The Stanford Cyber Policy Center published a whitepaper recently titled Securing American Elections: Prescriptions for Enhancing the Integrity and Independence of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and Beyond.
What I want to do is make a shot at trying to separate what the Russians might have actually done from any of Donald Trump’s involvement in reacting to what they did. I also want to ask the question “was any of it effective?”
Calling something a “whitepaper” means that it’s a combination of opinion and documented facts. Facts, as we know, are in rather short supply on the subject except as presented by the Mueller Report. So let’s see what we have:
“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” according to the Mueller Report. Did Vladimir Putin want Trump to win? When asked point blank about his electoral preferences during the press conference at the summit in Helsinki in July 2018, Putin answered bluntly, “Yes. I wanted him to win, because he talked about the normalization of U.S.-Russia relations.”
No problem so far. The United States quite often shows preference for a candidate. That Vladimir Putin liked Trump’s ideas is no secret.
The unredacted portion of the Special Counsel report focused on two influential Russian operations: (1) computer-intrusion operations against the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party officials and (2) a social media campaign that favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.
This is also not in dispute.
The whitepaper then goes on to describe the spear phishing campaign that ultimately resulted in the GRU (Russian intelligence) gaining access to various DNC servers.
Although unnerving, there is nothing unusual about either human or electronic data collection by the Russian government during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The subsequent publication of this stolen data, however, was extraordinary and unprecedented.
I think the only thing that was extraordinary was that they got caught. WHEN they got caught is a whole other issue! But this is still not good so let’s continue.
Russian agents carried out the anonymous release of this information through two fictitious online personas—DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0—and later through third-party websites, including most importantly WikiLeaks. The GRU began posting stolen documents in June 2016.
Before 2016, no foreign government had ever attempted to steal data from American politicians and then publish this information as a means to significantly influence the electoral outcome. This element of Putin’s strategy to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the most impactful.
As we know, Mueller indicted a number of GRU officials which was a noble but meaningless gesture.
The thing that really jumps out at me at this point is that the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Obama Administration did absolutely nothing other than to tell Putin to “cut it out.” Perhaps the Trump campaign should have recognized that receiving so much good and useful news was “too good to be true.” Regardless, the Obama Administration left Donald Trump hang out to dry.
Coming back to the stolen emails –
The stolen emails, accompanied by conservative commentary, generated a narrative of unfair treatment of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders by the DNC. Supporters of Sanders were outraged, booed Clinton during the Democratic National Convention’s opening ceremony and even picked up Trump’s “lock her up” slogan during their protests. This scandal generated by Russian activity forced then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign before she could open the party’s convention. Beyond the specific allegations of DNC bias against Sanders, the publication of these emails fueled the more general narrative of Clinton being corrupt and insincere.
One thing we can conclude, therefore, is that the U.S. Intelligence Community had absolutely no idea that the Russians were doing ANYTHING to influence the election in a meaningful way on July 25, 2016 – the date of the Democratic Convention. I find it hugely implausible that the Obama Administration could stand by and watch Vladimir Putin disrupt the Democratic Convention.
The Russian state-controlled television network RT broadcasted within the United States, appearing in 85 million households though cable bundles and as one of the most watched television channels on YouTube.
I put this in “listing a fact” but it has no import on the question of Russian direct involvement. We’ve had the Voice of America for decades and the fact that Russia has modernized a means to get out their message only just makes me jealous.
This brings us to the discussion of the The Internet Research Agency (IRA). This is a company based in Russia whose mission is to advocate for Russian companies. The IRA was responsible for the Russian bots as well as Facebook advertising and the creation of Twitter hashtags.
Was this the Russian government? It’s alleged that the person who is probably behind the IRA is a friend of Putin. Did he call his friend? No idea but quite likely.
Now we get to the nub of things – how much did the IRA spend? It seems about $100,000. What was the overall spending by both candidates in the 2016 campaign? $2.4 Billion. If Facebook and Twitter were SO EFFECTIVE that their advertising could influence a presidential election for this tiny amount of money, every company in the world would be pouring 100% of their advertising budget into it!
For example, in August 2016, 15 million people in the United States saw at least one IRA-created ad per week, and in October 2016 the number of weekly impressions had reached its height of 70 million people.
Here’s my suggestion, someone needs to do a statistically significant study to see what percentage of people remember any of the ads and which they found persuasive. My guess is that near zero will remember seeing any of them and near zero will have found any of them persuasive and so close to zero to be insignificant will say it had any influence on them whatsoever.
Let me also say that restricting advertising of any sort from anyone is bad policy. Listing who is responsible for the ads is useful, something that’s the law today, and something that needs to continue. Additionally, trying to have Facebook and Twitter do the job the intelligence community needs to do in recognizing a foreign cyber attack of this sort through either law or policy is foolhardy.
While I acknowledge that the IRA did what it did, I rate the effectiveness as “in the noise” and the statistics presented in this report as bravo sierra.
In addition to publishing stolen data and implementing an extensive media campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Russian government and its surrogates reached out directly to the Trump campaign through “business connections, offers of assistance to to the Campaign, invitations for Campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved U.S.-Russian relations.”
OK. This is either illegal or it’s not illegal. In any instance, the intelligence community left Donald Trump completely out to dry. I find all of this uninteresting and equivalent to Obama saying he’ll have more flexibility after the election.
Most disturbingly, Russian intelligence agents probed the U.S. electoral infrastructure in 2016. In June 2017, Samuel Liles, the Acting Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “Internet-connected election-related networks, including websites, in 21 states were potentially targeted by Russian government cyber actors.”
I find this not surprising at all and once again – what did the Intelligence Community know and when did they know it?
Despite having the capacity to do so, Putin and his agents decided not to try to disrupt these machines on Election Day itself. President Obama personally warned Putin about the consequences of Russian disruption of Election Day activities; perhaps this deterrence worked.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that Russian cyber actors successfully penetrated and accessed the U.S.election infrastructure is highly concerning for its potential to undermine confidence in electoral outcomes in the future.
What is so disappointing here is that it is obvious to everyone that any election-related Internet-connected devices need to have the highest level of security. What were these people thinking? I’m sure the Russians were saying the same thing! “You mean we can do WHAT?”
We’ll now look at the other huge intervention by the Russians which we know as “the dossier.”
In addition to in-person meetings, several foreign companies and consultants were paid to participate in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The Trump campaign hired a British firm, Cambridge Analytica, to work directly for their organization. Other Republicans candidates hired the British firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, to collect compromising materials on Trump relationships with Russian individuals and organizations. When these Republicans dropped out of the race, the Clinton campaign contracted with the American company Fusion GPS to collect opposition research on Trump, and Fusion GPS in turn hired again Orbis Business Intelligence to continue its research on Trump, a contract that eventually produced the “Steele Dossier”.
Huh. That’s the only reference to the dossier in the entire whitepaper.
Let me add some opinion of my own. To state the obvious, this has and does continue to stink to high heavens. However, it is once again an embarrassment to the entire Intelligence Community considering the Hillary campaign wound up using an ex-British agent who was being fed information directly from Russian agents.
Here’s my guess – Vladmir Putin was laughing his butt off at the CIA, FBI, NSA and a bunch of other three letter acronym (TLA) agencies for their incompetence. The entire “Steele Dossier” COULD have been one huge joke that Putin wanted to play on Hillary Clinton. After all, who would believe any of it particularly since it should be so easy to disprove? It was one giant written meme that had enough truth in it to make it funny.
When everyone on the Left took it seriously, he probably thought “WTF?” (I’m sure Vladimir likes a good TLA as much as anyone). If I thought the GRU was smarter (which I don’t), I’d suggest that the intent of the dossier was to embarrass the Clinton Campaign for giving credence to any of it once it was certain to be shown to be a hoax.
So here is my conclusion and my deepest concern:
The United States Intelligence Community was totally ineffective in recognizing a number of cyber attacks by the Russian GRU. That’s what we should be holding hearings on! These people were totally and completely asleep at the switch. As an American, I’m truly embarrassed.
Here’s my bone to all you conspiracy theorists – they weren’t asleep at all and were actually setting up Donald Trump to violate campaign laws and later to “collude with the Russian government” and “obstruct an investigation.” This presupposes that they had good reason to believe that he would win or that this was an “insurance policy.” I don’t think our Intelligence Community is that smart!
Until then, I officially call for an investigation into “what did the Intelligence Community know and when did they know it? AND why didn’t they tell anyone? AND if they did, who did they tell and why wasn’t it revealed?”
Those are the real questions and not being all surprised that the Russians conduct a level of espionage!