On July 13th, three days before a scheduled summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents, the Office of the Special Counsel investigating alleged interference by the latter country in the 2016 American election, released a 29 page indictment charging 12 individuals, all Russian nationals, with a number of crimes. While some of the charges are serious, if unproven, the timing seemed politically motivated to say the least and led to widespread calls for Donald Trump to cancel the planned meeting in Helsinki.
The long running story of Russian interference has had so many twists and turns unrelated to the main issue that it’s become difficult to follow. In terms of the new indictment, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first time that Russian nationals have been so charged. In February there were 13 people, most employed by the St. Petersberg based Internet Research Agency, an oligarch owned ‘troll farm’ but this is the first time people believed to be working with Russian military intelligence (the GRU) have been named in an indictment.
Many in the mainstream press implied that the indictment, which will probably not ever result in any Russian citizen being extradited for trial, was all the proof needed that Russian intelligence (usually referred to simply as ‘Russia’) had interfered in the election. This ignores an important fact: while indictments usually outline charges rather than providing detailed evidence prior to a trial or, more likely in most cases, a plea, this indictment is mainly concentrated on establishing the narrative of a GRU hatched conspiracy; in some places it reads more like a thriller than a standard legal document.
Besides, proof of the assertions made in the text, if there is any, is presumably classified and may never be made public.
When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein presented the indictment to the public at a press conference, he admitted that investigators don’t believe that the alleged Russian efforts altered the outcome of the election, concluding, “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy altered the vote count or changed any election result.”
Even the most concerning thing in the text, the belief that there were attempts to hack state and country elections offices, turns out to be based on opinion rather than verifiable fact.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in the lead up to the war in Iraq, recently wrote in an Op-ed discussing a leaked NSA document covering these hacks that, “A cursory comparison of the leaked NSA document and the indictment presented by Rosenstein suggests that the events described in Count II of the indictment pertaining to an effort to penetrate state and county election offices responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. presidential election are precisely the events captured in the NSA document. While the indictment links the identity of a named Russian intelligence officer… to specific actions detailed therein, the NSA document is much more circumspect… The NSA document specifically states that the organizational ties between the unnamed operators involved in the actions described an organizational entity, Unit 74455, affiliated with Russian military intelligence is a product of the judgment of an analyst and not fact.”
This doesn’t mean that Russia, like the United States and just about every other country in the world to the best of their individual abilities, don’t try to influence other countries’ elections, whether through media or by more covert means. While rivals usually receive the most attention when their efforts are discovered, many countries employ similar tactics against allies.
That much less time has been dedicated to reporting on the actual contents of the leaked documents from the DNC and John Podesta in favor of much more difficult to prove Russian state involvement in the ‘hacks’ is staggering. There was proof that Bernie Sanders had been cheated during the primary, in this writer’s opinion a much greater threat to democracy, and that the Democratic Party was acting as an agent of the Clinton campaign, which some commentators believe we might actually see a rerun of in 2020.
In terms of securing elections and avoiding hacks, there is an easy way to do this: paper ballots. While it is a much smaller country than the United States, one of the most impressive things about the last British election was watching high school students in some places around that country running ballot boxes to be counted, proving that soon to be voters can be involved in the democratic process and that it can even be fun.
The Trump-Putin summit and its aftermath
Russian President Putin, a leader who many see as nefarious but almost no one sees as dumb, managed a little bit of theater by arriving an hour late to the meeting, a tactic that one imagines probably impressed President Trump.
In an act that I once predicted would never happen but did at the summit between the U.S. President and North Korean leader Kim Jong un, Donald Trump insisted on meeting with Putin alone. Besides the fact that the Russian president surely has a greater understanding of the issues than his American counterpart, this was an obvious misstep as it left Trump open to a widespread speculation about what was said at the meeting that the presence of the Secretary of State, who is still somewhat respected by the media, might have allayed.
President Putin agreed to allow American investigators access to the twelve accused in Russia, an admittedly hollow gesture that was almost completely ignored by corporate media until it became clear that the deal would also allow Russian authorities to question ten Americans, including the former U.S. Ambassador to the country, something that inevitably generated even more outrage on the part of the establishment press. Before discovering this, cable news channels were much more concerned with parsing Trump’s befuddled performance for signs of treason than for further proof of his obvious incompetence.
Much was made of one thing that the Russian President said, when he explained that during the 2016 campaign he had hoped that Trump would win, a statement that should surprise no one who has ever heard some of the things that Hillary Clinton has said on the record about him. Even without this, it would be pretty stupid to stand beside the leader of a much more powerful rival and say you wish he or she had lost.
There is much to criticize about Vladimir Putin and the Russian government generally, but serious issues like de-escalating the conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine, along with the fact that Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, mean that the United States and its NATO allies need to be on speaking terms with the country’s leadership. All too often, it seems that the militaristic tone of the conversation in Western capitals is more about money than ‘security’.
Proof of this was offered just recently when the Russian government announced parts of its new generation of weapons systems. While the United States, the UK and France have been engaged in creating offensive weapons to sell in places like Saudi Arabia, it appears that the Russian military has been taking steps to build modern defenses, including anti-satellite (ASAT) technology that could conceivably bring both western armies and economies to a halt. It has done this with similar annual spending as the American Congress added to the already bloated U.S. military budget this year.
Breaking through the Myths told by power
The Special Counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has been portrayed as a heroic, incorruptible figure, spread the now obvious lie that Iraq had WMDs while speaking to the U.S. Congress in the lead up to the invasion of that country, which led to 100,000s of dead, many of them going about such suspect tasks as celebrating a wedding, shopping in a market or taking their children to school.
The now widely held belief, here in Canada as much as in the United States, that law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are to be trusted at all times and are indeed morally superior to other citizens is demonstrably false with only recent history as a guide. Anyone who says they are on the left and believes people like John Brennan or James Clapper (whose lying to the Senate about NSA spying seems to have fallen down the memory hole), who have become highly paid contributors on cable news networks after leaving their government jobs, are great patriots and defenders of the values of the American Republic needs to rethink what those values are.
In an ideal world there would be no need for these agencies at all and highly skilled diplomats would work to keep the peace rather than helping to foment unrest and coups alongside amoral spies. And this, at least in my opinion is the crux of this story: whether or not there was Russian ‘interference’, and there had to have been, along with Turkish, UAE, Saudi and even British interference, among others, it was mostly amateurish due to cultural differences and had less real influence than the undemocratic Electoral College or, for that matter, the worst, least strategic, Democratic presidential campaign since Michael Dukakis in 1988.
As for President Trump, who must know that he’s declared war on major U.S. intelligence agencies as well as the FBI, at the same time seems to be unaware of the long institutional memory of the so-called ‘Deep State’. After 2020 or possibly 2024, he will return to life as a private citizen. A rule bender throughout his life to put it charitably, he will likely find that those that he has crossed will not forgive or forget and will have their metaphorical knives at ready the moment he slips up.