Much Ado About Nothing: The ODNI report on Russian “hacking” is short on proof

It’s respected voices like these that are missing from the current debate about Russia.


“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” —Otto Von Bismark

On Friday, January 6th, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) finally released the de-classified portion of a report on alleged Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential campaign. The document, which carries the weighty  title, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections”, is a slim 25 pages (with many of them blank or half blank)..

This brevity may be due, in part, to the fact that the report is drawn from a larger document (reportedly 50 pages) that the authors assure us offers more proof but that, due to the classified nature of its contents and what it may reveal about intelligence sources and methods, was only given to “the President and to recipients approved by the President”

There is nothing in the publicly available report that remotely resembles a smoking gun. In fact, reading through it, one almost immediately realizes that there’s going to be more opinion, or, as the analysts who created it call it, “assessment”, than concrete proof. This is especially true in regards to the more serious hacking allegations, which we’ve been led to believe were ordered by the Russian President himself.

A bullet point under the heading “Determining Attribution in Cyber Incidents”, reads,  “An assessment of attribution usually is not a simple statement of who conducted an operation, but rather a series of judgements that describe whether it was an isolated incident, who was the likely perpetrator, that perpetrator’s possible motivations, and whether a foreign government had a role in ordering or leading the operation.”

The use of the terms ‘assessment’, ‘judgements’, ‘likely’ and ‘possible’ show that these kinds of ‘attributions’ are far from an exact science. In fact, later in the report the authors offer a further hedge, stating their, “judgements are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”

After their implied success in influencing the election we are told that Russia’s use of ‘weaponized information’ is only going to intensify, as the Kremlin will persist in their efforts to influence the U.S. and other Western countries’ internal politics. The report goes on to say that, “immediately after Election Day we assess Russian intelligence began a spearphishing campaign targeting U.S. Government employees and individuals associated with U.S. think tanks and NGOs in national security, defense and foreign policy fields.”

Not even the most anecdotal of proofs, something which would not harm intelligence gathering or methods, is offered that such a campaign exists.

Besides, I would suggest that these highly educated individuals take the time to learn a little bit about basic internet security so that they don’t hand their data to ‘phishing’ schemes like the one that apparently successfully targeted Clinton campaign Chair John Podesta’s GMail account. Or, to put it bluntly, as most people who use this new fangled technology know: don’t click on a link in your email if you don’t know where it came from.

The flimsy evidence presented in the assessment doesn’t mean that Russian security services aren’t involved in hacking or phishing schemes targeting influential people, or these two hacks in particular. This is something that I honestly believe all intelligence agencies, including those of the U.S. and other NATO countries, would do if they have the capability and can avoid culpability. Collecting this kind of information is, after all, one of the main goals of signals intelligence (SIGINT), to the practitioners of which the internet must seem like a dream come true.

It’s often almost impossible to prove who is responsible for these kinds of attacks, whether they’re private or state sponsored, but this doesn’t stop the finger of blame from being pointed at perceived enemies.

What we do know in the case of the Podesta emails is that supposed Russian involvement was used to distract the public from the vital information contained in the leaks. This included the release of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street interests that her campaign refused to share with voters.

These speeches showed that her “public” and “private” positions on major issues often differed and that the no-fly zone she was calling for in Syria “would kill a lot of Syrians”, things that American voters had a right to know before electing her to the highest office in the land, regardless of who her opponent was or where the documents came from.

RT and Kremlin ‘influence’ operations

The bulk of the report focuses on what the authors call an ‘influence campaign’ designed to  target the 2016 election. In spite of this stated emphasis, most of the examples given are drawn from 2013 and earlier, presumably to show that the alleged meddling is part of a long term Russian campaign to increase the American publics’ well founded suspicions in terms of their political leadership.

This is especially true of the portions of the report that purport to analyze state run Russian broadcaster RT (Russia Today) and its U.S. counterpart RT America, the main subject of a third of the document. The attack on RT, which is hardly monolithic in its influence, brings to mind the kind of report the KGB might have written about Voice of America in Soviet times.

RT, to its credit, has brought in a number of talented voices offering diverse opinions and coverage of issues not represented on America’s cable news networks or major newspapers, including progressive icon Thom Hartmann, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and even legendary interviewer Larry King.

One of the most interesting journalists featured on the network was Abby Martin, who hosted a show called ‘Breaking the Set’ that was often fearless in its critique of American foreign policy and covered news stories that corporate media was unwilling to touch. The show, which went off the air two years ago, is high-lighted as proof of the network’s ‘anti-American’ propaganda.

For some reason, the authors also seem to think that the network’s airing of a documentary about Occupy Wall Street in the run up to the election in 2012 is convincing enough to support the idea of a Kremlin directed “influence operation”.

The Russian government’s intention to sow discord is apparently revealed by the documentary’s framing of the peaceful movement “as a fight against ‘the ruling class’”, which, “described the current U.S. political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations”. Something any number of left commentators would have told you without needing to consult with Moscow.

Readers are also expected to see something nefarious in the fact that RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyn told independent TV channel Dozdh in an interview quoted by the authors that coverage of Occupy Wall Street, “gave RT a significant audience boost”. Not exactly a surprise considering the network was one of the few news outlets that actually covered the protests that sprang up across the country in the Fall of 2011.

Another strange argument made in the report is that RT had undue influence over the 2012 election by hosting 3rd party debates prior to the vote. Rather than being applauded for giving a voice to candidates who were completely ignored by almost every major American  news source, a trend that continued through the 2016 campaign, the network is vilified for offering them a platform.

Even worse than stories about Occupy Wall Street or 3rd party debates, at least in the eyes of the authors, are reports deemed ‘anti-fracking’ that highlight, “environmental issues and impacts on public health” from the exploitation of shale gas. These segments are produced, they tell us, to protect the interests of Russian energy giant Gazprom, which, whether the charge is true or not, shouldn’t detract from the need to report on the very real dangers associated with this form of energy extraction.

Massive failure, all around

It’s hard to believe that most people in the West, especially those interested in news, turn to RT for coverage of Russia’s internal affairs just as its doubtful many Russians turn to CNN, which has both corporate sponsors and government sources to please, for an unbiased account of troubles facing the United States.

In the case of state run networks there is always an implied bias, whether one is watching RT, Canada’s CBC or the UK government funded BBC. For the critical reader or viewer this is almost always a good thing in that it can convey the official thinking of the state in question.

Liberal Democrats have long positioned themselves as the voice of reason in American politics but the recent hysteria about Russia shows that the party’s leaders refuse to weigh the actual evidence that’s presented in sensationalistic reports like this.

If they could just remove their eyes from their own navels for a moment they might realize that they got in line behind a candidate who had trouble connecting with voters when she actually bothered to address them at all, a collective delusion that cost these incrementalist Democrats the election.

The reaction to the report on many websites that describe themselves as progressive further demonstrates how cynical some of the people claiming to speak for the U.S. ‘left’ are when it comes to the Democratic Party. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that so many are willing to unquestionably take the word of U.S. intelligence agencies led by James Clapper, a man who lied under oath to Congress about NSA spying on American citizens, when it suits their politics of capitulation to power.

These letter agencies, especially the CIA, have a long history of lying to the public, often with disastrous results. The most obvious recent example of this was the stories that were spread by unnamed intelligence officials to compliant reporters about yellowcake and WMDs in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war, a calamity that just keeps on giving in terms of human misery.

The kind of hyperbole that greeted the report may be expected from perpetually agitated Republican hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are going along on this current anti-Russia ride, but not from the Democratic Congressional leadership who the American people must rely on to oppose what my be the most rightwing U.S. Congress in modern history..

It isn’t out of any love for Russia’s leadership, which has a very poor record of its own when it comes to domestic critics and adversarial journalists, that the flaws in this report need to be exposed. It’s the threat represented by the continuing antagonism between the world’s biggest nuclear powers, an end to which is the one possible silver lining to the otherwise terrifying prospect of a Donald Trump presidency.

In a recent piece on the website Politico, former Secretary of Defense and long term Washington insider Bill Perry, who is almost 90, claimed that the risks of a nuclear confrontation are higher now than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. He was quoted as saying, “I am not suggesting that this Cold War and this arms race is identical to the old one but in many ways, it is just as bad, just as dangerous. And totally unnecessary.”

It’s respected voices like these that are missing from the current debate about Russia and they are a sorely needed antidote to the paranoia that seems to have gripped the American political establishment in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to the least popular Presidential candidate in American electoral history.


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