Comment Of The Day: The Russian Cyber-Attack Report: Observations And Questions


Ethics Alarms is grateful to reader Greg, the author of this first Comment of the Day of the New Year, for supplementing the recent post here, and providing a critical and more detailed assessment of the intelligence community’s much ballyhooed report on its conclusions regarding Russian cyber-attacks during the 2016 election, with the alleged purpose of defeating Hillary Clinton.

I am particularly relieved that he shares my own reaction to the report, which simply did not deliver on what was promised by James Clapper in the hearings earlier in the week. Oddly, the news media and almost everyone I know miraculously seem to think it did.  The two key issues I, and I assume everyone, wants clarified is 1) whether Russia was indeed trying to elect Donald Trump, as opposed to generally gumming up the works, embarrassing the likely President (Clinton, of course), undermining public faith in the democratic system, and basically making everyone involved look like fools, knaves, and boobs (Note that Trump appeared to be handling his side of that task all by himself) , and 2) did their efforts in fact have any effect on the results? Answering the first clearly and decisively is essential to understanding the second: to most people, if Russia’s actions were designed to make Trump President, and in fact Trump did shock the world by becoming President, this creates a rebuttable presumption that in fact the Russian Government, and Vladimir Putin in particular, did affect the results of the election. That millions of people regard the matter in this way is certain, because we know that millions of people are desperately searching for some conspiracy or sinister outside agency to explain an event that shattered their expectations and world view.

We also know that the false belief that the sequence Conduct  A is intended to cause Result B, A occurs,  B occurs after A, ergo A caused B, is widely accepted, because public school  teachers are too busy teaching that the United States oppresses minorities  to get around to logic.  Now, that sequence is utter crap, validating, among other things, superstitions and rain dances, but never mind most people think that way.

Yet the report provides no evidence to support the intelligence community’s conclusions in either matter. I find that incomprehensible, and also irresponsible. What the report does  say, in essence, is, “Trust us, we’re experts,”  and leaves the rest to confirmation bias. Could the authors not have provided some evidence to support these conclusions? If not, why not?

Here is Greg’s Comment of the Day on the post, The Russian Cyber-Attack Report: Observations And Questions:

This so-called “25-page report” is almost entirely padding and filler. I read it and I don’t see anything in it that adds to what we knew before the report was issued.

Ignore the first 3 pages, consisting of a cover page and two pages on “background and methods” that say essentially, “In preparing reports like this, we look at the sources we think we should look at and reach the conclusions we think we should reach, and you should trust us because we know a lot more than you.”

Ignore the next 3 pages, consisting of another cover page, one “page left intentionally blank” and another page that says, “Trust us, we know things and you don’t.”

Ignore the next 2 pages, which are a summary of the rest of the report. Just read the report itself. It’s short.

Ignore the 2 pages after that, a table of contents and another cover page.

Ignore the 7-page Annex A, which describes the news and editorial policies of the RT website and YouTube channel. In the first place, the annex is four years old and describes RT’s activities before and during the 2012 campaign, not the 2016 campaign. In the second place, RT has a tiny audience in the US and could not possibly have affected either the 2012 or 2016 election in any material way. In the third place, are we really supposed to be outraged that Russia operates a pro-Russian website that disseminates Russia’s view of the world?

Ignore the 1-page Annex B, which is bureaucratic boilerplate (explaining what “highly likely” means and how it differs from “likely”).

Ignore the last 2 pages, which consist of one “page left intentionally blank” and another cover page.

That leaves 5 pages. Those 5 pages are the entirety of the actual content of the report, including all of the report’s information, reasoning, opinions and conclusions. Let’s take a look at them:

Page 1 and the first quarter of page 2 tell us that Putin preferred Trump to Clinton. We all knew that without the CIA telling us. The only interesting part is the acknowledgement that Putin blamed the US for the Panama Papers hack and leak, and for “inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012.” There’s no suggestion in the report, however, that there would have been anything improper about this sort of interference by the US in Russia’s political process.

The next half of page 2 tells us that the Russian strategy includes covert intelligence operations (we knew this already without the CIA telling us, because every country in the world engages in covert intelligence operations) and overt operations (i.e., legitimate, unobjectionable activities, such as public expressions of opinion by the Russian government and people who agree with it). The CIA informs us that, unsurprisingly, some portion of Russia’s no-doubt extensive intelligence operations in the US includes collecting information about think tanks and other political actors.

The stub of page 2 and the first half of page 3 set out the CIA’s curiously unpersuasive argument that Russia was responsible for the DNC email leaks. Essentially their argument is: (1) Guccifer, who claimed to have hacked the emails, has made inconsistent statements about his identity (as if a secret hacker and leaker should be expected to make himself easy to identify), (2) Putin made mocking public comments about the leaks (as, of course, he would do regardless of the source), (3) RT publishes Wikileaks content (like many other news outlets, such as the New York Times), gives favorable coverage to Assange (as many other news outlets, such as the New York Times, did before he embarrassed Hillary), and has given him a broadcast slot on its network, and (4) just trust us, we know things and you don’t.

Then some irrelevant asides about Russian activities that had no effect on the 2016 election (World Anti-Doping Agency and state election boards).

The stub of page 3 and all of page 4 complain about legitimate activities by Russia and individual Russians. Complaints about RT’s news and editorial bias. (Was RT as biased as CNN? The report doesn’t say.) Complaints about Russian media coverage of the campaign for Russian audiences inside Russia. Complaints about public remarks made in Russia by Russian politicians unknown in the US. Complaints that Russians (“trolls”) posted anti-Hillary comments on blogs and that some were paid to do so.

The report tries to make these activities sound sinister by calling them part of an “influence campaign” that included “cyber tools and media campaigns.” The New York Times escalates the rhetoric, calling this a “complicated, multipart cyberinformation attack.” But the campaign that the report actually describes consisted solely of (1) the alleged leak of DNC emails (“cyber tools”), plus (2) journalism, editorials and other information and expressions of opinion posted publicly on the internet (“media campaign,” unless you take the view that all information posted on the web is transformed into cyberinformation), competing for attention with literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, of web postings by other people and organizations.

Page 5 tells us that the Russians are bad, bad people for doing the things described on pages 1-4 and that Russians have done bad, bad things in the past. (“In the 1970’s, the KGB recruited a Democratic Party activist who reported information about Jimmy Carter’s campaign and foreign policy plans.” Shocking!) Also, that the Russians might do bad, bad things in the future.

So, cutting through the padding, the irrelevancies and the things that go without saying, the only significant part of the report, the only part that actually accuses the Russians of doing anything improper that affected the election is the unpersuasive half page that asserts again, without evidence, that the Russians leaked the DNC emails.

To my mind, the only troubling thing about the report is that it was issued at all. Who in the intelligence agencies contrived this hackwork and what were their real motives for doing so? They clearly knew how thin their case was, else they wouldn’t have felt the need to add so much padding and so many irrelevant asides. But the media seem completely uninterested in that question.

9 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: The Russian Cyber-Attack Report: Observations And Questions

  1. Over at the Althouse blog, where the commentariat is nearly unanimous in its skepticism regrading the report, a commenter writes in part…

    The underlying inconsistency of the intelligence report’s assessment of Russian strategic intent is revealed in the “Annex,” which describes RT “Strategic Messaging” on behalf of Russian government “interests in areas such as foreign and energy policy.”

    The content of that messaging is summarized in the report by several bullet points that read like a Bernie Sanders stump speech:

    Occupy Wall Street. “Information warfare aimed at promoting popular dissatisfaction with the US Government. RT created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media. In addition, RT featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
    Civil Liberties. The United States as a “surveillance state” with “widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”

    Economic Injustice. “RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse.

    Anti-Fracking. “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.”

    Non-Intervention. “RT is a leading media voice opposing Western intervention in the Syrian conflict and blaming the West for waging “information wars” against the Syrian Government. In an earlier example of RT’s messaging in support of the Russian Government, during the Georgia-Russia military conflict the channel accused Georgians of killing civilians and organizing a genocide of the Ossetian people.“

    Of course, by suggesting that Russian interests are aligned with the left, instead of Trump, that’s “McCarthyism.”

  2. Not only excellent, but informed. I’m surprised that someone other than me read this thing critically. I can only assume, after having read it, that the CIA, FBI and NSA have no one on staff who knows the first thing about cybersecurity or tracing hackers which, Criminal Minds notwithstanding, is damned near impossible to do. Thus, attributing this hack to Russia is simply wild guesswork. And partisan, to boot, trying desperately to make Clinton look good. I have to wonder why two intelligence agencies and a law enforcement agency which you would think would (and should) be politically neutral would not produce such a report. Always possible that they were ordered to, I guess.

    • “I can only assume, after having read it, that the CIA, FBI and NSA have no one on staff who knows the first thing about cybersecurity or tracing hackers which, Criminal Minds notwithstanding, is damned near impossible to do. Thus, attributing this hack to Russia is simply wild guesswork.”

      My first reading is that very little in here concerns the data breaches, except in context of providing grist for RT, is that right? Ironically (perhaps), that’s the one area where the intelligence community could credibly assess who was responsible for security of the systems, for the failures of security, and for mitigating the possibility that any breaches could be damaging.

      • That was …not exactly my take, but close enough. My feeling is that this is MY computer and I should be responsible for its security. On the other hand, those nasty old Russians HAD to be responsible for Hillary losing. The fact that she was untrustworthy, a liar, corrupt as all get out and refused to campaign where she should have had nothing to do with her loss……..NOT!

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