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Nearly a decade and a half after the Iraq-WMD faceplant, the American press is again asked to co-sign a dubious intelligence assessment

In an extraordinary development Thursday, the Obama administration announced a series of sanctions against Russia. Thirty-five Russian nationals will be expelled from the country. President Obama issued a terse statement seeming to blame Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails.

“These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government,” he wrote.

Russia at first pledged, darkly, to retaliate, then backed off. The Russian press today is even reporting that Vladimir Putin is inviting “the children of American diplomats” to “visit the Christmas tree in the Kremlin,” as characteristically loathsome/menacing/sarcastic a Putin response as you’ll find.

This dramatic story puts the news media in a jackpot. Absent independent verification, reporters will have to rely upon the secret assessments of intelligence agencies to cover the story at all.

Many reporters I know are quietly freaking out about having to go through that again. We all remember the WMD fiasco.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” is how one friend put it.

You can see awkwardness reflected in the headlines that flew around the Internet Thursday. Some news agencies seemed split on whether to unequivocally declare that Russian hacking took place, or whether to hedge bets and put it all on the government to make that declaration, using “Obama says” formulations.

The New York Times was more aggressive, writing flatly, “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking.” It backed up its story with a link to a joint FBI/Homeland Security report that details how Russian civilian and military intelligence services (termed “RIS” in the report) twice breached the defenses of “a U.S. political party,” presumably the Democrats.

This report is long on jargon but short on specifics. More than half of it is just a list of suggestions for preventive measures.

At one point we learn that the code name the U.S. intelligence community has given to Russian cyber shenanigans is GRIZZLY STEPPE, a sexy enough detail.

But we don’t learn much at all about what led our government to determine a) that these hacks were directed by the Russian government, or b) they were undertaken with the aim of influencing the election, and in particular to help elect Donald Trump.

The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.

If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now.

Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham noted the “small price” Russia paid for its “brazen attack.” The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, said Thursday that taken alone, the Obama response is “insufficient” as a response to “attacks on the United States by a foreign power.”

The “small price” is an eyebrow-raiser. Also, like the WMD story, there’s an element of salesmanship the government is using to push the hacking narrative that should make reporters nervous. Take this line in Obama’s statement about mistreatment of American diplomats in Moscow:

“Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.”

This appears to refer to an incident this summer in which an American diplomat was beaten outside the diplomatic compound in Moscow. That followed a 2013 case in which a U.S. diplomat named Ryan Fogle was arrested in similar fashion.

Fogle was unequivocally described as a CIA agent in many Russian reports. Photos of Fogle’s shpionsky rekvisit, or spy kit – including wigs and a city map that were allegedly on his person – became the source of many jokes in the Russian press and social media. Similar to this hacking story here in the states, ordinary Russians seemed split on what to believe.

If the Russians messed with an election, that’s enough on its own to warrant a massive response – miles worse than heavy-handed responses to ordinary spying episodes. Obama mentioning these humdrum tradecraft skirmishes feels like he’s throwing something in to bolster an otherwise thin case.

Adding to the problem is that in the last months of the campaign, and also in the time since the election, we’ve seen an epidemic of factually loose, clearly politically motivated reporting about Russia. Democrat-leaning pundits have been unnervingly quick to use phrases like “Russia hacked the election.”

This has led to widespread confusion among news audiences over whether the Russians hacked the DNC emails (a story that has at least been backed by some evidence, even if it hasn’t always been great evidence), or whether Russians hacked vote tallies in critical states (a far more outlandish tale backed by no credible evidence).

As noted in The Intercept and other outlets, an Economist/YouGov poll conducted this month shows that 50 percent of all Clinton voters believe the Russians hacked vote tallies.

This number is nearly as disturbing as the 62 percent of Trump voters who believe the preposterous, un-sourced Trump/Alex Jones contention that “millions” of undocumented immigrants voted in the election.

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