The true patriotism, the only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.
– Mark Twain, The Czar’s Soliloquy”
At this point, pretty much everyone in America has seen the results of Hillary Clinton media pet, John Harwood’s recent Twitter poll.
Who do you believe America?
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) January 6, 2017
The significance of the above cannot be overstated. U.S. intelligence agencies, like so many other national institutions, have lost nearly all credibility in the eyes of the American public. The list is long, but includes economists, politicians, the mainstream media, central bankers, the financial system, and a lot more. The loss in credibility is well deserved and has nothing to do with Russia. Rather, it’s a function of a disastrous 21st century outcome for U.S. citizens both at home and abroad. A result that was achieved under eight years of Republican rule and then eight years of Democratic rule. The results were the same whether a donkey or elephant was in charge, because the people determining policy behind the scenes never really changed (same economists, central bankers, intelligence officials, etc), and the people selling the catastrophic policies to the public definitely never changes (mainstream media and its worthless pundits).
So here we stand at a moment where trust in essentially all U.S. institutions is at a well deserved all-time low, and the best the establishment can come up with is to blame Russia. Even worse, those pushing the whole “Putin is to blame for everything” conspiracy theories, consistently refuse to back up their assertions with any evidence whatsoever. In fact, with each passing week the case looks increasingly flimsy, with the latest declassified document issued Friday being particularly suspect. Even many of those largely convinced of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election admit the most recent report was pathetic, embarrassing and proved absolutely nothing.
Robert Parry of Consortium News summarizes the farce perfectly in his recent piece U.S. Report Still Lacks Proof on Russia ‘Hack’. Here’s how he begins the article:
Repeating an accusation over and over again is not evidence that the accused is guilty, no matter how much “confidence” the accuser asserts about the conclusion. Nor is it evidence just to suggest that someone has a motive for doing something. Many conspiracy theories are built on the notion of “cui bono” – who benefits – without following up the supposed motive with facts.
But that is essentially what the U.S. intelligence community has done regarding the dangerous accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated a covert information campaign to influence the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election in favor of Republican Donald Trump.
Just a day after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper vowed to go to the greatest possible lengths to supply the public with the evidence behind the accusations, his office released a 25-page report that contained no direct evidence that Russia delivered hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta to WikiLeaks.
The DNI report amounted to a compendium of reasons to suspect that Russia was the source of the information – built largely on the argument that Russia had a motive for doing so because of its disdain for Democratic nominee Clinton and the potential for friendlier relations with Republican nominee Trump.
But the report’s assessment is more than just a reasonable judgment based on a body of incomplete information. It is tendentious in that it only lays out the case for believing in Russia’s guilt, not reasons for doubting that guilt.
For instance, while it is true that many Russian officials, including President Putin, considered Clinton to be a threat to worsen the already frayed relationship between the two nuclear superpowers, the report ignores the downside for Russia trying to interfere with the U.S. election campaign and then failing to stop Clinton, which looked like the most likely outcome until Election Night.
If Russia had accessed the DNC and Podesta emails and slipped them to WikiLeaks for publication, Putin would have to think that the National Security Agency, with its exceptional ability to track electronic communications around the world, might well have detected the maneuver and would have informed Clinton.
So, on top of Clinton’s well-known hawkishness, Putin would have risked handing the expected incoming president a personal reason to take revenge on him and his country. Historically, Russia has been very circumspect in such situations, usually holding its intelligence collections for internal purposes only, not sharing them with the public.
Another very good breakdown of the clownishness of the latest intel report was written by noted anti-Putin activist Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books. Like many others, she finds the obsession with RT within the report bizarre to say the least. She notes:
Finally, the bulk of the rest of the report is devoted to RT, the television network formerly known as Russia Today.
A seven-page annex to the report details RT activities, including hosting third-party candidate debates, broadcasting a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement and “anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health”—perfectly appropriate journalistic activities, even if they do appear on what is certainly a propaganda outlet funded by an aggressive dictatorship. An entire page is devoted to RT’s social media footprint: the network appears to score more YouTube views than CNN (though far fewer Facebook likes). Even this part of the report is slightly misleading: RT’s tactics for inflating its viewership numbers in order to secure continued Kremlin funding has been the subject of some convincing scholarship. That is the entirety of the case the intelligence agencies have presented: Putin wanted Trump to win and used WikiLeaks and RT to ensure that outcome.
Indeed, it appears the intelligence community is more concerned that RT is doing a better job than U.S. journalists at covering issues Americans care about than it is about Russia “hacking the election.” She also concludes:
Despite its brevity, the report makes many repetitive statements remarkable for their misplaced modifiers, mangled assertions, and missing words. This is not just bad English: this is muddled thinking and vague or entirely absent argument…
It is conceivable that the classified version of the report, which includes additional “supporting information” and sourcing, adds up to a stronger case. But considering the arc of the argument contained in the report, and the principle findings (which are apparently “identical” to those in the classified version), this would be a charitable reading. An appropriate headline for a news story on this report might be something like, “Intel Report on Russia Reveals Few New Facts,” or, say, “Intelligence Agencies Claim Russian Propaganda TV Influenced Election.” Instead, however, the major newspapers and commentators spoke in unison, broadcasting the report’s assertion of Putin’s intent without examining the arguments.
Which brings me to the biggest red flag in the entire intelligence report. The part where it states:
We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.
If any agency should have high confidence it’s the NSA, and pretty much every security expert I follow seems to agree. First, here’s what Bruce Schneier wrote in his recent piece, Attributing the DNC Hacks to Russia:
Attribution is easier if you are monitoring broad swaths of the Internet. This gives the National Security Agency a singular advantage in the attribution game. The problem, of course, is that the NSA doesn’t want to publish what it knows.
Isn’t that interesting. The one agency with the most information is the one least confident in the conclusion. Why only moderate confidence from the NSA? I wonder.
Schneier isn’t the only one of course. As famed NSA whistleblower William Binney noted in a recent article coauthored with Ray McGovern, The Dubious Case on Russian ‘Hacking’:
With respect to the alleged interference by Russia and WikiLeaks in the U.S. election, it is a major mystery why U.S. intelligence feels it must rely on “circumstantial evidence,” when it has NSA’s vacuum cleaner sucking up hard evidence galore. What we know of NSA’s capabilities shows that the email disclosures were from leaking, not hacking.
Here’s the difference:
Hack: When someone in a remote location electronically penetrates operating systems, firewalls or other cyber-protection systems and then extracts data. Our own considerable experience, plus the rich detail revealed by Edward Snowden, persuades us that, with NSA’s formidable trace capability, it can identify both sender and recipient of any and all data crossing the network.
Leak: When someone physically takes data out of an organization — on a thumb drive, for example — and gives it to someone else, as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did. Leaking is the only way such data can be copied and removed with no electronic trace.
Because NSA can trace exactly where and how any “hacked” emails from the Democratic National Committee or other servers were routed through the network, it is puzzling why NSA cannot produce hard evidence implicating the Russian government and WikiLeaks. Unless we are dealing with a leak from an insider, not a hack, as other reporting suggests. From a technical perspective alone, we are convinced that this is what happened.
Again, if any agency should have high confidence, it is the NSA.
Moving along, the U.S. government’s case gets even weaker the more you dig into it. A perfect example can be seen in how poorly State Department spokesman Robert Kirby handled a few questions during a recent press conference. Here’s the clip:
Three major red flags appear in this exchange. First, Mr. Kirby admits that no evidence has been provided to the public regarding Russian hacking and distribution of information to Wikileaks, and that none would be forthcoming.
Second, Mr. Kirby repeatedly insists that the fact “all 17 intelligence agencies” came to the same conclusion should be sufficient for the American public in the absence of any actual proof. To this I reply:
I don’t know about you, but the fact that seventeen agencies representing a bipartisan status quo that has been catastrophically wrong about pretty much everything came to the same conclusion, does not inspire confidence or credibility in the mind of this citizen.
Finally, there’s red flag number three. When AP reporter Matt Lee follows up wondering why the WMD assessment debacle holds no relevance to the current intelligence assessment, Mr. Kirby responds by highlighting all of “the kinds of gains that have been made in intelligence and analysis since then.”
Here’s the problem. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper does not have clean hands when it comes to the WMD affair. He also blatantly lied to the American people with regard to NSA surveillance before being called out by Edward Snowden. As Binney and McGovern explain:
Mr. Trump’s skepticism is warranted not only by technical realities, but also by human ones, including the dramatis personae involved. Mr. Clapper has admitted giving Congress on March 12, 2013, false testimony regarding the extent of the National Security Agency’s collection of data on Americans. Four months later, after the Edward Snowden revelations, Mr. Clapper apologized to the Senate for testimony he admitted was “clearly erroneous.” That he is a survivor was already apparent by the way he landed on his feet after the intelligence debacle on Iraq.
Mr. Clapper was a key player in facilitating the fraudulent intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put Mr. Clapper in charge of the analysis of satellite imagery, the best source for pinpointing the location of weapons of mass destruction — if any.
When Pentagon favorites like Iraqi émigré Ahmed Chalabi plied U.S. intelligence with spurious “evidence” on WMD in Iraq, Mr. Clapper was in position to suppress the findings of any imagery analyst who might have the temerity to report, for example, that the Iraqi “chemical weapons facility” for which Mr. Chalabi provided the geographic coordinates was nothing of the kind. Mr. Clapper preferred to go by the Rumsfeldian dictum: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” (It will be interesting to see if he tries that out on the President-elect Friday.)
A year after the war began, Mr. Chalabi told the media, “We are heroes in error. As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful.” By that time it was clear there were no WMD in Iraq. When Mr. Clapper was asked to explain, he opined, without adducing any evidence, that they probably were moved into Syria.
To conclude, I certainly think it is important to know if the Russian government hacked the DNC/Podesta and then handed that information to Wikileaks. Likewise, such an explosive claim necessitates publicly available evidence given the horrible track record of U.S. intelligence agencies. Until such evidence is made available I, like countless other Americans, will tend to believe Wikileaks, which has a track record of proving its claims and being accurate, as opposed to U.S. intelligence, which doesn’t.