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Sunday, January 08, 2017

CIA Russian Hacking Report: Another Nothingburger?

Friday's report raises more questions about the CIA than about Russia.

T he US government has released a second report detailing the opinions of the CIA and FBI about supposed Russian hacking. An unclassified version of the report is titled “ODNI Statement on Declassified Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections January 6, 2017” and is available here.

I've been re-reading the accounts of Soviet spying during the Cold War. Christopher Andrew and many others wrote extensively about Russian propaganda influence in the West during the Cold War. His book The Sword and the Shield: the Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, which revealed the contents of KGB documents, was shocking.

Contrast the well sourced and convincing reports in Andrew's book to this (from bullet points, not necessarily in sequence):

From August to November 2012, RT ran numerous reports on alleged US election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities, contending that US election results cannot be trusted and do not reflect the popular will.

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a “sham.”

In early September, Putin said publicly it was important the DNC data was exposed to WikiLeaks, calling the search for the source of the leaks a distraction and denying Russian “state-level”involvement.

Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.”

These election-related disclosures reflect a pattern of Russian intelligence using hacked information in targeted influence efforts against targets such as Olympic athletes and other foreign governments. Such efforts have included releasing or altering personal data, defacing websites, or releasing e-mails.

Seven of the 15 pages are devoted exclusively to RT, which anybody with half a brain knows is a Kremlin mouthpiece. Yet the bar chart in the report shows RT is less popular than Al Jazeera in Twitter followers and Facebook likes. Al Jazeera America was so unpopular it had only 28,000 viewers and went out of business in April 2016.

Here are some samples from the section on RT. Note this entire section, and the dates listed, are from 2012.

RT's reports often characterize the United States as a “surveillance state” and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use (RT, 24, 28 October, 1-10 November).

RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT's hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse (RT, 31 October, 4 November).

RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government's concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom's profitability (5 October).

This last paragraph makes no sense. If Trump is in favor of fracking, and Hillary is ambivalent about it, RT's position is closer to Hillary's, not Trump's.

There is no doubt the Russian government used, and probably still uses, propaganda. But there is not a word about any hacking in the report other than to accuse Guccifer 2.0 of being a Russian. And since when is criticism of the US national debt propaganda? The US national debt is too high!

Before the invasion of Ukraine, RT was a good source for the Russian point of view. Afterward, even the most hardened right-wingers saw it as hysterical nationalist propaganda, devoid of content. I can't speak for hardened left-wingers, since I don't know very many of them.

But this report only talks about motivations and intentions. For example, on page 4 it talks about Russian officials expressing opinions in Russian media outlets. On page 5 it talks about post-cold war attempts to gain insider information, but backs it up with a claim from Mitrokhin (in Andrew's 1999 book) about something the KGB did in 1970. As mentioned, almost half the report was written in 2012.

In today's world, opinions are a dime a dozen, and the opinions the CIA attributes to RT could have come from MSNBC, CBS, or any of a dozen other American media outlets.

Nothing in this declassified CIA report is evidence that the Russian government had any more influence on the election than your average blogger. On the contrary, its main effect is to raise doubt about the earlier revelations that were assumed to be true.

Here's what it looks like out here in flyover country:

FSB GUY: Comrade Putin! We have discovered capitalist DNC honcho John Podesta's password. Is password!

PUTIN: Da, FSB honcho, so what is password then?

FSB GUY: Is password!

PUTIN: ...

FSB GUY: Not giving evil death stare, dahlink, password is password!

PUTIN: How we knowing this? Aldrich whatsisname out of jail already?

FSB GUY: Podesta was world class doofus, clicking on phishing spam email!

FSB GUY: Was our trolls in Main Internet Trolling Directorate, Division Roosky Yizzik Spam, Section 37!

FSB GUY: Was us, just like in 82, who brought a quarter of million people out onto the streets to protest Yankee cruise missiles!

PUTIN: Crimea! I mean crimminy! That was us? You mean those Yankees actually click on those spams we send out about fake watches and ending wodka addiction? Capitalist education system must really suck ... Well, okay then, passing it along to Wikileaks.

FSB GUY: Da, will do. Having now deep intelligence to help make America Great again! Orange One not loose cannon! Will spend billions of Yankee dollars on more nukes and subs! So can start up cold war again too, spend billions on missiles to defending motherland against orange capitalist honcho!

FSB GUY: Is not Yankee nothingburger, is real! RT now getting millions hits every day from IP addresses in USA! Is boldest yet!

FSB GUY: Can now advance our longstanding desire to undermine US-led liberal democratic order by our unprecedented use of meaningless email disclosures! And now can lose war on terrorism! Is win-win!

FSB GUY: (voice fading as exits) Also hacked UK, tricked them into voting for Brexit!!!!

PUTIN: Okey-doke. Good job. BCNQ.

Motivations and goals are meaningless, and opinions, even from hostile governments, are the lifeblood of a democracy. If the US government wants to convince us, they should release a syslog file, an intrusion log, or whatever other records they have. At best it looks like some parts of the establishment are fighting the last war. At worst it looks like the government wants to take aim at anti-Hillary opinion by calling it foreign propaganda.

The NSA deserves praise for saying they have only “moderate confidence” in the conclusions.

Maybe the Russians really did something. But as with so many other things, the more people back it up with flimsy evidence and speculation, the more I'm inclined to call it fake news.

Last edited Jan 09 2016 9:08 am

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