And just like that the narrative of Russia hacking the presidential election has escalated to the highest possible level, and has officially jumped the shark.
Moments ago, following a month-long barrage of unsubstantiated stories in the press accusing the Russian government of indirectly hacking the US presidential election, which culminated with last night's 8,000 word NYT expose, and which followed a schism between the FBI and CIA, in which the former disputed the latter's "fuzzy and ambiguous" claims that Russia sought to influence the presidential elections, moments ago the NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe with "a high level of confidence" that Russian President Vladimir Putin became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.
Perhaps because the official narrative has so far been unable to gather traction with the previous "shotgun approach" in which just "Russia" was accused of handing the election to Trump, four short days before the Electoral College vote, the narrative has changed and it now involves the very pinnacle of Russia's government: the president himself.
Citing two senior officials with direct access to the information, NBC reports that "new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said."
So why did Putin hack a few million rust belt Americans into believing that their lives under Obama, and by extension Hillary, were bad enough that they demanded a change? NBC provides the following spoonfed logic:
Putin's objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a "vendetta" against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to "split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore," the official said.
Ultimately, the CIA has assessed, "the Russian government wanted to elect Donald Trump."
And this is where the latest turn in the story falls apart, because even NBC - which will blast this report on prime time TV to all America - admits "the FBI and other agencies don't fully endorse that view", but it adds "few officials would dispute that the Russian operation was intended to harm Clinton's candidacy by leaking embarrassing emails about Democrats."
One can call them embarrassing emails, others see in the 50,000 emails released by Wikileaks much needed insight into the corruption of the Clinton team, not to mention the DNC; after all the only reason we know that the Democratic Party rigged the elections against Bernie Sanders (and cost the job of Debbie Wasserman Shultz) is because of those emails. Emails which, incidentally, Wikileaks has repeatedly denied originated from Russia, but as we said yesterday, it's Julian Assange's word against that of the US government.
Sadly, the other disclosures in the NBC report fail to tell us something we don't already know. Like, for example, providing actual evidence - that long awaited, missing link that would in fact confirm Russia is behind the hacking.
The latest intelligence said to show Putin's involvement goes much further than the information the U.S. was relying on in October, when all 17 intelligence agencies signed onto a statement attributing the Democratic National Committee hack to Russia.
The statement said officials believed that "only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities." That was an intelligence judgment based on an understanding of the Russian system of government, which Putin controls with absolute authority.
Because who needs evidence when judgment is enough, especially when the potential downside is a massive diplomatic scandal.
It gets better: "Now the U.S has solid information tying Putin to the operation, the intelligence officials say. Their use of the term "high confidence" implies that the intelligence is nearly incontrovertible."
What is this incontrovertible intelligence? It appears to be personal opinions of Putin the "despot."
"It is most certainly consistent with the Putin that I have watched and used to work with when I was an ambassador and in the government," said Michael McFaul, who was ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
"He has had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton, that has been known for a long time because of what she said about his elections back in the parliamentary elections of 2011. He wants to discredit American democracy and make us weaker in terms of leading the liberal democratic order. And most certainly he likes President-elect Trump's views on Russia," McFaul added. Clinton cast doubt on the integrity of Russia's elections.
What is the US response? "As part of contingency planning for potential retaliation against Russia, according to officials, U.S. intelligence agencies have stepped up their probing into his personal financial empire."
In other words, it appears that as punishment for Clinton losing the election, the US could actively crackdown on Putin's financial assets held anywhere around the globe:
American officials have concluded that Putin's network controls some $85 billion worth of assets, officials told NBC News.
A former CIA official who worked on Russia told NBC News that it's not clear the U.S. can embarrass Putin, given that many Russians are already familiar with allegations he has grown rich through corruption and has ordered the killings of political adversaries. But a currently serving U.S. intelligence official said that there are things Putin is sensitive about, including anything that makes him seem weak.
While we are confident that Putin has taken countermeasures against precisely this kind of contingency, what is scariest is the NBC report's conclusion:
"The former CIA official said the Obama administration may feel compelled to respond before it leaves office. "This whole thing has heated up so much," he said. "I can very easily see them saying, `We can't just say wow, this was terrible and there's nothing we can do.'"
Well, if Obama is truly getting involved, he has 4 days in which to turn 37 Republican electors against Trump. As for the potential fallout, which may include various forms of social conflict should the Trump victory be overturned in the 11th hour at the Electoral College, then Putin will truly win as a result of what may then follow.