The Chickens Come Home to Roost
By Doug Porter
Serious People are claiming that news accounts about Russian meddling in US elections are somehow equivalent to the Weapons of Mass Destruction stories peddled in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Or a liberal version of the group-think on the Trumpian right about millions of illegal aliens voting for Hillary Clinton.
And then there are others on the right, like the Heritage Foundation, who would have us believe the special relationship between two oligarchs is somehow a good thing. They find much to admire about having a strongman in charge, as opposed to an imperfect democracy.
The reluctance of the FBI/Homeland Security report to disclose sources and methods along with the Obama’s administration’s reliance on the (often meaningless) tactic of diplomatic expulsions as the public side of their response to Russia are cited as reasons to doubt the official account.
Has any administration handled matters of this nature any differently? Is the intelligence/industrial complex going to give up its secret sauce in the name of democracy? I don’t think so.
Spy vs. Spy: Deny, Denigrate, and Exploit
Lest anybody think all the NSA/CIA/Homeland Security gobbledygook has been pulled out of thin air, take a look at the Snowden document published at the Intercept making the case for the US being able to pinpoint specific hacking targets and trace them back to their points of origin.
NSA whistleblowers have so far given the best idea of what the NSA’s signals intelligence on Russia, today or in 2005, could look like. Earlier this year, Snowden tweeted that if the Russian government was indeed behind the hacking of the Democrats, the NSA most likely has the goods, noting that XKEYSCORE, a sort of global SIGINT search engine, “makes following exfiltrated data easy. I did this personally against Chinese ops.” Snowden went so far as to say that nailing down this sort of SIGINT hacker attribution “is the only case in which mass surveillance has actually proven effective.”
Of course, the government IS exploiting its conclusions to gin up the fear. That’s how the intelligence/industrial complex keeps tax dollars flowing its way.
The recent revelations by the Washington Post/ NBC News about Russians hacking a Vermont utility’s electrical grid are a perfect example of this kind of media manipulation. Consider the truth of the matter, as opposed to the headlines posted around the world, via the Burlington Free Press: (Emphasis mine)
Statement from Burlington Electric Department:
“Last night, U.S. utilities were alerted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of a malware code used in Grizzly Steppe, the name DHS has applied to a Russian campaign linked to recent hacks,” said Mike Kanarick, spokesman for Burlington Electric Department. “We acted quickly to scan all computers in our system for the malware signature. We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding. Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to infiltrate utility systems. We have briefed state officials and will support the investigation fully.”
Since the Washington Post and other media outlets running the story claiming the Vermont grid had been hacked by the Russians didn’t bother to actually contact the utility, this story must have originated in the bowels of some government agency.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
I’m willing to discount recent the government reports and still think a case can be made for Russian intervention. That said, I don’t think people understand what really happened.
I have seen no credible evidence suggesting voting results were manipulated. As much as Trump’s election saddens me, the (electoral) vote is what it is.
There also can be no hiding from the history of United States interventions in elections around the world. It’s made no difference what party was in power or what perceived enemy (be it ISIS or Lenin) existed: our government’s involvements are well-documented. And in many instances, if ‘we’ didn’t like the results, a coup could be ordered up.
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s obvious the weaponization of the internet is the tool of choice for great and not-so-great powers on the world stage. My analysis is that the Russians have beat the US at is own game, for a fraction of what electoral interventions used to cost.
I doubt the Russians started out thinking Donald J. Trump was electable. What they wanted was to discredit the current flavor of foreign policy that stacked the deck against them economically and politically.
A useful idiot like Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton with a diminished political mojo are two sides of the same coin to Vladimir Putin.
Make Russia Great Again (sans all the commie fixins) is at the core of Putin’s worldview. Since ideology is no longer a factor, deals with (or opposition to) any group are possible. Fascists in Poland and so-called liberal CalExit types are both valid ways of keeping Mother Russia on an ascendant course.
The Internet as an Instrument of Intervention
There is a body of evidence going back to 2007 (Estonia) about the ongoing weaponization of the internet by Russia, starting out with punishing the former states of the Soviet Union for actions not pleasing to Moscow. Lithuania, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine all faced disruptions launched from within Russia.
In recent years, these intrusions have grown more sophisticated, involving European countries allied with western powers, including Italy, Germany, Poland, France, Finland, and Holland.
In October 2015 security experts concluded that the Russian government tried to hack into the Dutch government’s computers to pull out a report about the shoot down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine. The Dutch Safety Board headed the investigation of the Malaysia Airlines downing, and concluded that the passenger plane was brought down by a Russian-made missile fired from an area held by pro-Russian rebels.
The 5.149.249[.]172 IP address – one of those identified in an FBI flash alert about the hacker attacks in the US states (aimed at election systems, and apparently unsuccessful) – was used to carry out cyber attacks against members of the Ukrainian Parliament, Turkey’s ruling AKP party and Germany’s Freedom Party in 2016.
Fancy Bear with All the Fixins
On a Wednesday in early April 2105, the French television network TV5Monde began broadcasting ISIS slogans. Its Facebook page started to post warnings like: “Soldiers of France, stay away from the Islamic State! You have the chance to save your families, take advantage of it.”
After weeks of alarmist headlines about the latest demonstration of ISIS cyber prowess, the incident was determined to have been the work of Fancy Bear, a hacker group long associated with Russian government interests.
It took nearly a month for cybersecurity companies investigating the attack to determine that it had, in actuality, been carried out by Fancy Bear. One of the companies, FireEye,told BuzzFeed News that they had traced the attack back to the group by looking at the IP addresses used to attack the station, and comparing them to IP addresses used in previous attacks carried out by Fancy Bear. The ISIS claims of responsibility planted on TV5Monde were just a disinformation campaign launched by the Russians to create public hysteria over the prospect of a terror group launching a cyberattack.
“Russia has a long history of using information operations to sow disinformation and discord, and to confuse the situation in a way that could benefit them,” Jen Weedon, a researcher at FireEye told BuzzFeed News following the attack. “In this case, it’s possible that the ISIS cyber caliphate could be a distraction. This could be a touch run to see if they could pull off a coordinated attack on a media outlet that resulted in stopping broadcasts, and stopping news dissemination.”
Fancy Bear was one of two hacker groups said to be responsible for the hacking of the Hillary Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Like Stealing Candy from a Baby
On March 10, 2016, emails appearing to come from Google were sent to 128 accounts associated with the two groups. About 25% of those recipients took the bait, giving access to their email accounts, shared calendars, documents, and spreadsheets on their Google Drive.
Throughout the summer and fall, a steady stream of documents pilfered in this manner made their way into news accounts. There were no smoking guns, just the internal machinations of a political machine playing the US electoral game.
The Clinton campaign amounted to “business as usual,” and that’s why I supported the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. My support for Clinton in the general election was based on the judgment that business as usual was a better option than business as it used to be. The choices being made for cabinet positions in the upcoming administration prove my assessment was correct.
It was not the substance that mattered in those news stories about the emails; it was the appearance of scandal created by the manner in which those stories were framed. I’m not about to claim the leaked emails were THE decisive factor in the general election, but it cannot be denied the were used by those eager to undermine the credibility of the Democratic nominee.
Donald Trump had no qualms about using what was being handed to him, exaggerating Wikileaks emails without regard for anything other than the headlines a compliant press was often willing to give him.
As David Frum in the Atlantic points out:
Without Trump’s own willingness to make false claims and misuse Russian-provided information, the Wikileaks material would have deflated of its own boringness. The Russian-hacked material did damage because, and only because, Russia found a willing accomplice in the person of Donald J. Trump.
Many questions remain about how the Russian spy services did what they did. That includes Putin’s motives for ordering the operation. But on issues from Crimea to Syria to NATO to the breakup of the European Union, Trump’s publicly expressed views align with Putin’s wishes.
Over Trump’s motives for collaborating so full-throatedly with Russian espionage, there hangs a greater and more disturbing mystery—a mystery that Trump seems in no hurry to dispel. And maybe he is wise to leave the mystery in place: as delegitimizing as it is, it’s very possible the truth would be even worse.
The Industrial Trolling Complex
Finally, there are the reports on the people hired to spread misinformation on social media.
In June 2014, Max Seddon wrote about the recruiting and training of online trolls spreading the Russian messages on the comments section of top American websites. Trolls were reportedly expected to manage multiple fake accounts and post on news articles 50 times a day, often with sentiments as simplistic as “Putin makes Obama look stupid and weak!”
Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective show IT managers reporting on a new ideological front against the West in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.
The bizarre hive of social media activity appears to be part of a two-pronged Kremlin campaign to claim control over the internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion as it cracks down on internet freedom at home.
Adrian Chen wrote about the evolution of this strategy in the New York Times in June 2015, detailing hoaxes perpetrated by assorted Russian groups, including a faked toxic chemical explosion in Louisiana, a made-up Ebola outbreak, and the purported shooting of an unarmed black woman by police in Atlanta.
These disinformation operations were more than just tweets and Facebook posts. They included doctored screenshots from CNN, fully functional clones of the websites of TV stations and newspapers, YouTube videos, a Wikipedia page, and–in the case of the Louisiana hoax– text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish.
Chen visited a building that once housed the Internet Research Agency, one of several quasi-governmental agencies reported to be associated with such hoaxes in St. Petersburg. A former agency employee named Ludmila Savchuk explained how Internet proxy services were used to mask the origins of their work, which included expressing whatever opinions mandated by management.
As Savchuk and other former employees describe it, the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling. Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines. “It was a very strong corporate feeling,” Savchuk says. Her schedule gave her two 12-hour days in a row, followed by two days off. Over those two shifts she had to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts and 150 to 200 comments on other workers’ posts. The grueling schedule wore her down. She began to feel queasy, she said, posting vitriol about opposition leaders of whom she had no actual opinion, or writing nasty words about Ukrainians when some of her closest acquaintances, including her own ex-husband, were Ukrainian.
Samantha Bee Interviews Some Trolls
Adrian Chen compiled a list of troll accounts used by the Russians. He revisited those accounts a year later and discovered they were now posing as conservatives supporting Trump.
The Ultimate Ad Hominem Argument
Trent Lapinski, who calls himself a “patriotic American who works in cloud computing and cyber security.” penned an article at Medium, promising an analysis of the ‘Russians are hacking’ allegations. I’m citing his piece as an example of the critiques I’m seeing.
He, as others questioning the government’s public evidence have done, points to a lack of enough technical specificity in the FBI/Homeland Security report. He’s right if the hacking is examined outside the context of what the Russians and their minions have done elsewhere. Or the Snowden document showing the NSA used more robust point to point surveillance a decade ago.
Perhaps it’s just a lucky coincidence these events strongly resemble every other action taken in other countries benefitting Putin over the past decade.
Somehow, I don’t think so.
Lapinski goes on to make the argument questioning Russian involvement by invoking the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts, the CIA’s forays into domestic matters, and the McCarthyism. While he and others concede it’s possible the US government’s claims are true, the Medium article gets to what I believe is the real argument being made.
The Obama White House is trying to use various intelligence agencies, reputations and authority to convince the American people that Russia has something to do with Wikileaks, and the election of Donald Trump. This is likely an attempt to distract the American people from the content of Wikileaks, delegitimize Trump’s election and future Presidency, invoke Cold War fears, and establish a new wave of 1950’s McCarthysim against anyone who questions the Obama narrative.
I’m not going to bother with explaining the difference between the (mostly) centrist Democratic policies of the past eight years as opposed to the decades-long quest of reactionaries to undo the New Deal and its derivatives. Read a damned history book, please. The political pedigree of the main players moving into power is all about authoritarianism.
And the only quest for listing of names–ala McCarthy– I’m seeing is coming from the Trump transition team, which is demanding the names of government employees tasked with working on policies unpopular with conservatives.
Those who are “questioning” the outgoing administration’s policies have made their intentions clear: they intend to subvert or undo every element of policies embracing the needs of the disenfranchised and non-wealthy. They worship at the altar of the marketplace.
Opposition to reactionary agendas centers around policy arguments driven by organized mass movements. Opposition to liberal/progressive agendas has centered around simply eliminating/defunding/discrediting its advocates, in addition to policy arguments.
There will be opposition to the Trump/Pence administration’s policies. The left is correct to question its legitimacy given the amount of grifting looming on the horizon and the conduct of its principals.
To call out political opposition as McCarthyism, when the party in power controls all three branches of the federal government, the vast majority of State governments, and the acquiescence of much of nation’s wealthy amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem argument.
The Road Ahead
There are lessons to be learned from the 2016 elections. The most important one when it comes to this tale of propagandizing and polarization is that the Russians are not, per se, the problem.
Moving forward, we need to be aware that foreign powers, in addition to the security apparatus of the federal government under the control of Donald Trump (and his ilk), are another factor to be considered in building a united front against reactionary policies. If the Russians like what they see in Washington in coming months, they may be inclined to direct some of their dezinformatsiya at those opposing Trumpism.
Or they may continue with the broad aims of their programs, which involve weakening the political fabric of those nations perceived to be in their way.
The problem of authoritarianism is a world-wide one, exacerbated by inequality, global capitalism, and cultural changes brought on by mass media’s growth. Russia is just one example.
For now, while we need to be aware of and support progressive movements worldwide, we have our own homegrown threat to face.
In the meantime:
- Show up, in your community.
- Make stopping Trump a regular habit.
- Take care of yourself and others.
This has been a special I’m-on-vacation-but-had-to-write-something-about-this edition of The Starting Line. I’ll be back later in the week.
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