Intelligence, and the Quirky Consistency of Lincoln Chafee

Of all the well-contained brush fires that former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee has set, recently, the most interesting may be his characterization of the Russian-election-meddling matter as a “non-issue.”

On one hand, it’s increasingly obvious that the controversy is ultimately just a packaging of things that wouldn’t ordinarily be news — at least not major, months-of-coverage news — in order to create the appearance of scandal.  (Contrast that with the strained insistence that the Obama administration was “largely scandal free” — a phrase that seems incomplete without a trademark symbol after it.)

Do other countries seek to influence our elections?  Yes, next question.  Our government has done the same.  Do foreign affairs and diplomacy involve statements and actions that look questionable out of context? Yes, always do.  And sometimes they actually are questionable even in context.  To avoid having politicians meet the standard for independence from foreign taints that national Democrats and the news media are setting for those around President Trump, we’d have to elect and appoint only people with no prior experience out of the country.

On the other hand — and this is very Linc — Chafee is acting by his own quirky observations.  His comparison of the intelligence community’s statements around the Russia story with the “lies” he said built us up to war in Iraq is actually illustrative.  As well as I can tell, as somebody outside of the government’s inner circles, this is how this goes:

  • Agents gather data
  • Analysts try to put it together into a coherent story
  • Political officials decide what to do with that information, balanced against other interests

Progressives and Democrats will say the intelligence assessments concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were “lies,” but that the insinuations about Russian interference in our election cycle are incontrovertible evidence of something sinister.  Conservatives and Republicans will say the opposite.  Chafee, fulfilling his historical role, calls them both “lies.”

I’d say there is reasonable interpretation on both sides, but the questions are how significant the information is and what to do about it.  My view is that the war in Iraq was justified on a number of grounds, and that to the extent the intelligence was flawed, it’s irresponsible to call it “lies.”  Meanwhile, with Russia, I see more evidence that Trump’s domestic opposition is using the issue to hobble the elected president’s administration than that the formerly communist nation did more than most of us would have assumed it attempts on a regular basis.

Holding opposing views on either of those assessments, or both, would be absolutely reasonable.  However, in his personal imperative to see himself as a truthsayer, Chafee goes too far.

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