When Hillary Clinton claimed “17 intelligence agencies” agree on Russian meddling in the third presidential debate, a host of media outlets including The New York Times rated the claim as 100 percent true. Nine months later, those same outlets say the stat is obviously false, and there’s been a “simple” explanation as to why all along.
A closer look at how the claim survived and thrived over those nine months reveals a startling lack of skepticism in the press when it comes to the Russia narrative. The truth is the great majority of the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community had nothing to do with the investigation and made no judgments about the matter.
“The reason the views of only those four intelligence agencies, not all 17, were included in the assessment is simple: They were the ones tracking and analyzing the Russian campaign,” The New York Times now reports. “The rest were doing other work.”
Strange admission for the paper, since its star political reporter recently reiterated the false claim as she was in the middle of writing an article characterizing President Trump as stubbornly foolish.
“The latest presidential tweets were proof to dismayed members of Mr. Trump’s party that he still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help him get elected,” Maggie Haberman wrote. Her story was later corrected to reflect the — basic fact — that only three agencies working under the Director of National Intelligence contributed to the intelligence community’s conclusion.
A few days later, the Associated Press echoed that correction in a “clarification” bulletin acknowledging there’s no truth to the claim the wire service had repeatedly blasted out for publication to news outlets all over the world.
The bizarrely timed corrections put the media in a bit of a truth pickle, especially after Trump drew attention to the corrections at a high-profile press conference in Poland. “They had to apologize, and they had to correct,” he noted.
The New York Times, CNN and others quickly spun up articles and tweets aimed at steering the conversation away from this uncomfortable truth about their proliferation of an outright false claim, and back to the more comfortable “isn’t Trump an idiot?” narrative.
The New York Times took it a step further, dismissing the truth of the claim as a “technicality” and then accusing Trump of spreading a “misleading” narrative by correcting the record. Their headline on a story about Trump calling them out for pushing a bogus claim: “Trump Misleads on Russian Meddling: Why 17 Intelligence Agencies Don’t Need to Agree.”
But that uncomfortable truth remains. The “17 intelligence agencies” embellishment is frighteningly easy to catch. A cursory glance of the DNI website would show the truth. More importantly, the sheer length of time the falsehood stood in public record at the highest echelons of media betrays an astounding lack of scrutiny on other points in the Russia narrative, which are often sourced to political operatives and anonymous “officials.”
Let’s look at how this happened, and what it says about the media’s overall credibility in the Russia collusion narrative, from the top.
The claim can be traced straight back to candidate Clinton in the third presidential debate, remarking on Russian meddling a few weeks after the DNI released a statement on the investigation. The press didn’t demonstrate any interest in the number of agencies that signed off on the Oct. 7 statement, until Clinton unleashed the “17” number in the debate (other than a CNN report incorrectly claiming there are 19 intelligence agencies).
She was clearly trying to add some umpf to the DNI assessment and pour cold water on Trump’s skepticism about Russia’s attempt to influence the election. She even repeated the number twice, firmly planting it in the record.
“I think that this is such an unprecedented situation,” Clinton said. “We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17, 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyber attacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin. And they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”
Trump took the bait.
“She has no idea whether it is Russia, China or anybody else,” he replied, setting off a back and forth that would be reiterated over and over in the press as evidence he was in denial about Russian meddling. “I am quoting 17, 17 — do you doubt?” Clinton said, and Trump responded definitively: “Our country has no idea. … Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.”
With that, Hillary’s claim was up and off.
Journalists highlighted the talking point on Twitter as they covered the debate. And the fact checks came rolling in. The New York Times, Politico, ABC News, Politifact and PBS all rated the claim as totally true the night of the debate. Before the night ended The New York Times was using Clinton’s number with authority in its reporting, saying in a debate wrap up that Trump had “refused” to acknowledge “the unanimous conclusion of America’s 17 intelligence agencies.”
The following day the number popped up in reports from Politico and Defense One, quickly divorced from its context as a debate talking point and transformed into an indisputable fact attached to Trump-Russia stories.
“The Office of the Director of National Intelligence collects and coordinates for the President the information and analysis from the 17 agencies that make up U.S. national intelligence collection,” a line in the Defense One report on “Trump’s Denial” stated.
Politico hadn’t previously used the 17 figure in reporting on Russian meddling, but now framed it as common knowledge that Clinton had to “explain” to Trump: “As Clinton tried to explain that the Russian role is the finding of 17 military and civilian intelligence agencies, Trump cut her off: ‘I doubt it.’”
The fact checks continued to roll in. USA Today wrote a particularly aggressive check on the claim headlined “Yes, 17 intelligence agencies really did say Russia was behind hacking.” The article confidently asserted, “Clinton is correct.”
All of these “fact checks” and reports were wrong, of course, as has since been made ultra clear. As The New York Times now concedes, the truth about her claim was obviously false from the start. Any reporter capable of operating Google could have looked up a list of the intelligence agencies in question, and ruled out almost half in just minutes.
The Department of Energy, Treasury and Drug Enforcement agencies can be dismissed out of hand. The military service intelligence organizations can’t legally operate on U.S. soil. Add the Coast Guard and we’re tentatively at eight remaining intel agencies under DNI. The Defense Intelligence Agency is also unlikely. Geospatial intelligence? Definitely not. National recon office? Not unless a political influence campaign has something to do with a missile launch or natural disaster.
That leaves us with State Department intelligence, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and NSA. Five tops, narrowed down at the speed of common sense and Google.
Sure, the October DNI report was presented as the conclusion of the intelligence community, which does consist of 16 separate agencies headed up by the DNI. At first glance, her claim might seem perfectly reasonable to someone unfamiliar with the makeup of the intelligence community. But it’s journalistic malpractice to do a fact-check level review of her claim that each agency separately reviewed and judged the campaign, without so much as hinting at the obvious likelihood that most of them weren’t involved.
Nevertheless, the claim persisted.
“All 17 U.S. Intelligence agencies believe the Russians are behind that leak,” ABC host George Stephanopoulos told Trump in an October interview. “Why don’t you believe it?”
“[Trump] has consistently denied any link between the hackers and the Kremlin, despite 17 intelligence agencies’ claims to the contrary,” the Daily Beast reported that same day.
NBC News dropped Hillary’s number nugget in a December report on the Obama White House asking the intelligence community for a dossier on the hacking assessment. The resulting report would be shared with the public, White House counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco said at the time.
“Monaco used careful language, calling it a ‘full review of what happened during the 2016 election process,’” NBC reported. “But since the U.S. government has already said that all 17 intelligence agencies agree Russia was behind the hacks, Monaco’s meaning was clear.”
Reuters, too, touted the number in a December report that characterizes the DNI as a “17-agency strong” operation.
The declassified DNI report that followed in January provided new details on the assessment that dumped ice-cold water on the “17 intelligence agencies agree” claim. The conclusion was drawn only from the NSA, CIA and FBI, the report said. (The New York Times conceded this in a break down of the report, although the claim would later make its way back into the paper’s pages.)
A few months later former national intelligence director James Clapper reiterated the truth in a high-profile congressional hearing about Russian interference, opting to correct the record without any partisan prompting.
“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,” he said in his opening remarks. “Those three under the aegis of my former office.”
And when Democrat Sen. Al Franken reiterated the false claim later in the hearing, Clapper once again made a point of correcting the record.
“The intelligence communities have concluded — all 17 of them — that Russia interfered with this election,” Franken said. “And we all know how that’s right.”
Clapper interjected: “Senator, as I pointed out in my statement, Senator Franken, it was, there were only three agencies directly involved in this assessment, plus my office.”
“But all 17 signed on to that?” Franken pressed.
“Well, we didn’t go through that, that process,” Clapper replied, again shooting down the claim as utterly false. “This was a special situation because of the time limits … we decided … to restrict it to those three.”
So not only was the assessment only made by three of the 16 agencies working under the DNI, but also Clapper indicated here that none of the other agencies even signed off on the report before it was released. Yes, none of them dissented. But why would they, since they didn’t have independent evidence to suggest otherwise?
At this point in the life of Hillary’s debate talking point, there’s just no credible way to rate the claim as true. The DNI report made the truth explicit, and Clapper had now reiterated that truth in a very public setting.
Yet just a few weeks later Clinton unabashedly reiterated the “17 agencies agree” claim in an interview with the tech outlet recode, and as if on cue the media once more began spreading it around.
“Read the declassified report by the intelligence community that came out in early January,” Clinton said. “17 agencies, all in agreement – which I know from my experience as a senator and secretary of state is hard to get – they concluded with ‘high confidence’ that the Russians ran an extensive information war against my campaign to influence voters in the election.”
A little while later the bogus claim showed up in an AP report, after The Daily Caller News Foundation fact checked Clinton’s claim in the interview and found it false. And then twice more in June before the “clarification” memo was published. Stephanopolous was back at it as well in a June 11 interview with Republican Sen. Mike Lee. And then that Haberman report in The New York Times on the 25th echoing the claim, which was rather strangely corrected four days later.
After all this, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta actually accused Trump on Thursday of pushing “fake news” by saying the conclusion only came from “three or four” agencies. “Where does that number come from?” Acosta asked.
The timing of the AP and NYT corrections are a bit of a mystery, but for whatever reason the press is now collectively saying Trump is correct in his push back on the “17 agencies” claim. And that’s got the narrative a bit tangled. After initially doubling down on the “true” rating of Clinton’s debate claim, Politifact is now bizarrely also rating the claim mostly false in a separate fact check.
So we’re left with that uncomfortable truth. The establishment press uncritically “vetted” and embraced a Clinton campaign talking point designed to make Trump look foolish, divorced it of its political context and reiterated it word-of-God style for more than six months — all the time either ignoring or missing entirely easily obtainable information proving it false — and then suddenly reversed course on the claim weeks after it was unambiguously and authoritatively debunked.
We live in a world where r/the_donald — a Reddit thread teeming with Trump supporters — proved more shrewd than The New York Times and the Associated Press when vetting an important claim about the Russia investigation.
The truth about this “17 intel agencies” claim matters, not so much because of what it says about the intelligence community’s conclusion on Russian meddling, but because of what it says about the establishment media’s conclusion on Russian meddling.
Haberman and her ilk seem intent on casting Trump as a loner bordering on a nervous breakdown, maniacally watching the news at all hours, hollering at staff and generally acting like a buffoon. And there’s the almost daily implication that Trump personally coordinated a hacking campaign with Russia, an implication grounded in no hard evidence despite a lengthy investigation.
The fact is many of these narratives bear all the same hallmarks as the “17 intelligence agencies” mess.
Sources often appear to be politically motivated, like Clinton. They show up in bizarre numbers, like “dozens” or “more than 30.” Anecdotes seem almost questionable at face value. An astonishing number of hastily reported or vaguely sourced “scoops” turn out to be totally wrong when the subject of the story corrects the record.
In a report casting the White House as fraught and bordering on collapse, Haberman wrote that Trump likes to stew over cable news in a bathrobe. The White House refuted the anecdote in no uncertain terms the following day.
Based on the word of one anonymous source, The Washington Post reported that Russia had hacked the U.S. electrical grid. That was quickly proven false when the electric company, which the reporter had not bothered to contact before publishing, said in a statement the grid definitely was not hacked, and the “Russian hacker” may have been no hacker at all, but an employee who mistakenly visited an infected site on a work computer.
CNN reported that Former FBI Director James Comey would refute Trump’s claim the director told him three separate times he was not personally under investigation. Comey did no such thing. In fact he corroborated Trump’s account.
Just weeks after retracting a story on a wealthy Trump associate and Russia, CNN insisted for days Trump would not ask Putin about Russian meddling during their first meeting. Of course, the report depended on an anonymous source. Of course, it was wrong. One of the first things Trump did when he sat down with Putin was “press” him on the subject multiple times, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the room.
We could go on, but the point remains. The media is bent on supporting already foregone conclusions about Trump and Russian meddling, no matter what they have to scoop up or parrot or claim (or ignore) to do so. Sure, it’s a “basic fact” Russia meddled in the election. But for the media, it’s also just a “basic fact” that Trump likely colluded with Russia, and that he should be impeached, and that his White House is on the verge of literally disappearing into a sinkhole.
The facts they use to support these conclusions might as well be irrelevant.
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