The Briefing 12-13-16

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Limits of intelligence: Why are FBI and CIA disagreed on meaning of Russia's election interference?

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The folly of Scientism: Washington Post opposes Scott Pruitt for "rejecting settled science"

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The Briefing

December 13, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, December 13, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Limits of intelligence: Why are FBI and CIA disagreed on meaning of Russia's election interference?

It is now clear that even in the ancient world, kings and emperors and potentates employed spies, sometimes competently, sometimes incompetently. It is also abundantly clear that in the modern age, every modern nation employees not only spies, but a rather sophisticated intelligence gathering and analyzing process. In the United States there are several intelligence agencies, and that’s true for most other large nations as well. That raises a host of questions with worldview implications.

In the first place, why would any nation have more than one intelligence agency? The reason for that is actually quite simple: even spies don’t trust other spies. You might put it this way: in a fallen world, spies especially don’t trust all other spies. And that leads to the point that there is a second if less dramatic reason, and that comes down to this: large nations in the modern age need to employ different, even competing, intelligence agencies that operate on the basis of a different methodology of gathering that information, a different network of sources, perhaps even a different assignment in terms of geopolitics, a different set of expertise, and furthermore a different methodology of analysis. This means in the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was an effort to consolidate national intelligence gathering under one office, and thus was created the Director of National Intelligence. The current Director is Jake Clapper; however, other agencies continue their existence and for the most part they make the headlines—these include the FBI and the CIA.

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The FBI, that is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, goes back to the early decades of the 20th century when it came to the consciences of most Americans by means of the federal government’s then-new effort to constrain and to prosecute organized crime, then known as gangsters. You also had the rise of the CIA, a successor agency to the intelligence agencies employed by the federal government in the United States military during World War II, the Central Intelligence Agency, a facet of the Cold War and a very important reminder of the necessity of gathering information in a centralized office. But it’s only central unto itself. There still are other intelligence agencies the Defense Intelligence Agency or DIA; the various branches of the military have their own intelligence gathering agencies, and furthermore sometimes these intelligence agencies not only differ in terms of the information they present but the analysis to which they conclude.

All of this is necessary background to our current national conversation and the controversy over the analysis offered by the CIA that Russia was not only behind the hacking incidents that played a part in the 2016 presidential election, but that Russia intentionally tipped the scales by means of this hacking and the release of the hacked information in order to increase the electoral chances of Donald J. Trump. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lichtblau, reporting for the New York Times, tell us,

“American spy and law enforcement agencies were united in the belief, in the weeks before the presidential election, that the Russian government had deployed computer hackers to sow chaos during the campaign. But they had conflicting views about the specific goals of the subterfuge. Last week, Central Intelligence Agency officials presented lawmakers with a stunning new judgment that upended the debate: Russia, they said, had intervened with the primary aim of helping make Donald J. Trump president.”

They then go on to report,

“The C.I.A.’s conclusion does not appear to be the product of specific new intelligence obtained since the election, several American officials, including some who had read the agency’s briefing, said on Sunday. Rather, it was an analysis of what many believe is overwhelming circumstantial evidence — evidence that others feel does not support firm judgments — that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump, and got their desired outcome.”

Now when we stop there in terms of this report, we are already facing some really interesting material. In the first place we have the acknowledgment that there is a disagreement at the highest ranks of the American intelligence agencies not over, we are told, whether Russia was behind the hacking, not over whether Russia played a part in terms of the 2016 election, not whether Russia had a nefarious ambition in terms of an election, but specifically whether or not Russia was seeking to influence the outcome of the election in favor of Donald Trump.

One of the first things we have to recognize is that it would be virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of this headline and to understand that this really is a very big story. It’s a bigger story as a matter fact than our national conversation to this point seems to acknowledge.

We’re talking about a judgment now made clear amongst the FBI and the CIA that there is a consensus that the nation of Russia sought to involve itself in the 2016 American presidential election. Just in terms of our national security, this is a massive story. The use of intelligence in this case, the use of computer hacking, is actually tantamount to an act of war. This was Russia seeking to involve itself in the 2016 presidential election by illegal means. It is a hostile act by a foreign power. It is not at all yet clear whether or not Russia had any material impact on the 2016 election and its results. The point is that the nation sought to and that it employed this kind of nefarious instrument in order to try to influence the American election. Back in the weeks before the election, as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and others have made clear, our national intelligence agencies were already identifying Russia as the culprit, but the main ambition they identified then was that Russia was trying to destabilize American democracy in general. Only in more recent days has the CIA’s analysis come to fore in which we’re being told that Russia was seeking to actually influence the outcome of the election in favor of Donald Trump.

But there’s another dimension to this that is also of importance. The question would be, why? The immediate political response on the part of many would be to point to the fact that Donald Trump has said positive things about Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and that the election of Donald Trump might be in Russia’s best interests. But in fact there’s an even more sinister impulse that may lie behind this, and that is the fact that Russia also hacked Republican instruments in terms of the 2016 elections and would have information that it could use against a President Donald Trump in terms of a form of international blackmail. Again, whether that’s true or not—we simply at this point do not know—but it is now quite clear that officials of the CIA told major legislators in their meetings just in the past few days that the CIA has come to the conclusion that Russia was seeking to do all of this.

Now just a couple of items of political analysis: in the first place we now know that both campaigns were aware of the hacking and of the fact that the federal government believed that Russia was behind the hacking even in the weeks before the election. Subsequent to the election, the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton, did not blame in any way in terms of any public argument Russia for any direct involvement in terms of her electoral loss. It has only been in the last couple of days that this has become a matter of open political discussion. And it’s also important as a political matter to note that there is now bipartisan leadership in the United States Senate for calling for an adequate investigation to find out exactly what happened, who did it, and what it means.

Senators on both sides of the partisan divide were quick over the last couple of days to make their necessary comments that they’re not questioning the legitimacy of the 2016 election and the result that Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States. They are not assuming that Russian involvement would be tantamount to anything on a scale to actually have tipped the American election, but these Senators, with leaders of both parties, are doing the right thing and calling for an investigation. For if indeed these charges are true, it would once again be tantamount to an act of war. It would certainly be understood as a hostile act undertaken by a hostile foreign government. In this case we’re not talk about the invasion of American territory, but the invasion of American information and the integrity of the American democratic process.

But there’s also a worldview dimension to understanding why at this point there is controversy over the fact that the CIA and the FBI have not come to the same conclusion. Once again, they’re united in the conclusion that the hacking happened, they’re united in the conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking, so where’s the disagreement? The FBI does not believe that the CIA has yet enough evidence to make the claim that Russia was actively seeking to change the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. So what’s the worldview issue behind that? It’s the two different intelligence operations of the CIA and the FBI and what those two different methodologies tell us.

The ambition of the CIA is to inform America’s political and military leadership of what they believe the mosaic looks like as it becomes more and more clear. The CIA, thus, is much more likely than the FBI to say right up front, “We believe this is the reality. We couldn’t prove it in court, but it is increasingly looking like this is the case.”

The FBI on the other hand operates with a very different methodology. The FBI is concerned with winning a case in court. Thus the FBI is very, very slow to ever tip its hat and to ever acknowledge what it believes to be the case until it is ready to issue an indictment, until it believes it has the kind of evidence it is willing to take into court with the assumption that it will win the case.

This means that if we put the contemporary headlines aside and just look at what we know about the two different methodologies of these two different and distinct American intelligence agencies, it points to something of the challenge not only faced by nation states but also by individuals or organizations in understanding reality. We understand that on the one hand we all have to operate at times much like what we are told is the methodology of the CIA. We have to look at reality as best as we can understand it and come to rather immediate judgments, even if the picture isn’t as clear as we would like it to be. But also on the other hand we understand that there are times when we would have to act as the FBI, refusing to draw hasty conclusions and instead demanding that all of the evidence be sifted before we would make any public judgment, much less any momentous decision.

In Christian theology, all of this is discussed under what’s known as the noetic effects of the Fall, that is the effects upon our ability to know. The Fall did not destroy our ability as human beings to reason, to gather information, and to make judgments. But the Fall did corrupt all of those processes as it does every dimension of humanity. Thus, we do not receive information, we do not learn, we do not remember, we do not analyze, and we do not make judgments on the basis of anything other than a frail and sometimes faulty human intelligence. One of the things this points to is the fact that there would’ve been no need for intelligence agencies in the Garden of Eden, but of course the list of that which would not be needed in the Garden of Eden is extremely extensive.

But what this controversy underlines is the fact that in a fallen world, you not only must have intelligence gathering agencies, you need even competing intelligence agencies. And in a fallen world even when you have the expenditure invested in the massive professionalism—we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars annually in putting together these massive agencies of intelligence—the reality is we still don’t know what we still don’t know. Add politics to the mix and the problem just gets more complex and the headlines just become more combustible. That’s the reality of the last several days in Washington, but the story’s a lot older than that. This isn’t a story that goes back just to Washington D.C. or for that matter to Moscow. This is a story that goes right back to Genesis Chapter 3.

The folly of Scientism: Washington Post opposes Scott Pruitt for "rejecting settled science"

Next, this brings us to another very different headline, this one an editorial headline in the Washington Post:

“A man who rejects settled science on climate change should not lead the EPA.”

The background to this is the appointment made just days ago by President-elect Donald J. Trump of current Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the new administrator for the EPA—that is the Environmental Protection Agency. At this point I need to make very clear that Mr. Pruitt is a friend and he is a member the Board of Trustees of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I believe him also to be eminently qualified for this new post, but the editorial raises a host of very interesting questions and one very important central issue. The editors of the Washington Post do not want Scott Pruitt to become the new head of the EPA, and their reason is very clear. They cite a statement in an article made by Attorney General Pruitt in the magazine National Review back in May when he wrote,

“Global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

Now just note that the editors of the Washington Post specifically chose those words from an article written back in May in order to indicate why they oppose Mr. Pruitt for appointment as head of the EPA, but they go on and explain this. They go on to state that they differ with Mr. Pruitt in terms of many different issues related to the EPA. They also note that Mr. Pruitt, as Attorney General of Oklahoma, has been involved in many legal actions against the EPA in which he has registered his disagreement with many judgments made by the federal agency. At this point we simply have to note that this is exactly what you would expect if you have the election of one president of an opposing party to the incumbent. This is exactly what you would expect, and that’s exactly what we now have. But that is not why the editors say that they actually oppose Mr. Pruitt in such a way. They explain it in this sense,

“We might not oppose Mr. Pruitt’s nomination based on these differences. There are legitimate arguments, based in states’ rights and concerns over overregulation, against the Obama administration’s assertive application of clean water and clean air laws. A president is entitled to advisers, if they are qualified, who reflect his views. But rejecting settled science strikes us as being in a different category. The Senate should probe Mr. Pruitt’s position on climate change. If he explicitly or implicitly rejects the scientific consensus, that would be justification to vote no. If, on the other hand, he acknowledges the risks facing the globe, lawmakers should ask what Mr. Pruitt would be prepared to do as the nation’s chief environmental officer to combat them.”

Now this is a very strong editorial. The editors of the Washington Post, the major newspaper in the nation’s capital, have come out firmly opposing President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as the new leader for the Environmental Protection Agency. At this point I simply have to note, I would be surprised if the editorial boards of most liberal papers did anything other than oppose this nomination. That’s not what makes this interesting. What makes it interesting is the way the editors of the Washington Post address the issue. Remember, going back to the beginning of the editorial, they went to a statement that he had written in the magazine National Review. He said,

“Global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time.”

My guess is the editors of the Washington Post do not have a problem with that sentence. The next sentence he wrote was this,

“That debate is far from settled.”

Are they actually saying that that’s an unacceptable statement, that the debate is far from settled? That’s simply a matter of fact. The debate clearly is far from settled; that’s the frustration of the secular left. Mr. Pruitt went on to write,

“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

Now that strikes me as a very carefully worded sentence, a sentence in which the Oklahoma Attorney General does not deny that there is a human impact on the climate. He doesn’t deny what’s called now the reality of global warming or of climate change. He says that the debate is not settled and the degree and the extent of global warming is not yet fully known. Now let me just back off for a minute. That is a very carefully worded statement. That is not a denial of climate change, nor is it a denial of any human responsibility to respond to it. It is a denial of now what is claimed to be the consensus in terms of the environmental left on not only what they claim are now the facts, but the settled facts of science. And you’ll note that also comes with the program, according to them, of what must be done. The last two sentences in terms of the article by Mr. Pruitt that is now cited by the Washington Post come down to this. The debate should be encouraged in classrooms, public forums, in the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution.

“Dissent is not a crime.”

Now once again, what exactly is the complaint there? The complaint can only be that the debate is not to continue, that instead it is to be shut down. From a Christian worldview perspective, the most interesting part of this is that the editors of the Washington Post refer to any argument for the continuation of the debate as “rejecting settled science.”

Here again, we have a huge problem. We have science defined as settled science, identified as the ultimate intellectual authority, the authority that is not to be questioned. But that flies in the face of what science as an intellectual tool has been about from the very beginnings in terms of the rise of modern science. The very two words “settled science” are actually quite awkward when they’re put together. The so-called settled science of, for instance, the early 20th century in many disciplines would now look like settled nonsense. What the editors of the Washington Post do not acknowledge is the extent of the ideological framework to which they are committed, which is now advertised to the public as settled science.

Christians are committed to the truth. We want to know the truth, and we should have great respect for science within its proper bounds. We have every reason to be thankful for so many of the things that modern science has brought us. But to state that is to make very clear that it is human beings employing a specific intellectual tool known as the scientific method that has brought about so many of the things we now take for granted. And for which we should be very grateful.

But we also understand that we are in a battle of worldviews, and amongst those worldviews is a battle between Christianity and a worldview that can only be rightly described as scientism. This is a worldview that doesn’t merely admire science, it is a worldview that reduces every question of meaning to that which can be ascertained by the science of the hour. In this kind of context, the use of the words “settled science” put together ought to serve as something of an intellectual alarm. In this case, the use of that kind of statement in this kind of context actually says a lot more about the people who are making the complaint than the one against whom they are complaining.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing