Monday, June 26, 2017

Friday's WaPo Russian hacking revelations

The Washington Post presented a new report on Friday about the Obama Administration's investigation and response to the intelligence of Russian hacking aimed at influencing the 2016 Presidential election, Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault 06/23/2017.

For me, this one was stunning in a kind of numbing way.

For one thing, it reminds me again of how much of this story is based on leaked claims from sources not known to the public. That's especially concerning since I'm hearing Democrats more and more talking about the Russian hacking in 2016 as an "act of war." And if we're going to take the kind of measures against Russia that countries take in response to acts of war, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that we're not only so dependent on not just highly on very secret intelligence information but on a variety of unverified leaks from intelligence agencies and other anonymous sources.

It wasn't too difficult to believe that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor actually occurred. Or the bringing down of the Twin Towers in 2001.

Then there was a famous incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 whose exact nature is still in dispute. And it was still a long time untilt he covert American military actions that preceded it.

And of course, there were the famous "weapons of mass destruction" that made the invasion of Iraq necessary in 2003. The extent of the threat is still unknown, since none of those "WMDs" has yet to be found.

More recently, there was this: Seymour Hersh, Trump‘s Red Line Welt 06/25/2017. On April 4, the Syrians bombed a facility. On April 6, President Trump launched a Tomahawk missile launch on a Syrian Air Force base in retaliation. The justification was that Syria had used sarin gas in the April 4 attack:

Within hours of the April 4 bombing, the world’s media was saturated with photographs and videos from Khan Sheikhoun. Pictures of dead and dying victims, allegedly suffering from the symptoms of nerve gas poisoning, were uploaded to social media by local activists, including the White Helmets, a first responder group known for its close association with the Syrian opposition.

The provenance of the photos was not clear and no international observers have yet inspected the site, but the immediate popular assumption worldwide was that this was a deliberate use of the nerve agent sarin, authorized by President Bashar Assad of Syria. Trump endorsed that assumption by issuing a statement within hours of the attack, describing Assad’s "heinous actions" as being a consequence of the Obama administration’s "weakness and irresolution" in addressing what he said was Syria’s past use of chemical weapons. [my emphasis]
What Hersh reports, with sourcing to high-level, anonymous American sources, is that the US intelligence community (IC) had a high level of confidence in intelligence provided by the Russians indicating that the target was a meeting of opposition leaders - "radical Islamic terrorists" in the Republicans' conjuring formula. More specifically, "Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra." And he reports, "The advance intelligence on the target, as supplied by the Russians, was given the highest possible score inside the American community." Why that advanced intelligence was so important to evaluating the July 4 attack is something Hearst explains in the piece. Short version: the IC believed based on the information they had that the facility bombed had chemicals stored there that would have more plausibly accounted for the damage observed afterward than the assumption of a sarin gas attack.

After the July 4 bombing, Hearst reports, "A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground."

As Hearst reports it, Trump was persuaded by the reports of a Syrian sarin gas attack, which according to the information Hearst reports, is unlikely in the extreme. He quotes a source he identifies as "a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency" describing Trump's reaction, which sounds pretty impulsive:

Trump, a constant watcher of television news, said, while King Abdullah of Jordan was sitting next to him in the Oval Office, that what had happened was “horrible, horrible” and a “terrible affront to humanity.” Asked if his administration would change its policy toward the Assad government, he said: “You will see.” He gave a hint of the response to come at the subsequent news conference with King Abdullah: “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies – with a chemical gas that is so lethal ... that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line . ... That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact ... It’s very, very possible ... that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Within hours of viewing the photos, the adviser said, Trump instructed the national defense apparatus to plan for retaliation against Syria. “He did this before he talked to anybody about it. The planners then asked the CIA and DIA if there was any evidence that Syria had sarin stored at a nearby airport or somewhere in the area. Their military had to have it somewhere in the area in order to bomb with it.” “The answer was, ‘We have no evidence that Syria had sarin or used it,’” the adviser said. “The CIA also told them that there was no residual delivery for sarin at Sheyrat [the airfield from which the Syrian SU-24 bombers had taken off on April 4] and Assad had no motive to commit political suicide.” Everyone involved, except perhaps the president, also understood that a highly skilled United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, removing what was said to be all chemical weapons from a dozen Syrian chemical weapons depots.
And despite the paucity of evidence for the claim, "it was impossible for the experts to persuade the president of this once he had made up his mind."

After the strike, the rewards were rich in PR:

The next few days were his most successful as president. America rallied around its commander in chief, as it always does in times of war. Trump, who had campaigned as someone who advocated making peace with Assad, was bombing Syria 11 weeks after taking office, and was hailed for doing so by Republicans, Democrats and the media alike. One prominent TV anchorman, Brian Williams of MSNBC, used the word “beautiful” to describe the images of the Tomahawks being launched at sea. Speaking on CNN, Fareed Zakaria said: “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” A review of the top 100 American newspapers showed that 39 of them published editorials supporting the bombing in its aftermath, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. [emphasis in original]
How does this relate to the Trump-Russia scandal? In several ways.

One is that Russia is militarily involved in Syria. And that even under the Obama Administration, there was some level of cooperation between the US and Russia in the area, even though their end goals were different. Protocols were in place to minimize the likelihood of direct clashes between US and Russian forces. What Hersh's article describes is an impulsive President making a military decision with a great potential for risk and little if any positive return in that situation. Hersh says of Trump's missile strike on July 6, "All in all, it was little more than an expensive fireworks display."

Another is that the events and decisions described in Hersh's article don't fit any simple narrative of Trump as being beholden to Russia or reflexively supporting the Russian position. There are various speculations that could fit that situation. But it is notable that the Trump Family Business Administration spun it as a sign of Russia's perfidy:

Five days later [after the missile strike on Syria], the Trump administration gathered the national media for a background briefing on the Syrian operation that was conducted by a senior White House official who was not to be identified. The gist of the briefing was that Russia’s heated and persistent denial of any sarin use in the Khan Sheikhoun bombing was a lie because President Trump had said sarin had been used. That assertion, which was not challenged or disputed by any of the reporters present, became the basis for a series of further criticisms:

-The continued lying by the Trump administration about Syria’s use of sarin led to widespread belief in the American media and public that Russia had chosen to be involved in a corrupt disinformation and cover-up campaign on the part of Syria.

-Russia’s military forces had been co-located with Syria’s at the Shayrat airfield (as they are throughout Syria), raising the possibility that Russia had advance notice of Syria’s determination to use sarin at Khan Sheikhoun and did nothing to stop it.

-Syria’s use of sarin and Russia’s defense of that use strongly suggested that Syria withheld stocks of the nerve agent from the UN disarmament team that spent much of 2014 inspecting and removing all declared chemical warfare agents from 12 Syrian chemical weapons depots, pursuant to the agreement worked out by the Obama administration and Russia after Syria’s alleged, but still unproven, use of sarin the year before against a rebel redoubt in a suburb of Damascus.
The apparently false information given by the Administration to justify the Tomahawk strikes is also very relevant to the Trump-Russia story. Governments lie. And it's seriously discouraging to see that many leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, along with many of our star pundits and commentators, endorsed this strike and its justifications,without serious questioning. For the Trump-Russia investigation, that emphasizes yet again how important it is to have a credible investigation with relevant facts explained clearly to the public. If the IC is right in claiming that the Russians hacked US computers illegally - and I assume at this point that the basic story is correct - the public needs to know that the national government is doing something effective to protect critical election infrastructure from hacking attacks. And we need to know the real story behind the dealings of the Trump campaign with dubious Russian actors, including the kind of business ties he has with Russian companies through which he could receive emoluments. But, of course, if the information was falsified by the IC, that's something the public should know, too!

And just as the Hersh article contains material that troubles a simple Trump-is-acting-on-behalf-of-Putin construction, the WaPo piece also contains a kind of "poison pill" for the Democrats, as well. If the evidence was as clear to the IC as the report claims, they Obama's restrained handling of the information priority to the election looks all too much like more dysfunctional Bipartisanship on his part.

Trump himself is using the information to "gaslight" the Democrats, perhaps without fully realizing the extent to which he is conceding that there was serious Russian interference in the 2016 election:

The "T" presumably meaning Trump.

Democratic "Bipartisanship" is becoming a bit of a personal White Whale for me. But in thinking through ways that direct meddling with the voter counts can be countered, it seems obvious that some sort of required paper trail with follow-up audits would remove a lot of the potential for vote-manipulation through computer hacking. Like paper ballots that are counted by optical scan. Also, some standard national procedure for preventing hinky voter purges. The kind of stuff that would also put the kibosh on a lot of the segregationist voter-suppression mischief that the Republicans made part of their standard operating procedure years ago.

So if the Democrats, including the last Democratic President, had raised a lot more holy hell the last 10 years over segregationist voter suppression, there's some good chance that our national electoral system would be considerably safer against direct hacking from Russians or segregationists or crooked voting machine companies. But being rude like that might have disturbed the quest for ... Bipartisanship! Because the Republicans would have said the Mean Libruls weren't being nice to them. Republicans definitely need some manners lessons. But Democrats need some Malvina Reynolds lessons, provided here by Delila Paz.

Marcy Wheeler's commentary on the Trump-Russia revelations are always worth attention: The Compartments in WaPo's Russian Hack Magnum Opus Emptywheel 06/23/2017; Obama Worried Trump Would Warn the Russians About Their Compounds ... Did They? 06/26/2017

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