One of the problems with some of the press’s coverage of intelligence findings is that this coverage often becomes a game of informational telephone, in which innuendo piles atop innuendo in order to create narratives that diverge from reality. Many in the media have claimed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement about his conversation with Donald Trump Wednesday night “confirms” the CNN story about the “dossier” published by BuzzFeed. Attending to the details of the original CNN story and Clapper’s statement reveals what such a “confirmation” might — and might not — mean.
First, let’s turn to the actual text of the CNN report as it was released on Tuesday night. Here is the central narrative of that CNN report (in my words):
The Intelligence Community created a two-page summary of a dossier listing some allegations against Donald Trump. This summary was in some way included with other briefing documents.
This story does not say that this dossier was credible, nor does it assert that intelligence officials vouched for the credibility of this dossier. CNN also says in the original report that it cannot verify that this synopsis was discussed with Trump. (Late Thursday, NBC reported that, according to a source, this synopsis was not discussed in the intelligence briefing with Trump. After the briefing, FBI Director James Comey reportedly discussed the dossier with Trump in a “one-on-one” conversation.)
In part because this story was hyped as a major finding, many in the media (especially anti-Trump partisans) took it to be saying things that the text of the story did not actually assert. At times, the ambiguous phrasing of the original CNN story might have contributed to certain assumptions. Consider the opening line: “Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.” Some readers might take “presented” to mean “orally discussed” (as in “I will now present my second-grade book report”), and CNN even seems to use “presented” as “orally discussed” later on in the story. But “presented” doesn’t have to mean “orally discussed.” It could also mean “given.” Thus, the original CNN story’s diction left open the possibility of both an oral and non-oral presentation.
Moreover, because CNN invested so much time in its report to the provenance of this dossier and alluding to its accusations, some partisans might have assumed (without evidence) that this dossier was substantive. Some might even take reporting on a dossier to imply some basic kind of substantiveness; for instance, the press usually doesn’t cover reports alleging that the moon landing was faked. However, CNN explicitly does not stand by the substantiveness of the dossier. In fact, another NBC report said that this synopsis would have been used as an example of disinformation; that report also suggests that the synopsis might have been brought along to the briefing (hence it was “presented” to Trump) without being discussed at the briefing itself or even left for Trump to read later. The tenor of the press coverage after this report sometimes assumed that the dossier was substantive, but CNN does not explicitly say that it is.
Some of the “spin” around this CNN report has been substantially challenged (if not outright discredited), but the actual text of this report offers much narrower findings.
This bring us to Clapper’s statement:
This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress, and Congressional staff even before the [Intelligence Community] became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
President-elect Trump again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people.
Does this confirm the CNN report? Well, it’s not incompatible with the original report.
The final sentence of the second paragraph reads, “However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.” This very general statement could be a justification for summarizing a dossier even if one thinks that this dossier is full of errors. As such, this statement could provide a justification for a two-page synopsis of the Trump “dossier” and could perhaps even be an allusion to the existence of a two-page synopsis of that dossier.
Rather than supporting the findings of the ‘dossier,’ Clapper’s remarks explicitly distance the Intelligence Community from it.
However, few have disputed the existence of the synopsis: Much more disputed is whether this synopsis was discussed with Trump (though this has grown less disputed with time) and whether the supposed facts in it have any credibility (still a topic of controversy). Clapper’s statement provides no confirmation for either of those propositions. It’s also worth noting that the original CNN story does not include these propositions. Those propositions are talking points generated after the CNN report but are not in the report itself.
When Clapper says that he and Trump “also discussed the private security company document” (i.e., the “dossier”), rhetorical context strongly implies that this “discussion” about the dossier occurred Wednesday night. Clapper’s statement opens with “This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss,” and his use of “also discussed” in the second paragraph would seem to indicate that this second topic (the dossier) occurred in the same conversation (i.e., the conversation he had with Trump on Wednesday evening — not last week).
Rather than supporting the findings of the “dossier,” Clapper’s remarks explicitly distance the Intelligence Community from it.
In summary, Clapper’s statement does not deny the existence of a synopsis, but it does not explicitly confirm it, either. And, again, the existence of a synopsis of this dossier seems far less important (and far less contested) than the substance of the allegations in this dossier. The CNN report and the IC have made no public statements to defend the allegations of that dossier, and some of the key claims of this dossier have been disproven.
Feeding a culture of paranoia with wild speculations does great harm to our civic culture, so we need to temper partisan vitriol with intellectual charity and attention to detail.