Do American spies have the goods on Russia?

January 18, 2017

Mukund Rathi examines the charge that Russia is intervening in U.S. politics to favor Donald Trump--and shows why this fixation will only set back building a resistance.

HAS RUSSIA pulled off an act of espionage more spectacular than anything during the Cold War era, when it was the world's second-mightiest superpower?

That's what leading Democrats and liberal commentators are implying and even saying outright as allegations about Russian cyber-spies hacking Democratic Party e-mail accounts and gathering damaging information about Donald Trump reverberate around the media.

Democrats are calling Trump an "illegitimate" president--not because he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton or that he needed the slaveholders' Electoral College to "win" or even that he represents a reactionary agenda that is opposed by the majority of people, but because Russia interfered in the election and changed the outcome.

Even if there is some level of truth to the allegations of Russian hacking and spying, the Democrats' Russia fixation is problematic on any number of levels.

For one, there's the spectacle of liberals celebrating the Big Brother intelligence agencies they ought to be instinctively suspicious of. Even more important, the narrow focus on Russian meddling is drowning out the best means for the left--like, as Lance Selfa wrote for, exposing the influence of made-in-the-USA oligarchs on Trump--to build a resistance to confront and undermine the Trump administration.

The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland

THE ALLEGATIONS about Trump, Vladimir Putin and Russia have been around for a while, but they reached a new level earlier this month.

First, on January 6, a declassified report from the office of the director of national intelligence concluded that Putin "directed a vast cyber-attack," the New York Times reported, to aid Trump in winning the presidential election last November. The report was stripped of most non-public evidence, but still "damning," according to the Times.

The newspaper's lead journalist on the intelligence community wrote that while there is no "hard evidence" of the plot, this "brazen meddling by Russia in the very core of American democracy" was "no one-off." The Times' editorial board, aghast at Trump's dismissal of the report, asked: "What plausible reason could Donald Trump have for trying so hard to discredit America's intelligence agencies and their finding that Russia interfered in the presidential election?"

Other mainstream media outlets weighed in with similar alarms. New Yorker editor David Remnick suggested it was impossible, "if these intelligence reports are true, to count the 2016 presidential election as unsullied." He quoted Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's chief adviser on Russia, saying that there had never been a "Moscow-Kremlin-instigated gambit that was so spectacularly successful as what they have done with our democracy."

Then came the revelations on January 10 that U.S. intelligence chiefs had briefed Trump and President Obama on an unverified dossier, prepared by a former British intelligence operative, alleging that the Russian government had worked behind the scenes with Trump for years, and had compromising information on him. Hours later, BuzzFeed published the unverified document.

The response from progressive writer Rebecca Solnit was typical: "This is the evidence that the election was corrupted by the Trump team's collusion with a foreign power, and it seems very, very, very likely that Trump knew. Treason." (Solnit's Facebook post quoted by the Intercept seems to have been deleted, but similar posts remain.)

Democrats sounded the same theme, including Rep. John Lewis, who told NBC News: "I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton."

You don't have to be a Trump supporter convinced that the Russian allegations are a fraud to notice the double standards here. After spending months complaining that Trump might not recognize the results of the election if Clinton won, decrying how fake news was driving ignorant Trump supporters and emphasizing the importance of the "peaceful transfer of power" rather than protest, Democrats are stating openly that Russia made the election illegitimate, unverified leaked documents are sufficient basis for charging treason, and only now is unyielding protest acceptable.

WHAT ABOUT the evidence itself? Does it hold up? The available substantiation of Russian intervention in the election is far from conclusive.

On December 29, Obama slammed Russia for "cyber operations aimed at the US election"--specifically, by hacking e-mail accounts of Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials and leaking them to WikiLeaks. The FBI also released a report on "Russian Malicious Cyber Activity."

The only publicly available evidence backing these charges is circumstantial--for example, some of the malware code found in the DNC network after it was hacked is suspected being used by Russian-linked hackers. Such malware can be copied and redeployed by other hackers, say analysts.

Cyber-security expert Bruce Schneier makes the case that finding the source of espionage like this on the basis of the known evidence is largely a political exercise. He writes:

In the end... attribution comes down to whom you believe. When Citizen Lab writes a report outlining how a United Arab Emirates human rights defender was targeted with a cyberattack, we have no trouble believing that it was the UAE government. When Google identifies China as the source of attacks against Gmail users, we believe it just as easily.

Likewise, the declassified intelligence report released January 6 is also long on conclusions and short on evidence.

Former NSA attorney Susan Hennessey criticized the declassified report as "underwhelming at best" with no new information. In an interview with a Guardian reporter, she pointed out that the longest section of the report has nothing to do with Russian hacking--it's an annex on how the Russia Today television network operates as a propaganda arm of the Russian government.

Russian author Masha Gessen, who is a vocal critic of Putin, wrote a detailed takedown of the slim evidence contained in the report. Gessen argues that the report misinterprets several of Putin's remarks as being more friendly to Trump than they actually were--the "bromance" allegation has been getting around--among other factual and logical errors.

THE DOSSIER released January 10, which claims the Russian government has damaging evidence that could be used to pressure Trump, is even more questionable.

It makes a variety of allegations that Russia has been giving Trump information on Clinton and other opponents, offered him lucrative real estate deals in Russia, recorded Trump having sex with prostitutes, convinced him to give Russia leeway in his comments on geopolitical conflicts and much more.

The author is a former British intelligence agent who was, according to the New York Times, hired by anti-Trump Republicans and later Democrats to compile information on Trump's "past scandals and weaknesses." The dossier bounced around various media outlets last fall, but no one would publish it--there was one Mother Jones article in October that discussed it.

This only changed when Republican Sen. John McCain passed the dossier to the FBI and insisted it investigate. The Guardian reported that the FBI did seek warrants in mid-2016 to monitor Trump campaign team members "suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials," and eventually were granted limited approval.

Democrats are now grilling FBI Director James Comey for staying silent about any FBI investigation into collusion between Trump and Russia, contrasting it with his repeated pre-election statements about probes of Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server.

There are charges in the dossier that readers of this website will have no trouble believing. Trump's real estate dealings are notoriously sleazy, and his unhinged hatred of Barack Obama and misogynist behavior toward women has been proven with hard evidence.

But it has to be acknowledged that the Russia dossier is the product of political opposition research, and it is based entirely on anonymous sources known only to its author. If nothing else, the flimsy basis of the charges gave Trump the perfect opportunity to turn the tables on Democrats and the media, and accuse them of peddling "fake news."

THE HYPOCRISY doesn't begin and end with the Democrats, of course. Opportunism is about partisan jockeying, not facts or political principles.

That's why Trump is now citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to defend himself on the allegations of a Russia connection--despite having called for Assange's execution in 2010. The Democrats have made the opposite flip-flop, as left-wing writer Glenn Greenwald pointed out:

Republicans hated WikiLeaks when they were publishing cables about what the Bush administration was doing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the war crimes that were committed...And that was at the same time, by the way, that lots of Democrats and liberals were praising WikiLeaks for bringing needed transparency to the war crimes and the abuses of the Bush administration. Now both sides have done a complete reversal, for the same reasons we've seen over and over, which is partisan opportunism.

One of the most disturbing outcomes of this role reversal is the alignment of liberals with the CIA, the intelligence agency most vigorously opposing Trump.

Thus, former CIA Director Michael Morell wrote in a New York Times op-ed article in August that he was endorsing Clinton and that Trump was at best an "unwitting" agent of Russia. Michael Hayden, who directed both the NSA and CIA, wrote in the Washington Post just days before the election that Trump was a Putin stooge.

Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Times, denounced so routinely as liberal by Republicans, was aghast at Trump's lack of respect for institutions which "keep the nation safe." In more pedestrian language, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer declared that Trump was "really dumb" for taking on the intelligence agencies.

IN FACT, U.S. intelligence agencies are the very best example of why it is utterly hypocritical to blast Russia--or China, for that matter--for hacking.

Since U.S. telecommunication companies control international markets and the U.S. government can prod other states to comply, the NSA, CIA and the rest can often get what they want without resorting to hacking.

Nevertheless, Russia doesn't even come close to the sordid history of cyber-attacks originating in the American Big Brother apparatus. Here is a brief sample:

In 1997, the NSA established the Tailored Access Operations unit--a collection of master hackers tasked with gaining "access to our very hardest targets."

In 2002, the FBI for the first time hacked an international target, exfiltrating data from Russian criminal suspects.

In 2007, the NSA began hacking Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, both to research its ties to the Chinese government, but also use its exported technology to spy on and potentially hack customer countries.

A 2009 document shows that the NSA's TURBINE system automatically implants malware and exfiltrates data from millions of computers and networks.

In 2009-10, the U.S. and Israel jointly deployed the Stuxnet virus in Iran to sabotage the country's nuclear centrifuge equipment.

In 2012, the Obama administration directed intelligence agencies to make a list of potential targets for U.S. cyber-attacks, noting that they offer "unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. national objectives around the world."

-A 2012 document shows that the NSA hacked the private network of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.

A 2013 document shows that the NSA hacked the data links connecting servers of companies like Yahoo and Google, despite having front-door access through the PRISM program.

In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration publicly acknowledged using malware in foreign countries.

For years, criminal hackers dubbed the "Equation Group" infected systems from Iran's nuclear power program to Russian finance. Exhaustive forensic research in 2015 linked them to the NSA.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a new warrant rule allowing in some cases for the FBI and other law enforcement to use one warrant for hacking in multiple judicial districts, which would likely cause inadvertent foreign hacking, according to experts.

The NSA has spent years on a militarization campaign on the Internet, including commandeering consumer Internet routers to perform stealthy, swift hacking.

SO SHOULD we be skeptical that there is any substance to the Russia allegations?

I would be surprised if Russia--a major imperialist power in competition with the U.S.--had no involvement whatsoever in the hacking of Democratic Party e-mail accounts, with the aim of embarrassing a political rival, if not swaying the whole presidential election. It seems simply illogical that an imperialist power would not intervene, as long as it was capable of doing so, in a situation where its interests are at stake.

That said, Russian involvement might not amount to a spectacular conspiracy worthy of a spy novel. Maybe there was a coordinated effort of the entire Russian intelligence apparatus--maybe there wasn't. Maybe Putin ordered the operation with the goal of aiding Trump and causing Clinton political problems--maybe he didn't. Maybe some Russian intelligence agent is laughing right now at a Trump sex tape--maybe not.

Yes, we should protest when scaremongering about Russian cyber-spies is used for the purposes of U.S. imperialism to justify military buildups and giving the U.S. surveillance apparatus more power. But that doesn't mean we can't acknowledge that Russia is also an imperialist power, capable of intervening in elections, U.S. and otherwise.

The bigger point for the left, though, is that the Democrats' obsession with Russian espionage is harmful in building a resistance against the onslaught coming from the Trump administration. Glenn Greenwald put it well:

Most important of all, the legitimate and effective tactics for opposing Trump are being utterly drowned by these irrational, desperate, ad hoc crusades that have no cogent strategy and make his opponents appear increasingly devoid of reason and gravity. Right now, Trump's opponents are behaving as media critic Adam Johnson described: as ideological jellyfish, floating around aimlessly and lost, desperately latching on to whatever barge randomly passes by.

There are solutions to Trump. They involve reasoned strategizing and patient focus on issues people actually care about. Whatever those solutions are, venerating the intelligence community, begging for its intervention, and equating its dark and dirty assertions as Truth are most certainly not among them. Doing that cannot possibly achieve any good and is already doing much harm.

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