Critics Say Russian Hacking Story Driven by Hidden Agendas, Unsupportable Claims

REUTERS/David Becker
REUTERS/David Becker

On Friday, the Washington Post claimed, “The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.”

There has been considerable pushback against this report the past few days, perhaps most dramatically from the FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as Reuters detailed on Tuesday:

While the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) does not dispute the CIA’s analysis of Russian hacking operations, it has not endorsed their assessment because of a lack of conclusive evidence that Moscow intended to boost Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, said the officials, who declined to be named.

“ODNI is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can’t prove intent,” said one of the three U.S. officials. “Of course they can’t, absent agents in on the decision-making in Moscow.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose evidentiary standards require it to make cases that can stand up in court, declined to accept the CIA’s analysis – a deductive assessment of the available intelligence – for the same reason, the three officials said.

Even the amount of real “hacking” done by whoever did this, for whatever reason, has been called into question. According to a New York Times report on Tuesday, it turns out that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, fell for a simple “phishing” email that instructed him to proceed to click on a button to change his Google Mail password. It was a phony email and fake website, so clicking the button actually gave the hackers access to his email.

The NYT report said this phishing email, and similar messages, were sent to hundreds of “American political targets,” although it does not definitively state if the same hackers sent all of them.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Podesta fell prey to this phishing scheme because of what Clinton campaign aide Charles Delavan now calls a “typo.” Delevan sent a message to a Podesta aide saying, “This is a legitimate email” and advising Podesta to “change his password immediately.” He later said he meant to call it an “illegitimate email,” and wanted Podesta to change his password through ordinary, secure means, not by clicking the button in the scam email.

He can’t, however, completely take the heat from Podesta and his aides, given that Podesta wrote a report on cyberscurity for President Obama in 2014. One would think the author of such a report would know better than to click on the “CHANGE PASSWORD” button in a weird email.

The Times report also criticizes the Democratic National Committee for being too slow to cooperate with the FBI after its system was compromised, in part because one of the DNC’s tech support contractors was not sure he was really talking to an FBI agent.

The Times, however, agrees with the Washington Post’s explosive report about the overall nature of the cyberattack, calling it “a cyberespionage and information-warfare campaign devised to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, the first such attempt by a foreign power in American history.”

The NYT also asserts that intelligence officials believe it was “an effort to harm one candidate, Hillary Clinton, and tip the election to her opponent, Donald J. Trump.” Not just one, but two gratuitous references to Watergate are thrown in to emphasize this point.

Supporters of WikiLeaks have reacted harshly to suggestions they were stooges for a Russian intelligence operation. Among the harshest criticisms was penned by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, in which the Washington Post’s Friday story was criticized as “classic American journalism of the worst sort: The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.”

Greenwald assailed the Post for burying the concession that intelligence officials disagreed about the CIA’s assessment deep in their story. He also warned that intelligence leaks from anonymous sources should not be taken at face value because it is impossible to verify the credentials or consider the motivations of anonymous leakers, especially when they refer to classified material that the public cannot see for itself and the leaks occur with suspiciously precise political-bombshell timing.

The UK Guardian on Saturday relayed a sharp denunciation of the CIA assessment from Craig Murray, formerly ambassador to Uzbekistan for the United Kingdom and a close associate of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. (His sharp denunciation was, verbatim: “Bullshit. They are absolutely making it up.”)

Murray claims he knows who leaked the DNC’s data to WikiLeaks, and, in fact, has met them personally to receive the documents in question. “They are certainly not Russian, and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack,” he said.

He also argued that if agents of the Russian government were involved and the CIA knew who they were, there would have been repercussions far beyond anonymous sources leaking spicy information to select newspapers a month before the new president takes office: “America has not been shy about arresting whistleblowers and it’s not been shy about extraditing hackers. They plainly have no knowledge whatsoever.”

In a similar vein, the Guardian quotes Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) of the House Intelligence Committee, who is also a member of the Trump transition team: “I’ll be the first one to come out and point at Russia if there’s clear evidence, but there is no clear evidence – even now. There’s a lot of innuendo, lots of circumstantial evidence, that’s it.”

On the other hand, departing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) accused FBI Director James Comey of personally ordering the concealment of evidence that would expose Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, as a favor to Donald Trump – a bit of innuendo that will rest comfortably in the ears of Democrats who think Comey stole the election from Hillary Clinton by reactivating the investigation of her email server at the eleventh hour.

Reid, who is notorious for falsely accusing Republican candidate Mitt Romney of tax evasion during the 2012 presidential campaign, said:

I am so disappointed in Comey. He has let the country down for partisan purposes and that’s why I call him the new J Edgar Hoover, because I believe that. I think he should be investigated by the Senate. He should be investigated by other agencies of the government including the security agencies because if ever there was a matter of security, it’s this. … I don’t think any of us understood how partisan Comey was.

As long as some of the crucial evidence is kept secret – which may be inevitable for a long time to come, given the nature of cyberespionage investigations – and the news is driven by leaks from nameless, faceless sources, there is plenty of room for outlandish claims and unsupported assertions on all sides of the 2016 hacking saga. It is past time for some cards to be played face-up on the table, by players with names and faces.


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