When you think of government reports, do you expect clarity or doubletalk and jargon? The report on Russia and its influence in our elections, from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, is brief, direct, and unequivocal. It’s a great study in how to use clear language to persuade.
This document is a joint production by three government agencies: the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. If you care about the integrity of American democracy, you should read it. With Donald Trump’s skepticism toward American intelligence services, the authors of this report are basically laying their credibility on the line.
Clapper’s report shows how to deliver complex news effectively
After a page describing what the report is and where it came from, the report relays its major conclusions in a summary that takes a page in a half. That’s it. Five more pages of facts and assertions follow. Add a couple of appendices about Russia’s media activities and intelligence terminology, and the whole thing comes in at 25 pages, including some cover pages or dividers. Given the complex information behind it, that’s a masterful degree of brevity.
Is it credible? While the conclusions are coherent and clear, the “sources and methods” are missing. (They appear in the classified version, but revealing them would compromise future information collection.) Most writers unable to attribute comments would resort to passive voice, which would make the report less persuasive. Instead, the authors of this report use only active voice and, by using “we,” take responsibility for their conclusions.
The way it’s written makes it easy to summarize. Here’s my one-paragraph summary:
Russian leaders including Vladimir Putin wanted to undermine faith in the integrity of the U.S. election, and to favor the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. They used state-run media, paid social media users (“trolls”), and hacking to get information about the Democrats, then turned it over to WikiLeaks to meddle with voters’ perceptions. They didn’t interfere with vote tallies. Based on the success of this effort, they’ll increase their efforts like this in the future.
The clarity starts with substantive headings
Here are the title and headings in the body of the report:
CIA/FBI/NSA Assessment: Russia’s Influence Campaign Targeting the 2016 US Presidential Election
Putin Ordered Campaign To Influence US Election
Russian Campaign Was Multifaceted
Influence Effort Was Boldest Yet in the US
Election Operation Signals “New Normal” in Russian Influence Efforts
The main title doesn’t tell you the conclusions, but the subheads do.
The easiest way to write headings is to use short descriptors, like “Influence campaign” or “Predictions.” Headings are too important for that. Your headings, like these, should tell the story by themselves, reinforcing your conclusions.
The opening paragraph tells the story
The opening paragraph of the executives summary should lay out the conclusion. Here’s how the security report starts:
Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.
This paragraph gives context and includes the key facts: that Russia attempted to influence the election, and that its activities in 2016 were more widespread than before. “Significant’ is a weasel word, but the report gives the necessary detail later on.
The report uses “we” effectively to get its point across
The authors explain that in this report, “we” means that all three security agencies — the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA — agree on a conclusion. The words “we assess” throughout mean there’s no mistaking who’s responsible for the report’s conclusions. In these examples, which are taken from various places in the document, the bold is in the original.
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.
We assess that influence campaigns are approved at the highest levels of the Russian Government—particularly those that would be politically sensitive.
The report assigns blame to specific actors within Russia
There’s a lot more here than “Russia did it.” Describing the activities of specific Russian groups makes the report more believable.
Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.
We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.
Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.
Russia’s state-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.
We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.
Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton.
The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.
Immediately after Election Day, we assess Russian intelligence began a spearphishing campaign targeting US Government employees and individuals associated with US think tanks and NGOs in national security, defense, and foreign policy fields.
There is jargon here, like “spearphishing” (the practice of sending convincing-looking emails to a specific target in the hopes of enticing that target to reveal password credentials). But for the most part, these statements read as a narrative in which specific Russian entities undertook activities to undermine trust in the election. Because they describe specific activities, they’re far more credible than broad generalizations (e.g. “Russia meddled in the election.”)
What you don’t read in this document is what makes it effective
The US doubtless collected thousands of pages of intelligence about the activities of the Russian government in the election.
But the effectiveness of this report depends on the way that its authors carefully selected a subset of that information, organized it into a narrative, put descriptive headings into it, and summarized it briefly.
If you’re writing a report aimed at an executive audience like this, learn from this report. It’s what you leave out — and how you present what’s left — that makes all the difference.