Time was, the phrase “false flag” was fodder for Twitter jokes and fringe conspiracy theorists. These days, the president-elect is a Twitter superuser, and the conspiracy theorists are in his inner circle.
A case in point is the raging debate over whether alleged Russian hacking was intended to influence the course of the presidential election. The CIA has decided the answer is yes, delivering that judgment to legislators and President Obama based on a what The New York Times reports is a circumstantial but sizable collection of evidence.
That conclusion has divided both left and right. Many Democrats are eager to seize on the conclusions as an explanation for Hillary Clinton’s defeat last month, while some liberals—notably Glenn Greenwald—call for more skepticism of the intelligence community, in light of its past record. (An interesting case is Senator Ron Wyden, an outspoken advocate for tighter oversight of U.S. intelligence who has also defended the agency against recent attacks from Donald Trump.)
The fact that Republicans, the erstwhile party of hardline Cold Warriors, is divided over whether to believe the intelligence about Russia, and unsure how to respond, is an epochal shift, as Peter Beinart wrote this morning. Yet even since Beinart wrote that piece, there have been some signs of movement among traditional establishment Republicans. Russell Berman reports that Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate will investigate claims of Russian interference. (Republican senators including John McCain and Lindsey Graham were clamoring for investigation.) Speaker Paul Ryan issued a more tepid statement, saying that on the one hand, “We must condemn and push back forcefully against any state-sponsored cyberattacks on our democratic process,” while on the other hand warning, “We should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.”
But some of Trump’s closest allies, by contrast, aren’t just trying to push back on investigations, and they’re aren’t just skeptical of the intelligence, like Trump, who flatly rejected it on Sunday: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” (Incidentally, he also copped to skipping intelligence briefings, saying, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”) The president-elect seems to have forgotten that he publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.
Instead, these are making a very public claim that the hacking is a false-flag attack, which has either fooled the CIA and other American intelligence agencies or, even worse, in which they may be complicit.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday evening, John Bolton suggested that someone might have tried to imitate the Russians so as to shift blame onto the Kremlin for the hacks. “It is not at all clear to me, viewing this from the outside, that this hacking into the DNC and the RNC computers was not a false flag operation,” Bolton said, adding that “a really sophisticated foreign intelligence service would not leave any fingerprints.” Fox’s Eric Shawn pressed Bolton to say who he thought might be behind such an attack. Bolton seemed to imply an inside job, saying, “We just don’t know. But I believe that intelligence has been politicized in the Obama administration to a very significant degree.” Monday morning, Bolton told Fox and Friends he did not mean to suggest that the administration itself was behind the false flag. Bolton did, however, break with Trump in suggesting an investigation into the matter.
Bolton isn’t just some commentator, and he’s also not just the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He’s also reportedly Trump’s likely pick as deputy secretary of state. Another possible Trump appointee is former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who met with Trump today and is reportedly under consideration for director of national intelligence.
Upon emerging from her meeting with Trump, Fiorina, offered a rather opaque, brief statement, which could be read as suggesting China was the culprit. “We ... spent a fair amount of time talking about China as probably our most important adversary and a rising adversary,” she said. “We talked about hacking, whether it's Chinese hacking or purported Russian hacking.” She may also have been referring to prior cases of U.S. officials concluding China had hacked government computers.
Meanwhile, Carter Page, a former Trump adviser whom the FBI reportedly investigated him for communicating with senior Russian officials, has been in Moscow recently. On Monday, he spoke at a Russian state-owned media company. Page spent large chunks of his 30-minute address railing against what he called “fake news,” though his definition seemed to encompass plenty of reporting he simply didn’t like or agree with, rather than made-up, intentionally fictional content, as well as Wikipedia, which is not a news site at all. During a question-and-answer session afterwards, he was asked about reports of Russian hacking. His answer, flagged by the Times’ Ivan Nechepurenko, was that he suspected a false flag.
“It’s very easy to make it look exactly like it was country X, in this case Russia, that did this,” he said. “I think that’s very much overestimated and personally I think until there’s serious evidence, you know it’s very similar to what I’ve personally been through. A lot of speculation but nothing there.”
“Are you saying it was a setup? A deliberate attempt to make it look like Russia?” someone asked. Page replied:
I think it very well could have been, certainly. I’ve talked with various IT experts that have suggested that that could very well be a serious possibility. These guys are pros to make certain paths that can mislead. Again, we’ve seen certain, many mistakes from an intelligence standpoint previously.
There’s a rich irony here. The CIA’s assessments should absolutely be questioned and prodded, and congressional investigations are a welcome addition. But even as Bolton and Page and even Trump—who said, “They have no idea if it's Russia or China or somebody sitting in a bed some place”—argue that the intelligence community has not provided enough public evidence to prove their point to satisfaction, they are offering entirely speculative alternative scenarios, without any evidence of their own.
In casting doubt on the going theory, however, these figures are at least in good company. Alex Jones, the radio host who is America’s leading proponent of false-flag theories, has finally found a shadowy connection he’s unwilling to believe. Speaking of the CIA conclusion blaming Russia, Jones tweeted Monday afternoon, “Absolutely no evidence has been produced to substantiate the conspiracy theory.”