Over the past several months, The Washington Post has published a series of articles that claim to show that Russian government hackers have been working overtime to influence the November election. On June 14, the Post proclaimed: “Russian government hackers penetrated DNC, stole opposition research on Trump.” The Post followed this up on June 20 with a story alleging that “Cyber researchers confirm Russian government hack of Democratic National Committee.” July 29 brought us the headline: “FBI probes suspected breach of another Democratic organization by Russian hackers.” On August 29, the Post reported: “Russian hackers targeted Arizona election system.”
And yet, despite headlines that one would normally expect of British tabloids like The Sun or The Daily Mirror, or their principal American imitator, The Daily Beast, the Post has signally failed in providing any hard evidence of Russian malfeasance. And now the latest in the Post’s series on Russia cyber-warfare tells readers: “U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections.”
According to the Post, “U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust.” Unnamed “senior intelligence” and “congressional” officials warn that Russia “seems to be” waging a “global campaign” designed to influence the US public opinion. It is something, says one unnamed source “we’re looking very closely at.”
Yet in keeping with the Post’s other major “scoops,” buried five paragraphs beneath the clickbait headline comes word that “the intelligence community is not saying it has ‘definitive proof’ of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so.”
But never mind, then the Post goes on to tell us that “U.S. intelligence officials described the covert influence campaign here as ‘ambitious.’”
“Ambitious” might also well describe the efforts by congressional Democrats to make Russia a major issue in the campaign, the better to distract voters from the seemingly endless parade of embarrassing stories for the Clinton campaign.
Not surprisingly, the Post failed to ask: What exactly prompted this current investigation by federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies? Was it truly prompted by evidence of Russian cyber attacks or (more likely) was it launched because of pressure from Congress?
Relevant to all of this is the fact that outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey last week urging the bureau to launch an investigation into the alleged Russian hacks. “I have recently become concerned,” wrote Reid, “that the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.”
The following day, Director Comey received a second letter requesting an investigation—this time from Democratic members of the House oversight, judiciary, foreign affairs, and homeland-security committees. The representatives requested “that the FBI assess whether connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian interests may have contributed to these attacks in order to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.”
While it does appear increasingly likely that someone used Russian agency computers to hack the DNC and then leak it to Wikileaks, no conclusive evidence has been found to support that case. Meanwhile, evidence that Russia was behind the voting-systems hack in Arizona, or that it is trying to deliberately meddle with the entire election, is utterly absent.
All of this of course isn’t to say that Russia doesn’t have a robust espionage program aimed at the United States. So does Israel, so does China. But if you’re going to blare headlines that point the finger of blame at one country in particular you should have more, you know, proof.
What’s more, these sensationalist stories miss the bigger picture. As the cybersecurity analyst Jeffrey Carr told The Nation, stories like these are troubling because, while “interfering with elections is Standard Operating Procedure for intelligence services worldwide, including ours, our Intelligence Community is naturally suspicious and wants to defend against any tactics that might be used by Russian intelligence or any other Foreign Intelligence Service to undermine trust in our system.”
Yet, according to Carr, a problem that often goes unremarked upon is that “we aren’t ready for online voting and our electronic voting systems are not secure. This does need attention, but it’s always pushed off until just before the next election season when it’s too late to do anything.”
But in the meantime, rest assured The Washington Post will do its utmost to ignore the actual issues in favor of providing readers with a steady diet of Russia-baiting and Putin-bashing.