The New York Times published a striking front-page article over the weekend, reporting that the United States is “stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid.” The piece added that in recent months, officials have described previously unreported “deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets.”
It’s a solid scoop, though U.S. officials didn’t appear overly eager to hide their handiwork. The article went on to note, “Officials at the National Security Council also declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting about the targeting of the Russian grid, perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians.”
Or put another way, U.S. officials were comfortable throwing a brushback pitch at Moscow, letting Russia know what’s possible.
But perhaps the most notable part of the Times’ reporting came halfway through the article:
Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.
At face value, this is an extraordinary dynamic: Trump administration officials were reluctant to brief their president because they weren’t sure they could trust him.
Evidently, those concerns are no longer valid – if they intended to keep Trump in the dark, they probably wouldn’t have told the New York Times about the deployment of these cybertools – though as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum noted, it’s possible these officials hoped the public reporting would make it difficult for the president to reverse course.
Whatever the motivation, Trump quickly turned to Twitter to describe the article as “a virtual act of Treason” – this is not the first time he’s raised the accusation against the New York Times – before adding, “ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
Apparently, we’re supposed to think the reporting is both treasonous and false, which is a curious combination.
Of course, there’s another possible subtext hanging over the drama: Trump knows Vladimir Putin will learn of the article and he doesn’t want his benefactor in Moscow to be angry.