Monday, December 12, 2016

Russian hacking story, Monday

I'll say again that I think it's unfortunate that the critical attention to the Trump transition is being absorbed to a major extent by the Russian hacking story.

Returning to Marcy Wheeler once again, she looks at one of the several pieces that would have to fall clearly into place to make a convincing argument that Russian manipulation was decisive to the outcome of the Presidential election in The Obamacare Not Comey Effect Emptywheel 12/11/2016.

In a subsequent post, she asks, Why Is CIA Avoiding the Conclusion That Putin Hacked Hillary to Retailiate for Its Covert Actions? Emptywheel 12/12/2016. She argues that context is important here:

Remarkably, only secondary commenters (including me, in point 13 here) have suggested the most obvious explanation: The likelihood that Russia targeted the former Secretary of State for a series of covert actions, all impacting key Russian interests, that at least started while she was Secretary of State. Those are:

  • Misleadingly getting the UN to sanction the Libya intervention based off the claim that it was about protecting civilians as opposed to regime change
  • Generating protests targeting Putin in response to 2011 parliamentary elections
  • Sponsoring “moderate rebels” to defeat Bashar al-Assad
  • Removing Viktor Yanukovych to install a pro-NATO government

Importantly, the first three of these happened on Hillary’s watch, with her active involvement. And Putin blamed Hillary, personally, for the protests in 2011.

Never mind the relative merit of these covert operations. Never mind that Putin has not, yet, released any evidence to support his claim that Hillary (or CIA) supported the 2011 protests targeting him personally; there is no doubt he believes it. During the primary Hillary as much as confirmed that when her diplomats negotiated the UN voted [sic] in 2011, they had regime change in mind the whole time. The US has acknowledged its covert operations against Assad in Congressional testimony. And hackers released a call from Victoria Nuland acting like she was in charge of deciding what post-Yanukovych Ukraine would look like.

In other words, whatever the merits and evidence behind these four events, there is no doubt Putin sees them as a threat to Russian interests and blames the US for all of them, with merit in at least some of the cases.
I'm not sure why she says "there is no doubt" that Putin believes his charge about the US promoting the 2011 protest if no evidence for it is in the public record. But her post is an important reminder that the US regularly conducts "regime change" operations of various sorts. Given the huffing and puffing from the Democrats and much of the media over the claimed Russian intervention in the US election this year, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that other countries might find US "regime change" operations, even the less violent ones, to be unfriendly acts.

Again, it's important to remember the seriousness with which the Obama Administration official regards cyberattacks. Their International Strategy for Cyberspace of May 2011 declares:

When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country. All states possess an inherent right to self-defense, and we recognize that certain hostile acts conducted through cyberspace could compel actions under the commitments we have with our military treaty partners.We reserve the right to use all necessary means—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our Nation, our allies, our partners, and our interests. In so doing, we will exhaust all options before military force whenever we can; will carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs of inaction; and will act in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, seeking broad international support whenever possible.
In other words, a cyberattack can be used as a justification for war of the more traditional guns-and-bombs type.

Steve Rendall wrote about how Cyberwar Is War, White House Said — but NYT Didn’t Notice FAIR 06/01/2012. There he refers to this column by Green Greenwald :

Isn’t it amazing how the U.S. is constantly the world’s first nation to use new, highly destructive weapons — at the same time that it bombs, invades, and kills more than any other country by far — and yet it still somehow gets its media to tell its citizenry that it is America’s Enemies who are the aggressors and the U.S. is simply a nation of peace seeking to defend itself.

Needless to say, if any cyber-attack is directed at the U.S. — rather than by the U.S. — it will be instantly depicted as an act of unparalleled aggression and evil: Terrorism. Just last year, the Pentagon decreed that any cyberattack on the U.S. would be deemed “an act of war.” As Rudy Giuliani said about whether waterboarding is torture: “It depends on who does it.”
The occasion of those articles was a New York Times article by David Sanger claiming that the Obama Administration had successfully pulled off a major cyberattack against Iran, Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran 06/01/2016.

The Defense Department's Cyber Strategy of April 2015 is available online. The unclassified version, obviously. Defense Secretary Ash Carter introduced the revamped strategy in a speech, as reported by Prashanth Parameswaran, Revealed: The Pentagon’s New Cyber Strategy The Diplomat 04/24/2016:

To set the stage for what such a partnership would look like, Carter then moved to expand on the Department of Defense’s (DOD) work in two areas, namely innovation and cybersecurity. The section on cybersecurity has been receiving the most attention over the past week, particularly since the speech was timed with the release of the Pentagon’s new cyber strategy. Carter said the DOD had three missions, namely defending its own networks against threats, defending the nation from severe threats abroad, and engaging in offensive cyber operations. The offensive dimension has been the one grabbing the headlines in recent days, since this is where a greater emphasis is perceived to lie relative to the prior strategy. In his remarks, Carter stressed that Washington’s preference for deterrence and defense should not be incorrectly interpreted by its adversaries as meaning that it was not prepared to go on the offense as well. [my emphasis]
Dave Lindorff's article Rather Than Exposing Propaganda, WaPo Shows How It’s Done FAIR 12/08/2016 came before the new claims of the last few days. But he makes a good point in this story about the sleazy PropOrNot blacklist enabled by the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which has a $600 million business contract with the CIA) about how critical reading of these stories is badly needed.

This report by Noah Schachtman from 2013 is another reminder of how much thinly-reported cyberwar preparations have been going on, This Pentagon Project Makes Cyberwar as Easy as Angry Birds Wired 05/28/2013:

For the last year, the Pentagon’s top technologists have been working on a program that will make cyberwarfare relatively easy. It’s called Plan X. And if this demo looks like a videogame or sci-fi movie or a sleek Silicon Valley production, that’s no accident. It was built by the designers behind some of Apple’s most famous computers — with assistance from the illustrators who helped bring Transformers to the silver screen.

Today, destructive cyberattacks — ones that cause servers to fry, radars to go dark, or centrifuges to spin out of control — have been assembled by relatively small teams of hackers. They’re ordered at the highest levels of government. They take months to plan. Their effects can be uncertain, despite all the preparation. (Insiders believe, for example, that the biggest network intrusion in the Pentagon’s history may have been an accidental infection, not a deliberate hack.)

With Plan X, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to change all that. It wants munitions made of 1s and 0s to be as simple to launch as ones made of metal and explosives. It wants cyberattack stratagems to be as predictable as any war plan can be. It wants to move past the artisanal era of hacking, and turn cyberwarfare into an industrial effort. Across the U.S. government, there are all kinds of projects to develop America’s network offense. None are quite like this.
Getting back to this year's Russian hacking story, Fred Kaplan notes pragmatically (Slate ):

Meanwhile, President Obama has ordered all the U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, to conduct a “full review” of Russia’s role in the election — and to finish the report before Inauguration Day. Though he didn’t say so, it’s obvious that if the agencies don’t finish by then, Trump as president will order their report and all the working papers destroyed.

So what now? Let’s say this report confirms the Washington Post’s account of the CIA’s conclusion. No one will call for a new election. First, there’s no legal protocol for doing such a thing. Second, not even the CIA is inferring — nor is there any way for anyone to infer — that the Russian hacking caused Trump to win. Third, if even one intelligence agency files a dissenting footnote to the report, the Republicans will pounce on that, as they have on no other footnote, to justify Trump’s legitimacy as a clean winner of the election. [my emphasis]
Kaplan is overstating the point about it being "obvious" that "Trump as president will order their report and all the working papers destroyed." We can consider it a reasonable guess, but I'm not sure how that is "obvious." Because it doesn't strike me that anything particular is obvious about what the Trump Family Business Administration's foreign policy will be. Although it's a very safe inference that it will involved old-fashioned pay-to-play corruption on an unprecedented scale.

Peter Beinart places the controversy in the context of what he sees as a shift in emphasis in foreign policy planned by the Trump Family Business Administration from seeing Russia as a key competitive power to viewing Russia as an ally in a more general war against Islam, not just against the treasured Republican formula Radical Islamic Terrorism (Why Trump’s Republican Party Is Embracing Russia Atlantic Online 12/12/2016):

Trump is building on this shift to recast GOP foreign policy. He’s moving it away from an ideological confrontation with authoritarian Russia and toward a civilizational conflict with Islam. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, has tweeted that “fear of Muslims is rational” and that Islam is “like cancer” When asked in August about Putin, he explained that America “beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians” and we should renew that partnership in the new world war against “radical Islamism.” Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, likes to talk about the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam … a war of immense proportions” that continues to this day. And in that struggle, he’s argued, “we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes—particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.” Unlike the globalists of the European Union, Bannon argues, Putin believes in “sovereignty,” which makes him a valuable ally in America’s civilizational fight.

This is the backdrop to the looming conflict between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who want to investigate Russia’s efforts to elect him. Will the GOP define Americanism as the defense of a set of universal principles or as the defense of a racial and religious heritage? The answer won’t only help determine how well liberal democracy fares overseas. It will help determine how well it fares at home.

Here are links to additional skeptical takes on Russian hacking story and how it's being used. And, yes, some of them are from sites of which PropOrNot (whoever they actually are) and the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which has a $600 million business contract with the CIA) may not approve.

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