Saturday, January 07, 2017

Friday's public release on the Russian hacking issue

The US Intelligence Community released a new public statement about the Russian hacking during the 2016 election with the impressively ponderous title, Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution; the link is to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) website.

It will come as no surprise that it's carefully worded and lacking in voluminous backup.

In fact, the report proper consists of only five pages of text in a 25-page document. There are three pages of general introductory material and a two-page summary at the start. Seven pages in an appendix reproduce a 2012 report about RT/Russia Today and a one-page appendix defines some terms.

The fact that it's carefully worded means that it's worth paying attention to what is said, what is not said and what is heavily implied but not said. This "Key Judgments" summary statement, appearing all in bold in the report, is obviously newsworthy:

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
It strikes me that there's a lot of wiggle-room in those two paragraphs. It particularly strikes me that the wording walks right up to saying that Russia tried to help Donald Trump get elected without actually saying so explicitly. That would be one entirely plausible conclusion to draw from those two paragraphs. But they don't say that directly.

On the partisan political point that the Clinton campaign and many of her supporters have been pushing that the Russian intervention threw the Electoral College to Trump, this report provides no such argument. It explicitly avoids the question, "We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion." (p. i)

Yes, I had to suppress a snicker on the last point, too. They are technically not supposed to, of course. But as we saw in the election, the FBI Director didn't seem to be above partisan calculations on how his public statements could influence the outcome of the Presidential vote.

Speaking of which, the report is explicit about representing the views of three intelligence agencies:

This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies. It covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion.
The Key Judgments section expands on the activities it covers (emphasis in bold in original:

  • 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.
  • Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.
  • Further information has come to light since Election Day that, when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessments of Russian motivations and goals.

The careful wording that the Russian effort was "to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible" again stops short of saying explicitly that it was the Russian intent to throw the election to Trump, i.e., aiming to help someone's chances in an election is not precisely the same as trying to make sure they win. I'm not trying to split hairs. It's just that we have to presume that every word in such a report was carefully evaluated for the messages it would send to various parties.

The statement, "When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency," also suggests that the Russians involved by no means assumed that Trump was likely to win.

In writing this, I feel like I'm having an argument with an invisible Pollyanna. That's because a great deal of the public discussion over the Russian hacking issue has been amazingly simplistic and lacking in international and historical content. And often discussed as though this was some new outrage out of thin air, as though the US and Russia haven't perceived a major stake in each other's internal politics since at least the First World War.

The above considerations are compatible with an assumption that the Russian leadership including Putin may have preferred a Donald Trump as President because of his business connections in Russia and indications that he might pursue policies on Ukraine and Syria, both current priorities in Russian foreign policy, that would be more amenable to Russian preferences than those Hillary Clinton favored. (See page 1) Unless they had a super-secret and hyper-sophisticated independent polling operation in the US that was accurately predicting a Trump victory - and which has gone as yet undetected by US intelligence - the Russian leaders must have expected that Clinton was the more likely winner. And, of course, she did win the popular vote decisively.

Page 1 of the report also uses cagey wording:

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.
The report describes a variety of actions aimed at influencing the election in some way: the infamous hacking; reporting and editorial claims via RT and Sputnik News; passive cyber-spying on state and local election systems (though "DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying. [emphasis in original]"; public statements by Putin contrasting Clinton's policies to Trump in a manner favorable to the latter; "pro-Kremlin" bloggers; trolls on social media like Twitter; statements in the Russian press and public comments by other senior Russian officials.

This bit from page 1 strikes me initially as a bit of a head-scratcher, "Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder." The puzzling part is why the report calls out Berlusconi and Schröder by name. (And, BTW, doesn't the DNI's office have word-processing software with the o-umlaut "ö" on it?)

I haven't been into the weeds of this story enough to know if there is any new informational twists in the public disclosures in this passage: "We assess with high confidence that the [Russian military intelligence] GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries." (my emphasis in bold this time)

The Podesta e-mails, which were supposedly the object of a different hack than the DLC ones, are not explictly addressed.

The report lays great weight on RT's general role:

RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative and focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism. Some Russian officials echoed Russian lines for the influence campaign that Secretary Clinton’s election could lead to a war between the United States and Russia.
If the policies of the upcoming Trump Family Business Administration weren't so unpredictable at this point, I would read the emphasis on RT in this report as a possible buildup for significant news restrictions on Americans' access to RT reporting.

This is also an interesting and somewhat puzzling tidbit:

Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections. We assess the 2016 influence campaign reflected the Kremlin’s recognition of the worldwide effects that mass disclosures of US Government and other private data — such as those conducted by WikiLeaks and others—have achieved in recent years, and their understanding of the value of orchestrating such disclosures to maximize the impact of compromising information.
Are we meant to make a distinction here between post-Soviet Russia and Soviet Russia? If so, aren't the FBI, CIA and NSA telling us that the leak of DNC documents to Wikileaks was a greater intervention in US politics than anything that occurred during the existence of the Soviet Union?

This definition is also notable: "Russia’s state-run propaganda machine [is] comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls."

The sensational element that has received by far the most attention was the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and of some individual Democratic leaders. And, despite how satisfying it might be from a partisan viewpoint to mock Trump as having been elected by Russian interference, that argument depends on assuming this sequence of events: (1) Russian hacking leads to (2) a leak to Wikileaks which (3) causes enough public dismay in four Rust Belt states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) to flip the Electoral College vote to Trump.

The first step, the Russian hacking, has been probably as well established in the public record as any such obscure operations are likely to be in the relatively short run. Like most people, I assume that as a given, though far from fully explained in the public record. The second step, the Russians providing key documents to Wikileaks, seems plausible and even likely, though not as well established in the public record as the first.

The third step, that the Wikileaks revelations were decisive in the election outcome in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin has not been proved and, so far as I can see, virtually impossible to prove or even argue that it's plausible, despite some energetic efforts by Hillary partisans to do so.

All of this argues for several obvious things: better US cyber-security; more, better and more critical reporting by the US corporate (and other) press on this complex of issues on an ongoing basis; and, taking full account of this issue complex in the larger field of US-Russia relations.

Hopefully, everyone can agree on the first and presumably this will be an ongoing, evolving effort indefinitely. The third will hopefully take place; it's hard to imagine that an un-provable claim of Russian throwing the election to Trump would lead to total non-cooperation on all other issues, nor would it be desirable - even setting aside the improbability of a Trump Family Business Administration wanting to do so.

The possibility of the US corporate press drastically improving its critical coverage of these issues will probably occur just after the Second Coming of Christ.

No comments: