Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Russian Hack

News reports and talk show discussions about the alleged Russian intervention in our election to tilt the outcome in favor of Trump have consistently left several questions unasked and unanswered. Before discussing some of those there's a piece in the Washington Post that summarizes "what you need to know" about the alleged interference:
U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help the campaign of Donald Trump. Here’s what you need to know:
  • The assessment is based on intelligence suggesting that the Kremlin’s hacking efforts were disproportionately aimed at the Democratic Party.
  • Previously, the U.S. intelligence community only said Moscow’s goals were limited to disrupting the election, undermining faith the U.S. electoral system.
  • On Friday, the FBI backed the CIA’s assessment. Previously, the two agencies had differing opinions that some say can be attributed to their culture: The bureau seeks tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt, while the CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior.
  • In an interview with NPR, President Obama said the United States will retaliate against Russia over its election hacking.
  • President-elect Donald Trump has called the CIA’s findings “ridiculous” and said he doesn’t believe it. “I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. . . . No, I don’t believe it at all,” Trump said on “Fox News Sunday” of the CIA assessment.
  • Russia has called the allegations “absolute nonsense.” In a TV interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denied that the Kremlin interfered with the U.S. election and said that Moscow is looking forward to a new relationship with the Trump administration.
  • Officials say they think that, in addition to helping Trump, the Kremlin had a mix of goals, including undermining Americans’ confidence in the electoral system.
  • The CIA has briefed the administration that it thinks the Russians “breached” the Republican National Committee’s computer systems. Officials are less certain whether the hackers were able to extract information. The RNC denies it was hacked.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that a Senate intelligence panel plans to investigate Russia’s suspected election interference.
  • The Obama administration has ordered a “full review” of the Russian hacking during the campaign. The investigation is headed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. The administration promises to make the report public.
What to look for in the next few weeks and months:
  • The scramble in Congress trying to grapple with the repercussions. Members of both parties have called for a public joint House-Senate inquiry leading to a public release of the findings.
  • The impact of the report commissioned by the Obama administration once it is released. The report could pose a challenge to Trump, putting him at odds with the intelligence community. Obama wants the review to be completed before he leaves office next month.
So, some questions:
  • What exactly is the evidence that there was Russian treachery afoot other than the fact that only Democrats like John Podesta were hacked? Does it follow that because the RNC wasn't hacked the hackers didn't try to do so? Or that they wouldn't have given whatever they managed to pilfer from Republicans to Wikileaks?
  • Assuming that the Russians were engaged in mischief, what exactly did they do beyond eavesdrop on some pretty sordid exchanges between various Democrats? Did they disseminate misinformation? Was anything that came of their electronic burglary actually false? Did they somehow plant the idea in Hillary's head that she didn't need to campaign harder in the rust belt? Did they blackmail FBI Director Comey into making his last minute announcement that Mrs. Clinton was still under investigation? Did they somehow manage to alter ballots? Not according to Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson who said there's no evidence of ballot tampering at all.
  • Whatever they did, was it enough to affect the result? And why would the Russians want Trump to win anyway? Wouldn't they much rather have the winner be a woman with a demonstrated propensity to be exceedingly careless with national security documents? Wouldn't it better serve the interests of the Russians to have a president in the Oval Office who treats classified information as though it were something suitable for a Facebook post?
  • Why, if the Obama administration knew about this espionage back in September, was nothing much done about it before the election? President Obama claims that he did, in fact, confront Russian president Vladimir Putin about Russian trespassing last September and told him to "cut it out" or suffer the consequences (which probably precipitated convulsive sniggering in the Kremlin inasmuch as the threat sounds so much like Mr. Obama's "red line" threat to Syrian president Bashar Assad). Mr. Obama asserts that there was no evidence of Russian tampering subsequent to his "threat," but if so, what's the point of all the allegations that are being made now?
  • Finally, it seems a little peculiar that the Democrats are scandalized that the Russians might have interfered in our elections after the State Department, under President Obama's imprimatur, intruded in recent Israeli elections by sending an Israeli group $350,000 to help oust President Bibi Netanyahu. If there's a significant difference between what the Russians are alleged to have done and what Mr. Obama did in Israel, what is it?
We certainly don't want the Russians meddling in our elections, especially since they have so tenuous a grasp on how free and fair elections work in the first place, but until some of these questions are satisfactorily answered the claim that they did meddle in some decisive way will seem driven more by a desire to discredit Trump's electoral victory than any by genuine outrage at Russian dirty tricks.