The importance of circumspection

Cybersecurity is, along with many other things, not my forte. So if I get terms wrong here or otherwise screw up, please leave some constructive criticism in the comments.

The story of this weekend was the release of almost 20,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers by…somebody (we’re getting to that) at some point in the past couple of months, and distributed via WikiLeaks. The emails are very embarrassing, as you’d expect, and in particular appear to confirm the suspicions of Bernie Sanders supporters (and Sanders himself) that the DNC was effectively working on behalf of Hillary Clinton throughout the primary process, when it was supposed to be a neutral party. This is not exactly revelatory, but it’s one thing for a candidate’s partisans to suspect that the party is screwing their candidate over, and quite another for tangible proof of that screwing over to suddenly surface. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has, mercifully, agreed to step down from that job after this week’s convention, something she could have done years ago to the party’s great benefit. The hope is that Sanders supporters will be mollified enough at her departure to put aside their renewed frustration with the primary process and stay in, or come in to, the Clinton camp. We’ll see.

While the Democrats actually are in disarray, the more controversial aspect of this story has to do with the provenance of the DNC hack. Ostensibly the hack was conducted by one person, “Guccifer 2.0.” The problem is that nobody really has any idea who “Guccifer 2.0” is or if he/she even exists. By contrast, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike investigated the DNC intrusion a month ago, well before these emails were released, and concluded that they were undertaken by two adversaries, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear,” that are known to be connected to Russian intelligence agencies. Further research since CrowdStrike announced its findings seems to support the idea that the hackers were Russian, at least to my again admittedly untrained eyes. There are also people who will tell you that WikiLeaks is basically an arm of Russian intelligence itself, though I’m unconvinced of that. The CrowdStrike piece, of whose existence I have to shamefully admit I had no idea until a couple of hours ago, strikes me as the most definitive collection of evidence in support of the new conspiracy du jour, that Russia hacked the DNC and released these emails in order to help Donald Trump, because Vladimir Putin wants Trump to be elected in November.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall put together probably the most comprehensive collection of the evidence being used to suggest that Trump is working, albeit probably unwittingly, on behalf of Putin’s nefarious schemes for world domination. It’s a compelling collection of what are still largely circumstantial links, but the whole thing takes on a “where there’s smoke” kind of a feel. The upshot is that:

  • Trump is heavily in debt and the only people who will touch him are Russian oligarchs, who are either Putin’s bosses or his subordinates depending on which theory of the Russian government’s power structure you believe
  • Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort (and here at least we’re in the realm of definite facts) once had as a client Viktor Yanukovych, who was Putin’s Man in Kiev before protesters forced him to flee the country, and Trump’s top adviser on Russia is Carter Page, who has close financial ties to Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, which is in turn closely controlled by Putin’s inner circle.
  • Russian-controlled media, in particular the English-language RT, has been solidly pro-Trump for a while now, which presumes some kind of diktat from on high to that effect.
  • Most provocatively, it seems the one element in the GOP platform that the Trump campaign actually had changed was its plank on Ukraine–the campaign had calls to arm Kiev against Russian-backed rebels in Donbas taken out of the document altogether.
  • Then, of course, there was Trump’s recent declaration that he wouldn’t necessarily come to the aid of NATO members in Eastern Europe who were targeted by Russian aggression, a position that certainly wouldn’t break Putin’s heart, if you’re wondering.
  • Marshall doesn’t mention this, but there’s some evidence that the specific DNC staffer who was tasked with researching Manafort’s ties to Ukraine and Yanukovych was targeted by the hackers.

If it’s true that Putin is attempting to influence the US presidential election, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise–he’s allegedly been financing far-right movements throughout Europe, so why not here too? Nor should we pretend that the United States has anything approaching clean hands when it comes to manipulating foreign elections. But still, obviously if this is all true it’s deeply troubling and has implications that are perhaps even more troubling.

The problem is, as I see it, that we don’t know if it’s true yet, and without something less circumstantial this whole story risks devolving into a runaway conspiracy theory. And that’s bad not just because people who peddle in conspiracy theories are kooks


But also because this is potentially a massive story that deserves careful scrutiny and responsible commentary so that it can be taken seriously. I have no problem with commentators mentioning the Russian angle whenever this DNC leak is brought up, but it needs to be discussed in measured terms unless and until a genuine investigation uncovers real proof of a) direct Russian involvement in the hack (CrowdStrike already seems to have come close on this point) and b) some real link between the Trump campaign and Putin’s circle (which will be harder to prove). The FBI is opening an investigation, which, well, I guess your opinion of the FBI will guide your thinking here.

The other reason this story needs to be handled carefully, if you’ll permit me to allow my “HOLY SHIT WE CAN NOT ALLOW DONALD TRUMP TO BECOME PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME” side to surface for a moment here, is because, who or whatever was behind the leak, the material is still out there and it’s going to be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s ability to get the American left solidly behind her. The surest way to alienate more Sanders supporters would be to ignore their very understandable concerns about the content of these emails in some mad rush to blame the Kremlin for the fact that they were released at all. The cat is out of the bag, and both issues need to be fairly addressed (and no, canning Debbie Wasserman Schultz alone isn’t going to cut it).

Also too, and again this is the “Panicked by Trump” part of me writing this, but if these same hackers, or others working for the Russian government, really did break in to the Clinton Foundation’s network, as has been reported, then that may be ballgame. This is my speculation, but I don’t think it would take much to find something in the CF’s files that could be, at the very minimum, construed to look corrupt. Imagine something that looks truly heinous dropping a couple of weeks before what promises to be an inexplicably (she’s running against Donald Trump for fuck’s sake) close election. It could well tip the balance.




4 thoughts on “The importance of circumspection

  1. Your closing paragraph is exactly correct, which I say as a professional computer. Grrr.

    Regarding Putin, when I first began reading – back in the eighties – about American support for violent nationalist groups in Eastern Europe it was the tiniest little step for me to recognize how much havoc the Reds could provoke (with not all that much money) by linking up with the secretive and resentful groups lurking in the mountains outside Salt Lake and Missoula. The details may be a surprise, but the underlying concept is utterly banal.

    Regarding Bernie, he continues to perform admirably – as do about 85% of his supporters – but that 15% has been seething with rage, for months now, over the idee fixe that Bernie actually won but his victory was swindled away by some Clinton/DWS collusion. In that hothouse environment, all a narc has to do is scream “I HAVE PROOF! LOOK AT THIS GRAPE!” to call the horde into action. So they have some stuff that they think looks really ugly, and the scalp of DWS has been nailed to the barn door, but nobody else cares except so far as they might disrupt the convention – which they had plans for, anyway – and possible shift the outer margins of Clinton/Abstain/Trump (and what the f*ck is a leftist doing, even threatening to vote for Trump?)

    So I can’t know whether the hack was the Russians or not, but whoever fed the dump to Wikileaks has been playing the Bernieswarm 15% (NOT THE BERNIE SUPPORTERS! TWO DIFFERENT GROUPS!) like a cheap fiddle – and the enjoyed being played, for their own pursposes.

  2. I feel the Bernie Sanders supporters pain vis-a-vis party connivance; I felt similarly betrayed during the 2008 Ron Paul campaign. Most damning (in my mind) was when he wasn’t invited to a Des Moines Republican rally that had five or so other candidates. So Ron Paul rented out the hall next door and held his OWN rally, thank you very much, parallel and concurrent to the one he was excluded from. I don’t remember who had the bigger crowd, but we were definitely more raucous, especially when Alex Jones (your aforementioned professional kook) showed up with a literal column of chanters. Makes me glad I got my naivete out of the way early, so these leaks are more amusing than enraging.

    Coincidentally I’m a game developer working on a hacking roleplaying game, and one of the messages is that while the US might be more susceptible to hacking due to our ubiquitous tech infrastructure, the hacks are inherently less damaging due to our nominally transparent government needing sign-offs from higher up, approvals from committees, etc, so rarely (if ever?) does an action occur without someone else knowing about it, or a paper trail to be audited. On the other hand, I’d think leaks from an autocracy operating with a right of absolute secrecy would be much more frank and damaging, because they’re not conditioned to communicate in a way that considers someone outside the power structure might intercept it and take offense. Even the most visible CIA torture document is in the form of a memo (leaked, not hacked, but still not for our eyes). The content might still be abhorrent, but the existence of open records laws and a culture of “going to the press” reminds us to keep the really inflammatory or sensitive stuff to unofficial, and maybe un-recordable, channels.

    TL;DR hacking/leaks will favor Western democracies because we already know how to cover our ass in what we say/how we say it.

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