Saturday, January 7, 2017

The ICA report on Russian Hacking: A study in Fake News

The words "high confidence" abound in the Intelligence Community Assessment on purported Russian attempts to influence American electoral politics. Unfortunately for the Intelligence Community, their "highly confident" assessment is demonstrably and provably false. Worse, their own assessment is the best evidence demonstrating their commitment to the Fake News paradigm.

The summary assessment at the start of the report reads as follows:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
These simple declarative sentences certainly appear eminently reasonable. No one can credibly deny that the activities ascribed to Vladimir Putin are measures he is quite capable of undertaking, and the thuggish, authoritarian nature of his regime makes the possibility he did undertake them itself highly credible. However, the simplicity of the grammar creates the core problem with the assessment: they are merely an arbitrary conjoining and conflation of disparate actions and motives to fit a predefined narrative. 

Let us unpack these sentences and consider them separately:

  • We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.

    This is the most defensible claim, as it is merely a claim of fact. Putin either did or did not issue such orders. While the report does not contain any absolute and conclusive evidence of such orders, it does make a circumstantial case that at the least does not contradict this assertion.
  • Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. 

    This is a tad more problematic than the first assertion. Circumstantial evidence can make a highly credible case as to actions taken or not taken, but it is far less likely to suffice for imputing motive. Note that a motivation of denigrating Hillary Clinton is demonstrably distinct from a consequence of denigrating Hillary Clinton.

    It is not unreasonable to conclude the consequence of a particular act is the desired consequence, and in this fashion we often impute motive to actions in virtually every circumstance. However, if we restate this sentence by focusing on presumed impacts of the actions averred in the previous sentence, immediately we run into a significant problem of logic: "The impact of Russia's influence campaign was to undermine public faith in the US democratic process...."

    That is an extraordinary statement, and bears extraordinary scrutiny. How has the US democratic process been undermined, or America's faith in that process? What demonstrable damage has been done? These are the necessary questions one must make regarding such a statement, and at least within the ICA, the answers are conspicuous solely by their absence. Further, the actions and activities ascribed to Putin simply lack the capacity to undermine any democratic process, let alone the distributed state-by-state system America uses to elect its President.
  • We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

    Again, the ICA imputes motive from presumed consequence. While far from impossible (and in fact relatively probable, given various pro-Trump statements made by Putin since the election), the popular vote outcomes among the several states were sufficiently close as to render the clarity of a preference for any candidate far more mythical than real.
Thus, even before any examination of the supporting discussion within the report, we are presented with significant challenges to the credibility of the report as a whole. Worse, the imputation of motive is in every context a quintessentially political position: Political figures of all leanings regularly demonize and denigrate their opponents by questioning if not outright attacking their motives; in politics, that is ever the order of things.

The report's segue into supporting discussion does not improve its credibility: 
We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him
Again, we are faced with the innately political imputation of motive, coupled with another extraordinary statement which begs extraordinary questions: How could Putin--or indeed anyone--discredit Hillary Clinton? Did the Russians make false statements about her? Were scurrilous and demonstrably false accusations leveled against her?

We are also faced with a far more serious problem of logic and understanding. The ICA is saying that Putin and the Russians injected into the public discourse a variety of statements about Hillary Clinton, arguably of an unfavorable nature and specifically intended to portray her in an unflattering light. Yet even if we assume for the moment the absolute veracity of this assertion, in what way does this represent an undermining of the US democratic process? The mainstream media injects statements favorable and unfavorable into the public discourse--indeed, that is their explicit role in American electoral politics. Further, the American political system is predicated on there being a wide ranging articulation and contemplation of such statement; such public dialog is part and parcel of the rights categorically defended in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
If we take the ICA at face value, we are presented with a narrative of Putin speaking out and in essence making a case arguably for Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton as best suited to be the 45th President of the United States. Putin, far from undermining US democratic process, is in fact participating in it. Putin has his opinions as to whom he would rather see in the Oval Office, as do all foreign leaders; one can argue with conviction that the opinions of foreign leaders should be of no consequence and given no weight in deciding how we will vote on election day, but that argument quite properly focuses on what the prudent response should be to such opinions. To say that we should not heed the opinions of foreign leaders is a legitimate position to take, and it is wildly different from saying that foreign leaders should not have (or express) their opinions--that would simply be an unrealistic position to take.

We have an additional problem arising from this aspect of the ICA: How does a foreign leader expressing his or her opinion on our electoral politics delegitimize those politics? How does Putin having a presumed preference for Donald Trump invalidate the votes of tens of millions of Americans for Donald Trump? A moment's reflection is all that is needed to realize that Putin's opinions have no bearing on the legitimacy of our elections, nor on our voting choices. The only thing that would question the legitimacy of an election is if vote totals were altered to present a false result--and the ICA states that did not happen:

DHS assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying. 
By the logic of the ICA itself, the Russians were not compromising either ballots or votes by their actions. And thus the ICA has immediately disproven its own central thesis, that Putin and the Russians sought to undermine Americans' faith in American democratic process. Whatever else the Russians may have done or desired to do, that clearly was not one of the goals and objectives. 

The remainder of the ICA supporting discussion details Russian propaganda efforts. Examples cited include Russian-owned media outlets RT and Sputnik producing and promoting pro-Trump content, the celebratory reception Trump's election received in the Kremlin, and the amplifying of Trump campaign themes via Russian media. Yet such activities are not only legal and permissible, but preferable and desirable in our political system. Media outlets such as RT and Sputnik do not lose their right to broadcast their messages to the the American public simply because they are not native to these shores--certainly not when the Islamist/ISIS-friendly Al Jazeera America cable news channel is also widely available in the United States. Propaganda may be distasteful, but it is hardly undemocratic--merely because the journalism is Russian Red as opposed to William Randolph Hearst Yellow is a bad reason to silence that voice.

Even the key assertion of the ICA that the Russian propaganda efforts utilize stolen ("hacked") data an personal information carries significant problems. The mere fact that information was obtained illegally is not itself a valid bar to its publication. This was the conclusion of the US Supreme Court in Bartnicki v. Vopper (532 U.S. 514) in 2001. It was the defense of the New York Times both in publishing the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s (stolen by Daniel Ellsburg) and again in 2016 in publishing portions of Donald Trump's tax returns (also allegedly stolen, by persons as yet unnamed). While the ICA includes a throwaway statement of Russian intelligence operatives publishing altered or false personal information, as regards the 2016 election cycle itself the ICA concludes no such tampering took place:
We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries
Stealing personal data and hacking computer systems are unquestionably crimes, and unquestionably deserve to be investigated and guilty parties punished. Yet as regards public discourse, the American tradition is essentially a rather blunt and uncompromising stance that all information is fair game. The ICA offers no evidence of demonstrably false factual statements being released via WikiLeaks or by any other purportedly Russian-affiliated actor. The DNC email system was hacked, John Podesta's Gmail password was surreptitiously and illegally retrieved, yet the materials obtained by these illegal activities are, per the assessment of the ICA, real and authentic correspondence of the Democratic National Committee and persons affiliated with Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign.  While it is criminal and unacceptable to steal such information, it is neither criminal nor unacceptable within American political traditions to publish such information.

Again, even if one assumes for the sake of argument the veracity of the ICA, the assertions made and the related defenses simply do not amount to anything resembling an assault on US democratic process; rather, they amount to Putin desiring to participate in that process. The ICA makes a detailed and substantive case regarding Russia's ambitions of having influence within American political processes--but aside from isolated instances of cybercrime, it offers up neither allegation nor substance of Russia and Russian-owned media doing anything that is contrary to our system of electoral politics, or even outside our laws.

For all of its substance and seeming detail, the ICA presents a false narrative and a red herring argument. It implies, but does not answer, one overarching question: How can Vladimir Putin undermine America by acting as an ordinary American?