Trump's Top Intelligence Official Is Fueling Wild Election Conspiracies

The Director of National Intelligence is pouring fuel on the fire of the Hunter Biden conspiracy theory being pushed by right-wing media.
October 20, 2020, 1:34pm
In this Jan. 30, 2010, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden, left, with his son Hunter, right (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)​
In this Jan. 30, 2010, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden, left, with his son Hunter, right (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
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During his confirmation hearing in May, John Ratcliffe dismissed concerns that his vocal support for President Donald Trump would get in the way of doing his new job as the U.S.’s top intelligence official.

“I will be entirely apolitical as the director of national intelligence,” Ratcliffe, now the DNI, pledged.

Fast-forward five months, and after releasing a raft of previously classified documents in an apparent attempt to undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Ratcliffe is now apparently willing to do whatever it takes to boost his boss’ reelection bid.

“Hunter Biden's laptop is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign," Ratcliffe told Fox Business on Monday.

A laptop allegedly belonging to the oldest son of Democratic nominee Joe Biden is at the center of a political storm after the New York Post last week published a story based on emails and other details taken from the laptop — which may or may not belong to Hunter Biden.

The FBI, which was contacted by the owner of a repair shop in Delaware where the laptop was handed in to be fixed, subpoenaed the contents of the hard drive, though it is unclear why they did.

But before handing it over to the FBI, the store owner made a copy of the hard drive, which he then gave to Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, who passed it to the Post.

The unverified contents of the hard drive have already fueled wild new conspiracy theories online, and Ratcliffe’s comments are likely to help boost those claims, even though he admitted he knew “little” about the case and that the intelligence community “has not been involved” in the investigation.

At a time when disinformation threatens to undermine the credibility of the upcoming presidential election, Ratcliffe’s comments are at best premature, and at worst, playing right into the hands of the Kremlin.

The FBI is reportedly investigating the possibility of Russian involvement in the Biden case, but these investigations typically take weeks or months. Ratcliffe’s premature comments “violated several cardinal rules” of the intelligence community, according to Ned Price, a former CIA intelligence analyst who served as a National Security Council spokesperson and special assistant to President Barack Obama.

“Among them, he inserted himself in the middle of a partisan issue, he at the very least lent the appearance that he was boosting the president's campaign, and he appears to have gotten ahead of intelligence analysis and law enforcement investigations,” Price told Defense One.

Ratcliffe’s comments have already been used by right-wing figures and websites as evidence to back up the claims made in the Post’s stories.

Dozens of former intelligence officials issued a stinging rebuke of Ratcliffe on Monday night.

“Our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case,” a group of more than 50 former senior intelligence officials said in a letter published by Politico.

“If we are right, this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election, and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this,” the letter continues.

The experts include former CIA Directors John Brennan, Michael Hayden, and Leon Panetta, and former DNI James Clapper. The list also includes former Trump officials such as Russ Travers, who served as National Counterterrorism Center acting director; Glenn Gerstell, the former NSA general counsel; Rick Ledgett, the former deputy NSA director; Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA senior operations officer; and Cynthia Strand, who served as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for global issues.

The experts say they don’t know if the emails provided by Giuliani to the Post are genuine or not, or if Russia was involved, but point out that the fallout from the story aligns perfectly with Moscow’s aims.

“Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives, as outlined publicly and recently by the Intelligence Community, to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump,” the letter reads.

Ratcliffe’s decision to publicly dismiss any Russian involvement is consistent with the Trump administration’s continued downplaying of the threat from Moscow ahead of the elections — despite repeated efforts by the intelligence community to warn that the risk remains high.

On Tuesday morning, Trump told Fox News that Hunter Biden’s “has nothing to do with Russia,” citing no evidence to back up the claim, but openly praising Ratcliffe’s decision to make his comments publicly.

Russia succeeded in 2016 because the U.S. was completely unprepared for the scale and sophistication of the disinformation campaigns Moscow was conducting. Four years on, the intelligence community and social networks are much more prepared to counter threats from abroad, but when the disinformation is coming from within, it is much more difficult to combat.

Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.

Facebook Suspends Account of Andrii Derkach, Who Helped Rudy Giuliani Dig Dirt On Biden

Facebook on Monday suspended the account of the Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, whom the U.S. government has been accused of being a Russian agent and trying to meddle in the presidential election.

“We removed this account and this Page for violating our policy against the use of our platform by people engaged in election-focused influence operations,” Facebook said in a statement.

Last month, the Department of the Treasury sanctioned Derkach for being “an active Russian agent for over a decade.” Giuliani has denied any knowledge that Derkach was a Russian agent, even though Trump was reportedly warned about Derkach’s links to Giuliani last year.

We Could Be About To Find Out Why Facebook and YouTube’s Algorithms Spread Disinformation

The Citizen Browser Project is an initiative designed “to measure how disinformation travels across social media platforms over time.” At the heart of this project is a new browser that aims to “audit the algorithms” social media platforms use to determine what information they show users. The project’s aim is to discover why Facebook and YouTube amplify one piece of content over another and why it recommends certain groups or accounts to follow.

The data will come from a sample of 1,200 people who will install the specially-designed browser. Given that Facebook and YouTube have both struggled to reign in their algorithms from spreading disinformation, this project might give us some insight into what’s really happening. But as journalist and author Charles Arthur notes in his Overspill newsletter, “I wonder how long will it take for Facebook to run a browser detection tool and try to block this sort of auditing.”

YouTube Banned QAnon, Then Livestreamed A Major QAnon Conference

Q Con Live took place in Scottsdale Plaza Resort in Paradise Valley, Arizona on Saturday. It saw some of the biggest names in the Q universe gather to talk about all aspects of the baseless conspiracy theory. Among the topics of conversation among the attendees was the recent actions by social networks to ban their accounts and groups. YouTube was one of the companies that took action against QAnon in recent days.

But it turns out the ban was not working all that well, given that the entire Q Con Live conference was live-streamed on the platform — and at one point it was showing an ad from Senate Republicans over the video.