understand how negative power works. Cyber warfare is the biggest challenge America faces, and not just to our electoral system. It consists of a sophisticated attack on the way free people communicate, layered with highly-targeted digital propaganda aimed at changing the way people perceive reality.
With the help of experts like Nance -- who understand how the new threat is likely to play out -- we can oppose it without violating our traditional values. The intelligence agencies are not perfect, and we civilians should denounce them when necessary.
But precisely because they know more than we do about new modes of illegitimate power, people like Nance are an invaluable source of information regarding the latest and most dangerous battle for democracy. The truth is, we may need such experts more than they need us before the struggle is over.