Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Russians are Hacking, The Russians are Hacking

What a strange moment we live in, where political loyalties and alliances are reforming and even crossing national and ideological boundaries in ways difficult to comprehend. When Obama says that Ronald Reagan is turning over in his grave right now because of the behavior of Republicans today and their new party leader Donald Trump, he is right in a very troubling sense. Having two main political parties is supposed to neutralize a lot of potential conflict, but also requires that the two factions ultimately hold above all partisan politics, the nation itself. In essence, like all political systems, a two-party one still requires that both parties but country first, and that be willing to accept losses for the betterment of the country and not seek all international or foreign means of achieving victory. What we see today however, is that the Republican party has been taken over by those who are willing to side with those who want to weaken American power and its place in the world, in order to win their partisan points, basically putting country behind their desires for vanquishing their political enemies.

The Russian hacking of the US election provides a clear example. Trump and his supporters were willing to condemn Hillary Clinton without any evidence, but seem committed to twisting themselves into knots in order to try to argue that there isn't enough evidence of Russian hacking.

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Reports of Russian officials intervening in the American presidential election have been percolating for months. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence looked into the allegations, and the agencies came to the same conclusion: Vladimir Putin’s government deliberately interfered with America’s presidential election.

But as Rachel explained on Friday’s show, the controversy took an extraordinary turn on Friday night with the publication of a blockbuster report from the Washington Post about the Central Intelligence Agency’s findings.
The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.
A senior U.S. official, briefed on an intelligence presentation made to members of Congress, told the Post that it’s “the consensus view” of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia’s alleged crimes had one specific purpose: “Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected.”

There’s been some speculation in recent months that Putin’s suspected interference was intended to undermine American democracy in general, casting doubts about the strength of our system and its institutions. The Washington Post’s report indicates that those assessments were incomplete: Russia wanted Donald Trump in the White House, so Russian officials allegedly took a variety of criminal steps to ensure that outcome.

The White House, swayed by the evidence, wanted bipartisan support to pushback against Russian intrusion, and in mid-September, President Obama dispatched counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, FBI Director James Comey, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to brief top members of Congress (the “Gang of 12”). Obama didn’t want to be seen as using intelligence for partisan or electoral ends, so he sought a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against foreign manipulation of our democracy.

That didn’t happen, in large part because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused, raising questions about whether the Republican leader intentionally put his party’s interests ahead of the nation’s.

Indeed, given the fact that a variety of GOP leaders were made aware of Russia’s attempts to hijack the American election for its own purposes, Evan McMullin, an independent presidential candidate and former GOP policy staffer on Capitol Hill, asserted over the weekend, “Republican leaders knew Russia was undermining our democracy during the election and they chose to ignore it.”

There’s no shortage of issues that can and should be the subject of partisan disputes. A foreign adversary helping elect an American presidential candidate shouldn’t be one of them.

For its part, Trump’s transition team issued a statement on Friday night that read, in its entirety, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Note, in this three-sentence statement, Team Trump (1) attacked the U.S. intelligence community in order to defend Russia; (2) flagrantly lied about the 2016 election results; and (3) and made no effort to deny the accuracy of the revelations, saying instead that we should “move on,” rather than acknowledge Russian intervention in the American election, which Republicans chose to overlook, apparently to advance their own interests.

Looking ahead, there are a variety of angles to keep an eye on as this historic scandal continues to unfold:

* Trump’s incredulity: In a Fox News interview that aired yesterday, Trump characterized the intelligence community’s findings as “ridiculous.” He did not explain, however, what incentive the agencies would have to lie. Sometime soon, the president-elect will likely face a question he may struggle to answer: “What did Donald Trump know about Russia’s efforts to get him elected, and when did he know it?”

* The RNC: The New York Times reported that Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee, but Putin’s government chose to keep its findings under wraps. The RNC insists this reporting is inaccurate, but if the RNC isn’t telling the truth, it’s a damning detail. It also raises the question of what, if anything, Russia may have on the RNC that the foreign foe is choosing to hold onto.

* Congressional investigation: Democrats want a thorough investigation into these allegations, and a handful of Republican senators agree. But much of the GOP is still holding back, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) denouncing Russian interference without any mention of the need for a formal probe.

This story may very well point to the Crime of the Century. It will not go away anytime soon.

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Despite Being Taken as Fact, 'Case Against Russia' Rests on Insufficient Proof
by Deirdre Fulton

The case that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer network and interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections—such as that laid out Tuesday by the New York Times—is plausible, but the American people deserve hard proof that has yet to be provided, The Intercept's Sam Biddle wrote Wednesday.

While calls for declassification of the evidence have thus far gone unanswered, "the refrain of Russian attribution has been repeated so regularly and so emphatically that it's become easy to forget that no one has ever truly proven the claim," according to Biddle, whose colleagues Jeremy Scahill and Jon Schwarz demanded such proof this week. (The Times's headline: "The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.")

Biddle argued:
The gist of the Case Against Russia goes like this: The person or people who infiltrated the DNC's email system and the account of John Podesta left behind clues of varying technical specificity indicating they have some connection to Russia, or at least speak Russian. Guccifer 2.0, the entity that originally distributed hacked materials from the Democratic party, is a deeply suspicious figure who has made statements and decisions that indicate some Russian connection. The website DCLeaks, which began publishing a great number of DNC emails, has some apparent ties to Guccifer and possibly Russia. And then there's WikiLeaks, which after a long, sad slide into paranoia, conspiracy theorizing, and general internet toxicity, has made no attempt to mask its affection for Vladimir Putin and its crazed contempt for Hillary Clinton. (Julian Assange has been stuck indoors for a very, very long time.) If you look at all of this and sort of squint, it looks quite strong indeed, an insurmountable heap of circumstantial evidence too great in volume to dismiss as just circumstantial or mere coincidence.
But look more closely at the above and you can't help but notice all of the qualifying words: Possibly, appears, connects, indicates. It's impossible (or at least dishonest) to present the evidence for Russian responsibility for hacking the Democrats without using language like this. The question, then, is this: Do we want to make major foreign policy decisions with a belligerent nuclear power based on suggestions alone, no matter how strong?
He went on to pick apart some of the "evidence" and assumptions put forth by the U.S. intelligence community and parroted by lawmakers and corporate media alike.

For instance, Biddle wondered of the so-called Russian intelligence units behind the DNC hack, codenamed APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) 28/Fancy Bear and APT 29/Cozy Bear: "[H]ow do we even know these oddly named groups are Russian?"

He wrote:
[Private security firm] CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch himself describes APT 28 as a "Russian-based threat actor" whose modus operandi "closely mirrors the strategic interests of the Russian government" and "may indicate affiliation [Russia's] Main Intelligence Department or GRU, Russia's premier military intelligence service." Security firm SecureWorks issued a report blaming Russia with "moderate confidence." What constitutes moderate confidence? SecureWorks said it adopted the "grading system published by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence to indicate confidence in their assessments. … Moderate confidence generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence." All of this amounts to a very educated guess, at best.
What's more, Biddle noted, "one can't be reminded enough that all of this evidence comes from private companies with a direct financial interest in making the internet seem as scary as possible, just as Lysol depends on making you believe your kitchen is crawling with E. Coli."

And considering the stakes, this "proof" just isn't enough, Biddle said.

"What we're looking at now is the distinct possibility that the United States will consider military retaliation (digital or otherwise) against Russia, based on nothing but private sector consultants and secret intelligence agency notes," he wrote. "If you care about the country enough to be angry at the prospect of election-meddling, you should be terrified of the prospect of military tensions with Russia based on hidden evidence. You need not look too far back in recent history to find an example of when wrongly blaming a foreign government for sponsoring an attack on the U.S. has tremendously backfired."

As Scahill and Schwarz said Tuesday: "Let's have the proof."

Meanwhile, Reuters reported Tuesday that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) "has not endorsed" the CIA's claim of Russian hacking to benefit Trump "because of a lack of conclusive evidence." 

Edited to clarify the nature of the ODNI's non-endorsement. 

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U.S. intelligence officials now believe with "a high level of confidence" that Russian President Vladimir Putin became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.

Two senior officials with direct access to the information say new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said.
Putin's objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a "vendetta" against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to "split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore," the official said.

Ultimately, the CIA has assessed, the Russian government wanted to elect Donald Trump. The FBI and other agencies don't fully endorse that view, but few officials would dispute that the Russian operation was intended to harm Clinton's candidacy by leaking embarrassing emails about Democrats.

The latest intelligence said to show Putin's involvement goes much further than the information the U.S. was relying on in October, when all 17 intelligence agencies signed onto a statement attributing the Democratic National Committee hack to Russia.

The statement said officials believed that "only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities." That was an intelligence judgment based on an understanding of the Russian system of government, which Putin controls with absolute authority.

Now the U.S has solid information tying Putin to the operation, the intelligence officials say. Their use of the term "high confidence" implies that the intelligence is nearly incontrovertible.

"It is most certainly consistent with the Putin that I have watched and used to work with when I was an ambassador and in the government," said Michael McFaul, who was ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

"He has had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton, that has been known for a long time because of what she said about his elections back in the parliamentary elections of 2011. He wants to discredit American democracy and make us weaker in terms of leading the liberal democratic order. And most certainly he likes President-elect Trump's views on Russia," McFaul added. Clinton cast doubt on the integrity of Russia's elections.

As part of contingency planning for potential retaliation against Russia, according to officials, U.S. intelligence agencies have stepped up their probing into his personal financial empire.
American officials have concluded that Putin's network controls some $85 billion worth of assets, officials told NBC News.

Neither the CIA nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would comment.

A former CIA official who worked on Russia told NBC News that it's not clear the U.S. can embarrass Putin, given that many Russians are already familiar with allegations he has grown rich through corruption and has ordered the killings of political adversaries.

But a currently serving U.S. intelligence official said that there are things Putin is sensitive about, including anything that makes him seem weak.

The former CIA official said the Obama administration may feel compelled to respond before it leaves office.

"This whole thing has heated up so much," he said. "I can very easily see them saying, `We can't just say wow, this was terrible and there's nothing we can do.'"

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Obama Urges Trump to Take Russian Hacking Seriously
Associated Press
December 16, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama suggested on Friday that Russia's Vladimir Putin knew about the email hackings that roiled the U.S. presidential race, and he urged his successor, Republican Donald Trump, to back a bipartisan investigation into the matter.

"Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin," Obama said at his last year-end news conference.

The president said he had warned Putin there would be serious consequences it he did not "cut it out," though Obama did not specify the extent or timing of any U.S. retaliation for the hacking, which many Democrats believe contributed to Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton.

Obama also expressed bewilderment over Republican lawmakers and voters alike who now say they approve of Putin, declaring, "Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave."

The comments come the same day the FBI confirmed that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the goal of supporting the president-elect.

Trump has dismissed recent talk about hacking and the election as "ridiculous."
 
Media Obsession 
 Clinton has even more directly cited Russian interference with the U.S. election. She said Thursday night, "Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyberattacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me."

Obama did not publicly support that theory Friday. He did, however, chide the media for what he called an "obsession" with the flood of hacked Democratic emails that were made public during the election's final stretch.

U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election to benefit Trump have heightened the already tense relationship between Washington and Moscow.
 
Obama on Trump, "He has Listened"
 The president is ending his eighth year in office with his own popularity on the rise, though Trump's election is expected to unwind many of Obama's policies. He's leaving his successor a stronger economy than he inherited, but also the intractable conflict in Syria and troubling issue of whether Russia was meddling in the U.S. election to back Trump.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded with "high confidence" that Russia interfered in the election on Trump's behalf. The president-elect has disputed that conclusion, setting up a potential confrontation with lawmakers in both parties.

The president rejected any notion that the dispute over the origin of the hacking was disrupting efforts to smoothly transfer power to Trump. Despite fiercely criticizing each other during the election, Obama and Trump have spoken multiple times since the campaign ended.

"He has listened," Obama said of Trump. "I can't say he will end up implementing. But the conversations themselves have been cordial."

The president did weigh in on Trump's decision to speak with the leader of Taiwan, a phone call that broke decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol. Obama advised Trump to "think it through" before making changes the "one-China" policy.
 
 Trump has openly questioned why the U.S. upholds that policy, particularly given that Washington has other contacts with Taiwan. Offering his own take, Obama noted that Taiwan is of utmost importance to the Chinese and Beijing could have a significant response to any change in U.S. policy. 
 
Democratic Party woes
 Trump's election has upended the Democratic Party, which expected to not only win the White House but also carry the Senate. Instead, the party finds itself out of power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a moment of self-reflection, Obama acknowledged that he had not been able to transfer his own popularity and electoral success to others in his party.

"It is not something that I've been able to transfer to candidates in midterms or build a sustaining organization around," Obama said. "That's something I would have liked to have done more of, but it's kind of hard to do when you're dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House."

As he leaves office, the president has said the shaping the future of the Democratic Party now falls to others. He all but endorsed his Labour Secretary Tom Perez to head the Democratic National Committee, lavishing praise on his cabinet aide.

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