27 November 2019

Facts About Election Meddling

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In the wake of Adam Schiff's abysmal Clown World Impeachment Inquiry, absurdly yet accurately termed a "Schiff Show" (with all the scatological implication one cares to layer on), it seems wise to examine the narratives swirling around in the legacy media about both Russian and Ukrainian election "meddling" -- foreign actors interfering in the 2016 Presidential Election. With so much hysteria, we are well advised to recall the facts and evidences that we have, both of what was actually done and what impact it can be fairly shown to have had.

Russian Meddling: The Cyberattack Narrative

According to the legacy media, Russia began a concerted effort to manipulate the 2016 election outcomes in 2015, when computer hackers employed by or sponsored by Russian intelligence agencies gained access into the computer network of the Democratic National Committee.

One of the earliest known direct efforts by the Russians to meddle in the election came in the summer of 2015, when hackers believed to be linked to Russian intelligence gained access to the network of the Democratic National Committee. For an extended period, the hackers collected email and chat messages from DNC staff.
Between summer 2015 and spring 2016, these hackers presumably harvested a trove of data--email messages, chats and other text messages, as well as other documents. The network penetration was discovered in April of 2016 by the DNC, who engaged network security firm CrowdStrike to analyze the penetration and effect threat mitigation and remediation.
The firm identified two separate hacker groups, both working for the Russian government, that had infiltrated the network, said Dmitri Alperovitch, CrowdStrike co-founder and chief technology officer. The firm had analyzed other breaches by both groups over the past two years.

One group, which CrowdStrike had dubbed Cozy Bear, had gained access last summer and was monitoring the DNC’s email and chat communications, Alperovitch said.

The other, which the firm had named Fancy Bear, broke into the network in late April and targeted the opposition research files. It was this breach that set off the alarm. The hackers stole two files, Henry said. And they had access to the computers of the entire research staff — an average of about several dozen on any given day.

The computers contained research going back years on Trump. “It’s a huge job” to dig into the dealings of somebody who has never run for office before, Dacey said.
Crowdstrike would later publish some of their findings in their company blog, after the story was released to the public in June of 2016.

Separately, Russia was alleged in June of 2017 by the NSA to have attempted hacks of voter software companies in the US, as well as local voter registration rolls, during the 2016 election cycle. The consistent official stance in regards to these hacking efforts is that no voter registrations were compromised nor actual votes or vote tallies altered during the election

In addition to these cyberattacks, Russia also is alleged to have engaged in an extended "disinformation" campaign, using social media as well as Russian owned media outlets such as Sputnik and RT. Much of this effort was mentioned in the Intelligence Community Assessment on election interference published by the US Intelligence agencies in January of 2017.

Russia Meddling: The Evidence

We should always acknowledge the obvious. Hacking is a crime, and hacking by a foreign government is espionage. Some would even say it is an act of war. Yet it is because of the seriousness of the offense that we must take care to scrutinize all the information available, rather than rely on superficial narratives. With that in mind, let us review the evidences of Russian hacking related to the 2016 election.

For the hack of the DNC, we only have the Crowdstrike report available as evidence of what was done, when, and by whom. Crowdstrike did have some of its work reviewed by a separate cybersecurity firm, ThreatConnect, which affirmed CrowdStrike's conclusions, but the data they reviewed was the forensic material collected by CrowdStrike. No independent investigation of the DNC infrastructure was ever performed by any company other than CrowdStrike. Even the FBI was not given access to the servers to conduct an independent investigation. The FBI's conclusions on the DNC server hack are thus the CrowdStrike conclusions, which were accepted unchallenged.

We should also note that CrowdStrike has also made some significant errors in the realm of forensic investigation and analysis. In December of 2016, CrowdStrike published a report of Russian-sponsored malware affecting Ukrainian field artillery systems to devastating effect, and identified the source of the malware as the same Fancy Bear hacker group involved in the DNC penetrations. However, this report was disputed by several of the principals named, not the least of which was the Ukrainian government itself, which insisted that the hack never even took place, and Crowdstrike was later obliged to amend and ultimately retract much of the report. As I wrote shortly after Crowdstrike made its retractions, this rather egregious error, which included a misattribution of hacking activity to the Fancy Bear group named in the DNC hack, calls into question the accuracy and reliability of the DNC report--a report for which we have no independent verification.

Separately, however, a forensic analysis of some of the material gained from the DNC servers and released through WikiLeaks was performed in July of 2017 by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals For Sanity (VIPS), concluding that at least some of the material had been copied locally from the servers themselves--which would make the "hack" not a hack at all, but rather a leak of information by a person working in physical proximity to the servers. Without commenting on the credentials of the VIPS members, the one noteworthy attribute of their presentation which distinguished it from the Crowdstrike analysis was the inclusion of raw data and sources--things that people could, if so motivated, scrutinize independently to either rebut or affirm the VIPS conclusions.  To date, I am unaware of anyone presenting a rebuttal to the VIPS conclusions.

Even more curious is the summary of the DNC server hack presented by Robert Mueller in his second round of indictments during his Russian Collusion Probe. Mueller's team presented a version of the DNC intrusion that was conspicuously at odds with the Crowdstrike report, most notably in the role of the hacker persona Guccifer 2.0. Whereas Crowdstrike and their companion firm Threat Connect discounted the role of Guccifer 2.0, the Mueller indictments ascribed to him a far greater level of involvement. 

Thus we have a problematic assessment by Crowdstrike of the DNC server hack, an assessment for which Crowdstrike, by virtue of its erroneous assessment regarding Ukrainian field artillery software, is the main challenge for credibility claiming Russian-backed actors were responsible, and we have a competing assessment, still problematic but lacking any clear rebuttal or challenge, suggesting that there might not have been a hack at all, just a rather mundane whistleblower/leaker. We have indictments asserting a theory of the intrusion that contradicts the Crowdstrike analysis directly. 

As the Mueller indictments are unlikely to ever be adjudicated in a court of law, none of these materials will be given ultimate legal scrutiny, but, taken as a whole, it is impossible absent such adjudication to say with certainty if the DNC server was even hacked, much less that it was hacked by Russian actors. We cannot rule it out, but there is a very large question mark that must be appended to the assertion.

As regards the later hacking efforts against voter systems and voter databases, the only source document we have is a redacted NSA report saying it was done by Russian actors, but with sparse presentation of source materials, which only describe two Microsoft Word-based "spear phishing" pieces of malware which, when activated, reach out to an IP address within the US to download additional malicious payloads. That these bits of malware originated with Russian hackers is something for which we must simply take the NSA at their word--a proposition that is under any circumstances a questionable leap of faith, and given the numerous intelligence failings by the US intelligence community over the years, a leap that many would find too great.

As with the DNC hack, the Russian origin of the voter system hacks cannot be ruled out, but comes with a very large question mark appended.

Ukrainian Meddling: The Forgotten Narrative

Ukraine's presumed misdeeds with regards to the 2016 election are both more plain and more problematic than the cyberattacks attributed to Russia.

In January of 2017, Politico reported on various efforts by Ukrainian officials to weigh in on the 2016 election. That report detailed efforts by a DNC staffer, Alexandra Chalupa, to obtain material unfavorable to then candidate Donald Trump from the Ukrainian government. The report also highlighted publicity efforts by the Ukrainian Ambassador, Valeriy Chaly, which included writing an op-ed piece in The Hill in August of 2016.

Prior to the start of the Schiff Show, these bits of news reporting were conveniently forgotten by the legacy media. However, the facts have not been forgotten, and they are summarized excellently by investigative reporter John Solomon.

Election Meddling: The Problem

Aside from the problematic cyber intrusions allegedly performed by Russian actors, all of the "meddling" alleged in any reporting, be it the Intelligence Community Assessment, The Report On Russian Active Measures by the House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence, the Mueller indictments, or any of the legacy media reporting on the topic, revolves around the publication of presumably propagandistic "disinformation" and "Fake News". The election meddling that is such a threat to the Republic, we are told, is at its essence a matter of people speaking out, speaking their mind in some cases, giving opinions, perhaps even making statements which are either misleading or completely false. Unfortunately for the narratives, there is a rather significant problem with that thesis: the First Amendment.

The right of free speech is pre-eminent among our inalienable rights. The right enshrined in the First Amendment is repeated in other declarations of rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the case of the First Amendment, the right is categorical: there can be no law enacted, no regulation promulgated, which inhibits free speech.

Even if we assume that Russia utilizes RT and Sputnik as media mouthpieces for promoting the Kremlin position on various news items, even if we presume that Russia used these outlets to argue one side or another in the 2016 election, the question must be asked "how is that wrong?" In a free society, how is it wrong for anyone, even Vladimir Putin, to express his opinion? Even when the ICA first came out, it was readily apparent this was a central flaw of that assessment. The fact that Ukrainian commentary went unchallenged during the election compounds the question, for if the Ukrainian Ambassador can hold forth in The Hill, why can Russian individual not present their views on RT and Sputnik?

We must ask that question, because when it comes to media presentations, Russia has never been the lone actor. China has, by this standard, "meddled", and has even admitted as much. Moreover, these things for which Russia is excoriated and other nations are not are things even the United States has done, as was the case in the 2015 Israeli elections, where the Obama Administration deployed political ads in Israeli media against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The observation I made at the publication of the ICA remains very much on point:
People may not like that Putin has sought a voice in American electoral politics, but it is disingenuous if not deceitful to pretend that anyone--even a despotic dictator such as Putin--seeking a voice is antithetical to America's "liberal democratic order," and it is dangerously naive to pretend that the intrusion of such foreign voices into the "liberal democratic order" is not very much the established political order of things.
Election Meddling: Focus On Facts

We may plausibly say that opinions of foreign actors regarding US elections should be discounted as irrelevant. We may even object when foreign actors present opinions they claim are representative of a portion of the US electorate--that foreign actors are not the best interlocutors of the opinions of the electorate. However, as we are still a free society, and still both blessed and challenged by the right--and the moral imperative--of free speech, we should tread lightly on how we criticize foreign commentary about our politics.

The fact that a commentator is not native to these shores is relevant in any political debate. The fact that a commentator is not native to these shores does not make the commentator either malicious or malevolent. We should consider that fact, but we should never be consumed by just that fact. The focus should always be on all the facts.

The facts supporting Russian complicity in the various cyber intrusions reported during the 2016 election are incomplete and not without challenge. The full facts leave more than a little room for doubt on the subject. It may be the Russians did engage in such activities, or it may be that they did not. When we focus on all the facts we cannot state either as an absolute certainty.

Perversely, the facts surrounding Russia media activities during the 2016 election may be the one body of facts that ultimately does not matter. Russia may very well have taken out Facebook ads in 2016, and may very well have arranged for an army of Twitter bots and trolls to put forth their particular propaganda. All this may be true. Yet we cannot call this "meddling" without looking askance at the propaganda put out by our own political parties, by our own fellow citizens. 

Speech is, ultimately, merely speech. It matters not who utters it--a free society demands that speech be kept free for all parties. Even the Russians. 

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