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The Trauma of 2016 (spy scandal, part 2)
If we take the spy scandal seriously, we give ourselves a chance to heal
The McGonigal spy scandal brings with it the trauma of 2016. Russian support for Trump put us on this timeline: the one with the covid deaths, the Putin worship, the coup attempt, the Big Lie. But the enduring source of pain, I think, is our half-awareness that this did not have to happen, that we could have done better in 2016, that our institutions let us down. This is hard to face, but must be faced; and the arrest of FBI counterintelligence specialist Charles McGonigal gives us a chance.
An outrage played itself out before our eyes in 2016: a foreign country tried to choose our president. Too many journalists convinced themselves that Russia’s operation wasn't real, or didn't matter. People who wrote early on the Russian influence campaign, such as myself and Frank Foer, were well beyond the mainstream. Some of the people in law enforcement who should have been looking at Russia's operation not only looked away, but helped others to look away: I mean, in particular, important officials within the FBI.
One of those FBI officials might have been McGonigal, who was arrested on 23 January. He is accused of taking payments from a foreign actor while employed at the New York office, and then after his retirement illegally working for a Russian oligarch. If these charges prove true, it seems a bit unlikely that they would have been isolated incidents. If he took money from other foreign actors while employed by the FBI, did he take money from Russians then? If he took money from Russians after leaving the FBI, did he do so earlier?
McGonigal arrived to run counterintelligence in the FBI's New York bureau during the most consequential month of contemporary American history, October 2016, at the very moment when actions taken by Russians and by FBI officials gave Trump the edge over Clinton. Up to that point, McGonigal had been in charge of cyber counterintelligence at the FBI main office. In both of his jobs in 2016, he was in a position to expose Russia's operation for Trump, something he did not do. He was also in a position to harm his country -- and it is reasonable now to ask (as Craig Unger has done) whether he did so. In this connection, it is also reasonable to ask whether McGonigal and colleagues knowingly spun journalists away from the Russia story.
As I wrote last time, the FBI helped Trump in 2016 in two ways. Its inquiry (DC office, McGonigal present through October 2016) into his connections with Russia was framed in such a narrow way (person-to-person contacts) that Trump could use it as his own defense, and did so. Some FBI special agents (New York office, McGonigal present from October 2016) managed to make it public that Hillary Clinton was being investigated for her emails, at a time when the election was being decided. In this essay, I will be discussing a third possible way: moving the press coverage of Russia's actions in a way that served Trump.
McGonigal seems to have been investigated because he left bags of money lying around his girlfriend's apartment. Mattathias Schwartz, who broke the story of the investigation of McGonigal last year, brings us the piquant detail. As he quotes the former girlfriend: "Charlie McGonigal knew everybody in the national security and law-enforcement world. He fooled them all. So why should I feel bad that he was able to deceive me?" By that logic, of course, the FBI (and other intelligence agencies) should feel very bad indeed. And perhaps anyone who relied on McGonigal as a source should feel a twinge as well.
According to the indictment, McGonigal was employed after his (early) retirement from the FBI by Oleg Deripaska. He is the Russian aluminum magnate at the center of the Russian pro-Trump influence operation that it had been McGonigal's responsibility to investigate. I stressed this last time, and so here will just make the point by-the bye: this looks horrible for Trump. One of Trump's connections to Russia was his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who had worked for Deripaska, and who treated his job for Trump as a way to pay off a debt to Deripaska. When it now turns out that one of the key FBI officials who was investigating Deripaska (as the indictment states) went on to work for that very Russian oligarch. If the people who run Trump's campaign and investigate Trump's campaign have been employees of the same Russian oligarch, it is hard to dismiss that as a coincidence.
Trump's response to the 2016 Russian operation has been to claim that the FBI invented it to frame him. The opposite seems closer to the truth: in 2016, important officials in the FBI diverted American attention from the ongoing Russian operation, and in so doing gave Trump his chance to become president. Nate Silvers crunched the numbers long ago; even on his most conservative estimate, FBI director James Comey's late-October announcement that Hillary Clinton was under investigation was enough to make the difference for Trump.
On Comey's account, his hand was forced in October 2016 by FBI New York, which otherwise would have leaked the same information. McGonigal was then in charge of counterintelligence in New York. If FBI New York was willing to leak to hurt Clinton and help Trump, one ethical barrier was not holding. It then becomes all the more reasonable to ask about other ethical barriers, such as (knowing or unknowing, paid or unpaid) participation in a foreign influence operation. If the indictment is correct, McGonigal took cash as an FBI special agent from foreigners to influence opinions. So this spy scandal is an opportunity to revisit the Russian influence operation of 2016, and to ask who, for whatever motive, and with whatever degree of awareness, helped bring it to fruition, and bring Trump to power.
One of the villains in this piece is, sadly, the New York Times, as writers for some rival newspapers have pointed out: just now Will Bunch in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Erik Wemple in the Washington Post three years ago. The particular focus of criticism is a Times story that ran on 26 October 2016 under the surreal headline "Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia." The newspaper of record was saying that there was no Russia story, and doing so right before the election.
The New York Times not only missed the biggest story of 2016, it dismissed it, in a way that did harm. Two days later, the New York Times would pay tremendous attention to another FBI investigation, the one which was about nothing, which is to say about Hillary Clinton's emails. It is worth asking to what extent the Times became useful to Trump and Russia as a result of its FBI sources, who of course themselves would bear some responsibility. But it is also necessary to ask about the journalistic practices that made this collapse possible.
In this essay, I want to revisit that New York Times article, as a historical document. It will certainly figure in the history of the 2016 election, and indeed already does, as political folklore that helps reveal the deeper American crisis of the moment. Kathleen Hall Jamieson expertly showed how Russian disinformation shaped the media atmosphere such that a bizarre headline like "Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia" could see the light of day. I also return to the article as a possible indicator of what FBI New York (McGonigal?) was doing in the weeks before the election. In the concision and timeliness with which the article misled readers, it is suggestive of something malignant.
For me personally, journalists are the heroes of our time, representing the most honorable profession, which is desperately needed here and around the world to preserve democracy. But there are better and worse ways of reporting, and we need the better ones. In the passages I pick out below, we encounter seven deadly sins of American-style journalism: (1) the implicit definition of reality as American official opinion; (2) the conflation of a specific American official's statement with a fact about the world; (3) the disinterest in facts that are bountifully and readily at hand (and contradict the official opinion or at least call it into question); (4) a provincial indifference to the rest of the world (in a story which purports to be about another country); (5) the reduction of events in American politics to a gossip game between two "sides"; (6) the concession of gossip-game space to whoever gives the best quotation (even when that person is known to lie and has a stake in lying, in this case Roger Stone); (7) and the pretense that refereeing a gossip game is objectivity.
I want to start with a brief statement that figures late in the article: an aside, a minor element of a narrative pile-on designed to convince the reader that even the most obvious connections between Trump and Russia have not panned out. The article offers a reassurance that Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is not being investigated in connection with Russia, but instead for his work for a "kleptocratic government in Ukraine." The reader might understandably conclude that nothing connected Manafort and Russia. And that would be entirely incorrect. (By the way, this rhetorical strategy -- "it's not Russia, it's Ukraine! And Ukraine is corrupt!" -- is now very familiar, brought to us constantly by Russian war propaganda, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Rudolph Giuliani, Tucker Carlson, and other Americans who worked alongside, endorsed, or helped cover up the Russian operation of 2016. The people who went along the Russian operation then tend to go along with the Russian invasion now).
There is an imprecision in the claim about Manafort, one that precedes the errors. What is meant in the article is not a "Ukrainian government" but rather a Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. And that president was pro-Russian, which is pertinent but not mentioned, as is the fact that his cause had been supported by a Russian social media campaign -- like the one that was underway in 2016 to support Trump. It was also relevant that Russia had tried manipulate a recent presidential election in Ukraine, and was caught doing so. For all of these reasons, the move to change the subject from Russia to Ukraine was spurious at best.
Beyond even that: Manafort's specific personal connection to Ukraine went through Russia. Manafort had indeed been the main advisor to the Ukrainian president, Yanukovych, before he was the main advisor to the American candidate, Trump. Before that, though, he had worked directly for Russia, paid by Deripaska, to soften the United States for Russian influence. Manafort was dispatched from Russia to Ukraine by Deripaska to help Yanukovych win. Rather than dismissing Manafort by association with Ukraine, it would have made sense to ask whether such a Deripaska-Manafort-candidate configuration was repeating itself in the U.S., as indeed it was. While Trump's campaign manager, Manafort regarded himself as in debt to Deripaska, in the material sense that he owed Deripaska money. He saw his work for Trump as a way to "get whole."
And of course, it was that very same Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, who then (according to the indictment) went on to employ Charles McGonigal, which raises questions about the loyalties and motivations of the FBI sources in October 2016. If (just a hypothesis now) Deripaska and McGonigal were already an item in 2016, it would have been in both men's interest to spin press stories in the direction of Ukraine rather than Russia. If we do not know about McGonigal's arrest, and we assume the good faith of the FBI, the article reads as though FBI New York (and through them the reporters) were fooled by the Russian operation. After McGonigal's arrest, less generous interpretations will get a hearing.
And so even from this one detail in the story, the treatment of Paul Manafort, much that is problematic emerges. Now let us move to the top of the article, to its thesis: "And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump." Here, at least from a readerly perspective, official opinion is being conflated with reality. The reader will have no reason to think that there is any gap between the two, since the article rarely ventures from anonymous sources into the world beyond. The implicit claim about the world (only "disrupting") is wrong, and the explicit claim about the official state of mind ("now believe") is also wrong -- but it is hard to notice either, since the world is not present in the article to check the anonymous sources.
An apparently minor point: who are "FBI and intelligence officials"? What does that ambiguous formulation actually mean? Some people in the FBI (such as McGonigal) do intelligence work, but it is a law enforcement organization. Does it mean FBI special agents who work in intelligence in their own organization? That would point pretty directly at McGonigal and his colleagues. Or does it mean some FBI people and some intelligence people from other bodies? There are more than a dozen American intelligence organizations. A reader might get the impression that there was a consensus among them that Russia did not intend to support Trump. But that was not the case. The institutions tasked with intelligence had already assigned to Russia the intent of aiding Trump. That is how U.S. senators had been briefed the previous month. Perhaps neither the New York Times nor its FBI sources knew that at the time. Perhaps the sources were ignorant, perhaps they were conflating personal views with a policy community as a whole, or perhaps they were lying.
But it very important to look beyond the quotations from anonymous sources to the world outside, because the world outside generously supplies the evidence that makes sources look like motivated liars. Maybe the FBI sources knew that the CIA attributed the specific intention of helping Trump to Russia, maybe they did not. But no one in a responsible position in FBI counterintelligence could seriously have doubted the basic facts: that the Russian hacking of emails from leading Democrats and Democratic Party institutions led to further Russian actions that helped Trump.
There is an obvious circumstantial point that somehow dodged being made in the article: the Russians hacked the Democrats. They then used the available raw materials to harm the Democrats. The Russian leaking of emails revealing strife between supporters of the two main Democratic candidates in spring 2016 cannot have been about disrupting the presidential election. The point was to divide and weaken the Democrats. Making public the contact information of Democratic party officials was obviously meant to wreak havoc in their lives, which it did.
Those Russian actions took place before the candidates were even nominated. The Russians tried to hurt Clinton before she was the Democratic nominee, and they tried to help Trump win the Republican nomination. Russia's Internet Research Agency went to work on its social media campaign for Trump in June 2015, right after he announced his candidacy. This was just days, incidentally, after the Times itself published Adrien Chen's wonderful reporting on the Internet Research Agency, an article which led with an operation the Russians had recently carried out inside the United States.
When Trump called upon the Russians to hack and release Clinton's private emails in July 2016, no one (least of all he) thought that there was any risk that they Russians might do the same to him instead. In the weeks before the Times article was published, the Russians again and again acted to hurt Clinton and help Trump. Russian bots and trolls worked hard to exaggerate Clinton's illness on September 11th, and to praise Trump during and after the presidential debates. As Jamieson argues, the leaked emails created the basis for questions in two of the debates; Russians curated a misleading excerpt associating Clinton with "open borders," which then figured in a debate. On October 7th, the Access Hollywood tape revealed Trump to be an advocate of sexual assault. Less than an hour after it was released, Russia countered with John Podesta's emails, which were worked into fictional Clinton scandals which were obviously meant to (and did) rescue Trump.
It is possible, I suppose, that neither the Times reporters nor the FBI sources had noticed any of this (and there is much more -- see Road to Unfreedom). It would be odd if they had not, but let us admit the possibility. Even then, a claim from FBI New York that Russia had nothing to do with Trump would be unexpected, given all that FBI New York knew from its own investigations in previous years and decades. As we know from Unger's work, FBI New York had abundant reasons to connect Trump, the Russian state, and Russian organized crime, beginning in the 1980s, from the use of Trump Tower to launder Russian money, to the strange Russian investments through a company called Bayrock. McGonigal himself was assigned to work on Russian organized crime in New York in the 1990s. Knowing this, a categorical dismissal of a connection between Trump and Russia by FBI New York is puzzling.
It could, of course, have something to do with the friendships Trump cultivated among some FBI special agents in New York, or with a political preference for Trump, or with something worse. It is odd that FBI sources would be quiet about Trump's decades of connections with Russians, but also odd that the Times would allow the categorical negation of a link to be published without at least a gesture to long-time connections about which reporters covering local beats might have known.
The assignation of "disrupting the presidential election" as the Russian motive deserves critical attention in and of itself. This claim was wrong, of course, and knowably wrong at the time. What is interesting is its apparent plausibility to reporters. As far as I know, no one has ever presented evidence for the "disruption" motive from any Russian sources, at any point; whereas there was evidence (including Russian statements) that the idea was to get Trump into the White House. There is a great deal more of it now.
Let us accept for the sake of argument that "disruption" was Russia's aim. That would just mean that Russians would want Trump in office, since no outcome would be more disruptive than that. Trump came, Trump disrupted, and Russian propagandists celebrated, most of all around during Trump's coup attempt. The distinction between "disruption" and "Trump victory" is not one that Russians would have made in 2016, nor for that matter one that Trump voters, or pretty much anyone else, would have made. It speaks to a very specific political sensibility to imagine that Trump was a figure of law and order. It does seem that some people in FBI New York thought just that. Of course, it would be a very bad thing if political preferences led FBI special agents to speak to the press in one way rather than another. In the context we are now in, however, this is among the most innocent of the possible explanations.
The "disruption" thesis was supported by no evidence (that I know of, or that was provided in the article), and made no sense in light of available evidence. Why then was it accepted by New York Times reporters, and made the centerpiece of an important article? I have an intuition. The idea that Russia did not back a side but just had a kind of distant interest in a balanced disruption might have appealed to a sensibility within the Times. There are two sides to every story, goes the received wisdom, and so we must shape stories so that they have two sides. If Russia backed Trump, that would be very inconvenient for the Times, because where then to seek the "other side" of the story? How welcome, then, to imagine that the Kremlin was not taking a side. It is almost as if someone understood how to manipulate the Times.
A final problem is precisely the bothsidesism that structures the entire article. Here is a sample: "The FBI's inquiry into Russia's possible role continues, as does the investigation into the emails involving Mrs. Clinton's top aide, Huma Abedin, on a computer she shared with her estranged husband, Anthony D. Wiener." This sentence, with its weird juxtaposition and overextended clauses, reads like a tweet from the NYTpitchbot on a good day. The reporters were unable just to write a story about Trump and Russia (or even negating Trump and Russia). They had to bring in an issue that had no bearing on the Trump-Russia question, just to serve the weird purpose of "balance."
This is a failure of journalism. If you have the story, write the story. It is not writing the story when you use the existence of another investigation to segue from Putin to Wiener. The English language bears such a sentence grammatically, if just barely, but that is no reason that it had to come into existence. The two scandals were of an entirely different structure and scale. One is still going on, and the other was dismissed after a few days. One was of world historical importance, and the other was piffle. The underlying problem is that the habit of juxtaposing one thing and another always serves a purpose that is not journalistic but political. They idea that one should generate "both sides" is an a priori view about politics, not a way of approaching reality. Its consequences are political, as they must be, and as they were in this case. By equating two things that were not at all equal, the Times made it more likely that Trump would win and that Clinton would lose a presidential election.
Of course, it makes sense for a reporter to ask people in different positions for their views. It is hard work to cultivate sources and to keep them, and that has to be respected. The problem is the shoehorning of the variety of perspective and the abundance of fact into two (always two!) "sides," and then confusing that method with the story itself, or with reality itself. Rather than reporting on things that Russia actually did, the Times reporters describe real-world events as the claims of "Clinton supporters" and "Democrats." On an occasion that a fact about the world is mentioned -- that Roger Stone predicted the release of John Podesta's emails -- Stone is given a nice long chance to take over the article with rhetoric. The reader is to understand that Democrats and Clinton supporters make some claims, and that Republicans and Trump supporters make some other claims. But then comes the FBI, presented not as a political entity like the others, but as the arbiter of the truth -- even though what the FBI sources had to say was implausible, suspicious, and wrong. But the hammer falls. The Democrats and the Clinton supporters are wrong. The Republicans and the Trump supporters are right. The New York Times has spoken. And Roger Stone, amazingly but somehow appropriately, gets the article's last word.
We understand that the FBI sources are the article's heroes when we read that "the FBI has come under intense partisan political pressure." The story ignores the people who suffered directly and personally from Russia's actions, such as Democrats whose personal details were exposed and who were then subject to harassment and death threats. Mentioning that would have drawn the reader too close to the social reality of the Russian operation, putting at risk the framework in which politicians make claims and journalists referee. The stress on "partisan political pressure" on the FBI also leads the reader to think the partisans were outside the FBI. It did not seem to occur to the reporters that they themselves were being subjected by their FBI sources to intense political pressure (whether as partisans for themselves, Trump, or Russia is now the question).
The New York Times missed the Russian story. Having missed it, it should not have dismissed it. If the editors knew nothing about the Russian operation, they should have run nothing about the Russian operation. Not knowing about something is not the same thing as knowing that it does not exist. An analogy can help here. Imagine that it is your job to monitor guns to know whether they are loaded or not. And then let us imagine that you neglect your job. Someone asks you whether a gun is loaded. What should you do? Obviously, you should admit your failure, and say that you don't know, that we should check. The New York Times did the opposite. It was its job to cover a story. When it failed, it should have admitted that it did not have a story, and not run a story. Instead, Times reporters told us that the gun was not loaded. It looks very possible that they told us so on the basis of statements from men who helped to load the gun. And then the gun went off.
I have spent a lot of time analyzing one article, and in a sense this is unfair. The New York Times obviously does wonderful work. Editors have let me publish (in the opinion section) unorthodox claims that proved true, such as that Russia was supporting Trump, and that Russia would invade Ukraine. In the New York Times Magazine I have been able to publish two of the essays of which I am most proud, on January 6th, and on American memory laws. And of course the mistake that was made in 2016 was not made by the Times alone. It was a general trend in American journalism (with some honorable exceptions, such as David Corn in Mother Jones) to resist reporting on Russia's operation, and instead to take cues from it, by following the tidbits that the email hacks provided. By November 2016, there was a huge amount of reporting on the basis of sources that Russians had selected, and almost no reporting about the Russians doing the selecting.
To be sure, our problems with journalism flowed from some larger national problems. Even so, it is important to learn from mistakes, on the scale that we can do so. If a newspaper with a proud reporterly tradition got 2016 wrong, we should not disregard this as an isolated incident, but try to explain why. The same holds for law enforcement. I know that there are FBI special agents who do devoted and courageous work every day. I understand that some of them took a quite different view about Trump and Russia in 2016. But to get out from under the trauma of 2016, we will have to ask some hard questions.
The FBI did eventually investigate Trump and Russia, but only after he was elected, which complicated the matter hugely. The real question is: why did that take so long? Why did the FBI help to kill a story that it would then pick up itself only three months later? Might that have to do with the New York bureau? And, it must be asked, with McGonigal personally? We are instructed that the McGonigal case is just a matter of a single career gone wrong. That implausible suggestion is a sign that more reflection needs to be done. Some elements of the FBI got 2016 profoundly wrong, presumably in ways that can teach people who care about the institution how it might be improved.
We cannot undo or redo 2016, but we can recognize and address our own failures. The tendency not to take other countries seriously, to imagine that all that matters is what happens here, to confuse what is said with what is happening: these are all American mistakes, which we keep making. We pay for them in the currency of conscience during this spy scandal, while Ukrainians pay for them in the currency of blood as they resist Russian invasion. It would be a shame to miss the chance to reevaluate 2016 afforded to us by this spy scandal. If we do not take this opportunity to reflect, we will deepen the trauma of that year, and ensure that is continues, through the institutions that we would like to trust, and down the generations whom we would like to spare the repetition of such terrible events.
2 February 2023
PS 6 February 2023: I have corrected some typos. I have also been reminded by readers that the New York Times once had a public editor, whose job it was to address issues such as these. After taking a first stab at addressing precisely the issue I discuss here, the public editor was fired and not replaced. This makes things look no better for the Times, but it does suggest a simple in-house solution: restore the position of public editor.
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