Former Vice President Joe Biden leaned heavily on a letter from former U.S. intelligence and defense officials in Thursday night's debate to argue that Russia orchestrated a disinformation operation allegedly involving damaging information obtained from his son Hunter's laptop.
"There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he's accusing me of is a Russian plant," Biden said at the debate. The former vice president said those former officials had concluded that what [President Donald] Trump was saying about his son was "a bunch of garbage."
But the former intelligence and defense officials who penned the letter explicitly said they had no evidence of Russian involvement, noting only that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani had been the target of Russian spies and their experience made them "deeply suspicious" that the Russian government played a role.
The Biden campaign's decision to lean into accusations of Russian involvement in the episode, despite lacking specific proof, risks eroding public trust in U.S. allegations of foreign election interference if the suspicions in this case turn out to be unfounded, according to intelligence and foreign policy experts.
Trump already has shaken such trust by casting doubt on Russian interference on his behalf during the 2016 campaign.
"Biden is holding himself to a higher standard than Trump. Then we should hold Biden to a higher standard as well," said Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on the history of disinformation and political warfare. "And that means acknowledging in this case that we just don't have the evidence."
The Biden campaign's assertion of Russian involvement in the Hunter Biden leaks comes as the Democratic nominee campaigns on restoring truth and transparency to the U.S. government.
Trump's director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, said publicly that there is no intelligence to support allegations that the leak of materials related to Hunter Biden was "part of a Russian disinformation campaign."
"The problem of the situation we are currently in is that we have an absence of credible individuals within the intelligence community," said Susan Hennessey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former attorney for the National Security Agency. "There is no one who can say, in a credible manner, either there is intelligence to support this claim that this is Russian disinformation or there is no information to support that claim."
The Biden campaign has defended his accusation of Russian involvement in the episode by pointing to circumstantial evidence and Russia's track record of such behavior, including in this election cycle.
"It has long been indisputable that Russia is actively interfering in our election to denigrate Vice President Biden and help President Trump," said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign.
Giuliani claims he retrieved the materials he gave to the New York Post from liquid-damaged laptops Hunter Biden had dropped off at a Delaware computer shop in April 2019 and failed to retrieve.
U.S. intelligence officials warned the White House late last year that Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation. The former New York mayor and confidante of the president has met multiple times with a Ukrainian lawmaker whom the U.S. government sanctioned in September for being an "active Russian agent for more than a decade."
That lawmaker, Andrii Derkach, had been undertaking what the U.S. Treasury described as a foreign influence operation; he had been leaking tapes of Biden conducting diplomacy with Ukraine's leadership to impugn the Democratic nominee's integrity ahead of the Nov. 3 vote. Derkach, who attended the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB, has denied acting as a foreign agent for Russia.
In August, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said in a statement: "We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia 'establishment.'"
The Biden campaign has, with a few exceptions, refused to engage on the substance of the leaked material, declining to deny or corroborate alleged emails excerpted in the New York Post, because they believe that would elevate the disinformation operation.
Information for this article was contributed by Rosalind S. Helderman of The Washington Post.