The men and women running the most sensitive and technically complex aspects of U.S. national security policy feel they cannot trust President Donald Trump enough to brief him on what they’re doing, the New York Times reported Saturday.
This detail comes deep within a piece that doesn’t reveal this scoop in its headline, “U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid.” Nevertheless, it would appear to be a major story, in and of itself.
The report is comprised largely of the sort of posturing and technical gloss that the headline suggests, the latest example of the router-rattling nat-sec story that’s replaced the saber-rattling front-page story of old. Times readers must commit deeply enough to reach the 22nd paragraph of the piece before learning that Trump’s own national security and web-combat officials believe him to be unreliable.
Make it that far, though, and you’ll learn that cybersecurity officials who have spent the past few years trying to catch up with Russian and Chinese cyberweapons “described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials.”
Trump has spilled national security beans to Russian officials at least once, telling Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about military plans and related intelligence-gathering methods in Syria back in 2017. He has also ordered the destruction of translators’ records from his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two-year Special Counsel’s Office investigation revealed the depth and length of personal connections between significant public and private Russian figures and Trump associates during the 2016 presidential campaign. Public scrutiny of Trump’s Russia ties has also pushed renewed public attention onto his long-standing business ambitions in Russia and the role that such projects played in the financial tightrope-walking of The Trump Organization during the years when almost every major banking organization in the world had decided he was not creditworthy.
The Times report that senior U.S. security figures do not trust their president with cybersecurity information related to Russia does not directly link that recalcitrance to Trump’s personal or business interactions with Russian nationals. It instead cites the 2017 leak of Syrian intelligence sources and methods as emblematic of the intelligence community’s distrust of Trump.
The president, for his part, accused the Times of treason for publishing the story.
Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia. This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2019
It was not immediately clear from the leader of the free world’s tweets whether he meant that publishing information about U.S. cybersecurity operations was traitorous, or that the paper had been disloyal in reporting that he was being cut out of the loop by the people running those operations.
The former would make little sense. The Times story bears hallmarks of a longstanding genre of national security reporting in which governments use the press to influence their counterparts inside other nation-states.
The buried nugget about a Commander in Chief supposedly regarded as too leaky to trust with sensitive security information sets Saturday’s report apart from that venerated genre of news story.
The Times story’s central, leading information break is a report that savvy U.S. operatives are already burrowed deep inside Putin’s electrical grid, ready to flick a doomsday switch at will. This is a well-established genre of spycraft-as-journalism news item, as security expert Marcy Wheeler observed on Saturday. The point of a story about a super-secret, devilishly effective intelligence, counterintelligence, or cybersecurity operation is often that the spyfare types want the world at large to believe they possess such a devilishly effective mystery-shrouded supertool.
You could fill a textbook trying to catalog the full legacy of intelligence operators encouraging reporters to portray them as far ahead of their enemies. But the new cybersecurity frontier alone has presented a smattering of examples in recent years.
Saturday’s Times story almost rhymes with a November 2016 item from NBC News headlined “U.S. Hackers Ready to Hit Back If Russia Tries to Disrupt Election.” The Times itself offers another example from that same pre-election window in 2016, in a lengthy piece under the banner “Biden Hints at U.S. Response to Russia for Cyberattacks.”
Indeed, the Times itself acknowledges that U.S. officials might be using the paper to get into Russian heads. An aside in Saturday’s story — flagged up by the official Times communications department twitter account after the president labeled the journalists traitors — notes that U.S. officials’ sanguine reaction to the Times’ inquiries were “perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians.”.