Thursday, December 15, 2016

Trump/Russia Thursday

Digby's essay What did Donald Trump know about Vladimir Putin’s attempt to hack the election — and when did he know it? Salon 12/15/2016 poses the question about supposed Russian interference in the US election in terms that strike me as appropriate. She points to the actual problem of the substantial allegations as yet fully documented in the public record about Russian hacking and other shenanigans around the Presidential election. And she's careful not to run off on a tangent assuming facts as proven that in fact we the general public don't yet know with confidence.

Anonymous leaks now being reported by NBC News (William Arkin et al, U.S. Officials: Putin Personally Involved in U.S. Election Hack 12/15/2016) claim that "new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said." The report further notes that the sources' 'use of the term 'high confidence' implies that the intelligence is nearly incontrovertible."

I've found Arkin to be one of the most trustworthy and sensible reporters and commentators on intelligence affairs. But anonymous sources are still, well, anonymous. Which is why a substantive investigation is needed. An investigation of the kind Charlie Pierce describes in 'Mistakes Were Made' Is Not Good Enough This Time Esquire Politics Blog 12/12/2016:

This is better than nothing, but not much. First of all, McConnell himself is hopelessly compromised, and not just because the Post story shows that he was instrumental in burying the story until after the election, but also because his wife, Elaine Chao, has been nominated by the president-elect to be his Secretary of Transportation. The quid and the quo are dancing far too closely here for me to have much faith in a Senate committee that is beholden to McConnell. It has to be either a special committee or a special prosecutor. There's no third alternative.

And, if it is either one of those, the investigation has to be completely open and transparent. There can be no evidence discovered that is not shared. If that gives the willies to the intelligence pros, that's just too damn bad. The elections are ours. They are the most essential part of the political commons. We have an absolute right to know how and to what extent they were monkeywrenched by a foreign despot on behalf of a domestic despot. And it can't be another extended exercise in the passive voice of the Wise Men—"Mistakes were made"—as was the Tower Commission that probed Iran-Contra. And it also can't be a special committee as was the special committee looking into Iran-Contra, which got played like a fifty-cent violin by Oliver North. It has to be aggressive and it has to be open. Is it too late to clone Sam Ervin or Ferdinand Pecora?
It seems to me that it's often garbled in the public discussion that there are two important factors that have to be prominently considered. One is that if there is substantial evidence that the Russia government engaged in computer hacks aimed at interfering with the US election, the most basic standards and practices of international relations would require some sort of official response, somewhere in the spectrum from protest to retaliation.

I'm surprised in the post-election discussion of this that Chuck Todd's interview with Vice President Joe Biden for the October 16 Meet the Press has gotten so little attention, VP Joe Biden: Donald Trump Comments ‘Instinctive Abuse of Power’ (Full) | Meet The Press | NBC News 10/16/2016:

The particular segment dealing with the hacking issue was released a couple of days early, MTP Exclusive: VP Biden Promises Response to Russian Hacking Meet the Press 10/14/2016. The segment on Russian hacking starts just after 19:15.

From the transcript (Meet the Press - October 16, 2016 10/16/2016):


Alright. Final question. When-- I talked with Ambassador, former Russian Ambassador Mike McFaul.




And-- we talked about the idea that every once-- you, you gotta respond when you, when they're hacking. You gotta do something. He described it as a high hard one. Maybe just, you know, sort of like in baseball. You throw a high hard one to send a message. Why haven't we sent a message yet to Putin?


We're sending a message. We have the capacity to do it. And-- the message--


He'll know it?


--he'll know it. And it will be at the time of our choosing. And under the circumstances that have the greatest impact. Look--


Will it be enough, do you think, that it'll get him to back off? I mean, how concerned are you that the country is actually gonna question the result of this election?


I am not concerned. The reason I'm not is we're working very closely with all the departments of elections across the country, number one. Number two, the American people are pretty damn resilient. And number three, the, the capacity to do, to fundamentally alter the election is-- is not what people think. And-- I tell you what, to the extent that they do, we will be proportional in what we do. And-- at the--


So a message is gonna be sent. Will the public know it?


Hope not.
[my emphasis]
Reuters reported on Putin's verbal response to this, Putin dismisses US threat of retaliation over alleged hacking 10/16/2016.

There are some obvious "takeaways" from this: The Obama Administration was confident the Russian government had perpetrated some serious hacking in the US; the Administration believed it had the capacity to retaliate appropriately and intended to do so; and, they intended to keep the actual retaliation secret from the American public. The latter being a reminder about the major role that faith in government officials plays in how we the voting public judge what we think is happening on such cyberwar-like issues.

It's important on the hacking issue is that the controversy involved a range of issues, all of which would have to be not only factually established but clearly connected for us to come to the conclusion that Russian hacking and related interference determined the results of the Presidential election.

Marcy Wheeler described that chain in a post of hers that I quoted last week, in her The Evidence to Prove the Russian Hack Emptywheel 12/10/2016:

As I see it, intelligence on all the following are necessary to substantiate some of the claims about Russia tampering in this year’s election.

  1. FSB-related hackers hacked the DNC
  2. GRU-related hackers hacked the DNC
  3. Russian state actors hacked John Podesta’s emails
  4. Russian state actors hacked related targets, including Colin Powell and some Republican sites
  5. Russian state actors hacked the RNC
  6. Russian state actors released information from DNC and DCCC via Guccifer 2
  7. Russian state actors released information via DC Leaks
  8. Russian state actors or someone acting on its behest passed information to Wikileaks
  9. The motive explaining why Wikileaks released the DNC and Podesta emails
  10. Russian state actors probed voter registration databases
  11. Russian state actors used bots and fake stories to make information more damaging and magnify its effects
  12. The level at which all Russian state actors’ actions were directed and approved
  13. The motive behind the actions of Russian state actors
  14. The degree to which Russia’s efforts were successful and/or primary in leading to Hillary’s defeat
In a new post today, she adds a point (Craig Murray's Description of Wikileaks' Sources 12/15/2016):

One of the weaknesses of my post on the evidence needed to prove the Russian DNC hack (one I’ll fix when I move it into a page) is that I didn’t include a step where the intelligence community had to dismiss alternative theories. It is not enough to prove that tools associated with Russian intelligence hacked the DNC (whether or not you’re convinced they necessarily are used exclusively by GRU), but you also have to prove that no one else either hacked the known sources of leaked documents or otherwise obtained them. That was particularly important given early reports that FBI wasn’t sure that the documents stolen by hackers presumed to be GRU were the same documents dealt to WikiLeaks.
Pierce notes parenthetically in the article linked above that the full set of links to include the conclusion that the Russian actions definitely decided the outcome of the election doesn't need to be established for hacking in itself to be a big problem: "Just for the record, it doesn't matter whether or not Hillary Rodham Clinton would have won without the Russian ratfcking or not. The very existence of the ratfcking is the whole point." He also addresses the context question, "And, if you're going to descend from your ivory towers and start talking about American meddling overseas, if you can find me an Iranian, a Chilean, or a Guatemalan who hacked this election, you might have a case. But a Russian oligarch as the vehicle for some sort of karmic justice? Please."

I agree with that latter point as far as it goes. He seems to be addressing those who might want to dismiss the alleged Russian hacking as essentially unimportant if it actually occurred.

But I don't dismiss the significance of the larger context. And we don't have to go back to the 1980s to find examples of highly dubious regime-change efforts by the US, from direct military intervention (Iraq, Syria, Libya, to mention only the most egregious) to more subtle approaches (Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay, Ukraine, Venezuela, even Argentina and Brazil).

I would describe my current perspective on the Russia hacking issue this way. I think it's possible to reasonably be concerned about several things at once, including that:

  1. There appears to be substantial evidence that the Russian government attempted to influence the US Presidential election by hacking and more conventional propaganda methods;
  2. Such hacking requires a substantial response by the US government;
  3. A thorough and independent investigation is needed;
  4. Putin is an authoritarian creep whose government is nothing that small-d democrats can especially admire;
  5. Many rightwingers in the US and Europe admire Putin's form of politics and government, including President-elect Donald Trump;
  6. Some rightwingers praising Putin's toughness may be using it more as what they take to be a clever way of insulting Obama's supposed weakness;
  7. Other nutballs like Dana Rohrbacher see Putin's Russia as an ally in an urgent war against Islam, or "Radical Islamic Terrorism";
  8. The Rohrbachers and Franklin Grahams of our world are largely clueless about the complications of S'hia-vs.-Sunni politics and several other major factors that affect Russia's position on particular conflicts in the Muslim world;
  9. There is a larger context of US regime-change efforts and other sorts of political shenanigans in other countries that should affect how we understand Russia's alleged actions;
  10. Oligarchic corruption will affect the Trump Family Business Administration's foreign policy with Russia and many other countries "bigly";
  11. There are old-fashioned "realist" power-politics reasons that the US has common interests with Russia in some areas and opposing interests in others, which means that "agreeing with Russia" is sometimes good for American interests, sometimes not;
  12. The US has to pay serious attention always to the fact that Russia has lots of nuclear weapons;
  13. That outrage over Russian misdeeds in Ukraine or Georgia or Syria doesn't mean that the US should do impulsive or stupid things in response;
  14. Some people have reasons for wishing to discredit Wikileaks or brand them as Russian spies for reasons have little to do with concern for the sanctity of American elections;
  15. Some neocons that fear Trump being too friedly with Russia for their militaristic tastes would be glad to use the bogeyman of Russian spying to discredit antiwar groups and websites both the left and (now and then) on the right;
  16. When the WaPo promotes a shady group like PropOrNot which is doing just that - or even when they aren't - it's perfectly sensible to wonder whether Amazon's $600 million contract for cloud services with the CIA might be having some effect on the way Jeff Bezos' newspaper is reporting on intelligence and foreign policy issues;
  17. The Democrats' positioning themselves as the we're-tougher-on-Russia party may not be as beneficial to them politically as many might like to think.

    There are a lot of move parts to keep up with on this related set of issues.

    Also relevant are these two pieces from NYR Daily The Putin Paradigm by Masha Gessen 12/13/2016 and the New York Review of Books What James Comey Did by David Cole 11/09/2016.

    And here are a pair of reports from the PBS Newshour. Reconstructing the Russian hacks leading up to the election 12/14/2016:

    How Putin could have been involved in U.S. election disruption 12/15/2016:

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