Bi­den blames Rus­sia for data re­lease with no hard proof

The Washington Post Sunday - - ELECTION 2020 - BY AN­NIE LINSKEY AND PAUL SONNE an­nie.linskey@wash­ paul.sonne@wash­ Rosalind S. Helderman contribute­d to this re­port.

Joe Bi­den leaned heav­ily on a let­ter from for­mer U.S. in­tel­li­gence and de­fense of­fi­cials in Thurs­day night’s de­bate to ar­gue that Rus­sia or­ches­trated a dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion al­legedly in­volv­ing dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion ob­tained from his son’s lap­top that was pro­mul­gated by Pres­i­dent Trump’s per­sonal at­tor­ney, Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani.

“There are 50 for­mer na­tional in­tel­li­gence folks who said that what he’s ac­cus­ing me of is a Rus­sian plant,” Bi­den said at the de­bate. The for­mer vice pres­i­dent said those for­mer of­fi­cials had con­cluded that what Trump was cit­ing about his son was “a bunch of garbage.”

But the for­mer in­tel­li­gence and de­fense of­fi­cials who penned the let­ter ex­plic­itly said they had no ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­volve­ment, not­ing only that Gi­u­liani had been the tar­get of Rus­sian spies and their ex­pe­ri­ence made them “deeply sus­pi­cious” that the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment played a role.

The Bi­den cam­paign’s de­ci­sion to lean into ac­cu­sa­tions of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the episode, de­spite lack­ing spe­cific proof, risks erod­ing public trust in U.S. al­le­ga­tions of for­eign elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence if the sus­pi­cions in this case turn out to be un­founded, ac­cord­ing to in­tel­li­gence and for­eign pol­icy ex­perts. Trump al­ready has un­der­mined such trust by cast­ing doubt on proved Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence on his be­half dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign and den­i­grat­ing U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

“Bi­den is hold­ing him­self to a higher stan­dard than Trump. Then we should hold Bi­den to a higher stan­dard as well,” said Thomas Rid, pro­fes­sor of strate­gic stud­ies at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and au­thor of a book on the his­tory of dis­in­for­ma­tion and po­lit­i­cal war­fare. “And that means ac­knowl­edg­ing in this case that we just don’t have the ev­i­dence.”

The Bi­den cam­paign’s as­ser­tion of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the Hunter Bi­den leaks comes as the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee cam­paigns on restor­ing truth and trans­parency to the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

Trump’s di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, John Rat­cliffe, said pub­licly that there is no in­tel­li­gence to sup­port al­le­ga­tions that the leak of ma­te­ri­als re­lated to Hunter Bi­den was “part of a Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign.”

But Rat­cliffe’s state­ment was in­ter­preted broadly as a par­ti­san ges­ture de­signed to bol­ster a dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign be­ing launched di­rectly by Trump’s al­lies, rather than a for­mal as­sess­ment from the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.

There are also in­di­ca­tions that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to down­play the threat of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the cam­paign. A se­nior Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said in Septem­ber that he was told to stop pro­vid­ing in­tel­li­gence re­ports on the Rus­sian threat, in part be­cause it “made the Pres­i­dent look bad.”

“The prob­lem of the sit­u­a­tion we are cur­rently in is that we have an ab­sence of cred­i­ble in­di­vid­u­als within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity,” said Su­san Hen­nessey, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and for­mer at­tor­ney for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency. “There is no one who can say, in a cred­i­ble man­ner, ei­ther there is in­tel­li­gence to sup­port this claim that this is Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion or there is no in­for­ma­tion to sup­port that claim.”

The Bi­den cam­paign has de­fended the for­mer vice pres­i­dent’s ac­cu­sa­tion of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the episode by point­ing to cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence and Rus­sia’s track record of such be­hav­ior, in­clud­ing in this elec­tion cy­cle.

“It has long been in­dis­putable that Rus­sia is ac­tively in­ter­fer­ing in our elec­tion to den­i­grate Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den and help Pres­i­dent Trump,” said An­drew Bates, a spokesman for the Bi­den cam­paign. He said the let­ter states “the most re­cent smears bear all the hall­marks of a Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign.” Bates added: “We know who is be­hind this, and it is the same hos­tile for­eign power whose as­sis­tance Don­ald Trump has re­peat­edly courted while giv­ing them im­punity for plac­ing boun­ties on the heads of Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers.”

Gi­u­liani claims he re­trieved the ma­te­ri­als he gave to the New York Post from liq­uid-dam­aged lap­tops Hunter Bi­den had dropped off at a Delaware com­puter shop in April of 2019 and failed to re­trieve.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials warned the White House late last year that Gi­u­liani was the tar­get of a Rus­sian in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion. The for­mer New York mayor and con­fi­dante of the pres­i­dent has met mul­ti­ple times with a Ukrainian law­maker whom the U.S. gov­ern­ment sanc­tioned in Septem­ber for be­ing an “ac­tive Rus­sian agent for more than a decade.”

That law­maker, An­drii Derkach, had been un­der­tak­ing what the U.S. Trea­sury de­scribed as a for­eign in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion; he had been leak­ing tapes of Bi­den con­duct­ing diplo­macy with Ukraine’s lead­er­ship to im­pugn the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee’s in­tegrity ahead of the Nov. 3 vote. Derkach, who at­tended the Dz­erzhin­sky Higher School of the KGB, has de­nied act­ing as a for­eign agent for Rus­sia.

In Au­gust, Na­tional Coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity Cen­ter Di­rec­tor Wil­liam Evan­ina said in a state­ment: “We as­sess that Rus­sia is us­ing a range of mea­sures to pri­mar­ily den­i­grate for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den and what it sees as an anti-Rus­sia ‘es­tab­lish­ment.’”

In an in­ter­view, Lev Par­nas, who func­tioned as Gi­u­liani’s fixer in Ukraine last year, also said he at­tended a lunch at which Gi­u­liani was told Ukraini­ans and Rus­sians pos­sessed com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­ri­als re­gard­ing Hunter Bi­den. Par­nas said Gi­u­liani ex­pressed in­ter­est in the ma­te­rial, but Par­nas didn’t see it, doesn’t know if it ex­isted and doesn’t know if Gi­u­liani ever ob­tained it. Par­nas’s claim was first re­ported by Politico.

When asked whether he would ac­cept dirt on his op­po­nents from for­eign­ers last year, Trump said he would take it, and that has bol­stered doubts about the prove­nance of the ma­te­rial his lawyer has re­leased on the eve of the elec­tion.

“Don­ald Trump can thank him­self for why peo­ple won’t take this se­ri­ously,” said Joe Trippi, a Demo­cratic strate­gist who is not work­ing on Bi­den’s cam­paign. Trippi said the Bi­den’s cam­paign tac­tic, to re­main largely silent, makes po­lit­i­cal sense. “It’s crazy to do any­thing to fuel the in­san­ity.”

The Bi­den cam­paign has, with a few ex­cep­tions, re­fused to en­gage on the sub­stance of the leaked ma­te­rial, de­clin­ing to deny or cor­rob­o­rate al­leged emails ex­cerpted in the New York Post, be­cause they be­lieve that would el­e­vate the dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion.

Hunter Bi­den’s lawyer has also de­clined to say whether his client dropped off lap­tops with the Delaware

com­puter re­pair­man whom Gi­u­liani said he re­trieved the ma­te­ri­als from. The com­puter re­pair­man, for his part, has de­clined to say how he con­nected with Gi­u­liani.

The Wash­ing­ton Post has not been able to in­de­pen­dently ver­ify the emails. The Post has on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions asked Gi­u­liani and Trump’s for­mer top ad­viser, Stephen K. Ban­non, for copies of what they al­lege is Hunter Bi­den’s hard drive but has re­ceived no re­sponse.

Dur­ing a heated ex­change in Thurs­day’s de­bate, Bi­den, in his first ex­tended re­marks on the topic, said he has been told the episode is a “Rus­sian plan.”

“You mean the lap­top is now an­other Rus­sia, Rus­sia, Rus­sia hoax?” Trump replied.

“That’s ex­actly what — that is ex­actly we've been told,” Bi­den replied.

Bi­den’s cam­paign said later that the for­mer vice pres­i­dent was re­fer­ring to the let­ter signed by 50 for­mer mem­bers of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity that said the episode “has all the clas­sic ear­marks of a Rus­sian in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion.”

Still, the for­mer of­fi­cials cau­tioned: “We do not have ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­volve­ment.”

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