The Gadfly Bytes -- January 11, 2017
IN THE THROES OF A NATIONAL HISSY-FIT
A Skeptical Look at the National Intelligence Report and the
Drift Toward War with Russia
Never in the history of American elections, has so much fuss been made by so
many about so little. (With Apologies to Winston Churchill).
Fair and verifiable elections are the heartbeat of
democracy. Conversely, fraudulent elections deny the "winners" of such
elections their legitimacy.
I agree. And so too, I am sure, do most Americans.
So what are we to make of the just-released report
of the Director of National Intelligence which
assesses, with "high confidence," that "Vladimir Putin ordered an influence
campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals
of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process,
denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability... Putin and the
Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
This charge of official Russian "interference" has
escalated in the media and among Clinton supporters to a high frenzy. For
example, there is this from Clinton supporter Michael Morell, former CIA
director: [The hack was] "an attack on our very democracy. It's an attack on
who we are as a people. A foreign government messing around in our elections
is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life... [T]his is the
political equivalent of 9/11."
There is more: The hack, says Michael Gerson, could be
"the largest intelligence coup since the cracking of the Enigma code during
World War II." And the usually circumspect Michael Winship writes: "It is
very likely now that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president of the
United States on Jan. 20, in no small part because of the direct
intervention in and manipulation of the American electoral process by
Vladimir Putin." (The Morrel, Gerson, and Winship sources are
Finally, there is
this from Malcolm
Nance, MSNBC’s omnipresent
Russia [has] conducted a cyber warfare attack on
the fundamental structure of the American democratic system that has
been in place for 240 years. At any other time in history this would
almost be considered an act of war...
This is a fundamental attack on America's natural
processes which has never been done in the history of this nation.
And for those people were dismissing as a leak or a rumor, then you
don't understand that America has never had an enemy put their hand
on the arm of the scale of the American electoral process.
Quite frankly, I haven’t read or heard such excited and
unanimous agreement from our politicians and media since the run-up to the
Iraq War in 2002, when Vice President Cheney proclaimed that ""there is no
doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no
doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our
allies, and against us." Following that, Colin Powell presented "evidence"
to the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of
mass destruction. Editorial
opinion dutifully supported
We now know, with equal but opposite certainty, that both
Cheney and Powell lied to the American people and the world. If anything
positive can be gained from the disastrous Iraq War, it is this: belligerent
accusations and rhetoric from the government and media, however unanimous,
should be treated with suspicion. Governments do lie, and the mainstream
media can uncritically accept and repeat those lies.
However, true or false, the "Putin hacking the Democrats"
charge has evolved from an unsupported accusation to an unchallenged dogma –
a "cognitive frame," to use George Lakoff’s trendy term – within which a
"what to do about it" debate rages, while few step outside that frame to
ask, "but did Putin really do it?" or "even if he did, what was the extent
of the damage?"
In the meantime, public attention has been successfully
drawn, to the great relief of the Democratic National Committee, from the
embarrassing content of
the purloined emails to the issues of the source and implications of
the leaks. And the Democrats are successfully using Putin and his alleged
"interference" as a blunt weapon against Trump.
I hasten to add that I am no admirer of Vladimir Putin.
Please keep this in mind as you read further. If I were a Russian, I would
not vote for Putin, as many (perhaps most) of my Russian friends did not in
the Presidential election of 2012. Neither did more than a third of the
Russians who voted in that election. Many of these individuals openly
criticize Putin. None of them, to my knowledge, have been harassed, much
less sent to a Siberian gulag, because of their opposition.
As it happens, there are good reasons for skepticism
regarding the charge that Putin and his government were behind the hacking
and the disclosure of the DNC emails.
"Leak: When someone physically takes data out of an
organization and gives it to some other person or organization, as
Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did.
"Hack: when someone in a remote location
electronically penetrates operating systems, firewalls or any other
cyber-protection system and then extracts data."
VIPS concludes, "all signs point to leaking, not
hacking. If hacking were involved, the national security agency would
know it – and know both sender and recipient."
Expanding on this distinction, former British ambassador Craig
Murray says that the
emails were leaked, not hacked, and moreover that he personally knows
who did the leaking. Presumably, it was an "insider" at the DNC: a
Bernie Sanders supporter, disgusted at how the Democratic Party
"regulars" sabotaged the Sanders campaign. The leaker wanted the world
to know about the rigging. Little did he suspect that his leak would set
off a national uproar and intensify the new Cold War. (See also an interview
with Craig Murray).
- "Russian hackers" does not necessarily mean "Russian Government,"
still less Vladimir Putin himself. There are many enterprising and
mischievous Russian cyber-geeks who might have acted independently.
Recall that a flood of "fake news" has come from sources outside of
Russia – in Montenegro and Georgia. No
evidence was presented by
the DNI report of a firm connection between the (presumably) Russian
hacks and the Russian government.
The new DNI report admits outright that it does not
have definitive proof of a Putin-Wikileaks-DNC emails connection:
"Judgment are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows
something to be a fact." The report is long on accusations and absent of
evidence. When the critical reader asks for evidence, he is told in the
report that the evidence is a state secret. "So just trust us" (as we
were asked to do with the reports of Saddam’s WMDs). Or, as the cynics
like to rephrase it, "If you knew what we know you would
understand; we could tell you, but
then we would have to kill you."
Despite its manifest deficiencies – vagueness, repetition, absence of
evidence – the mainstream corporate news media is pronouncing this report as
"definitive" and "irrefutable." To the vast majority of American citizens
who will never read much less critically assess the report, that’s good
But let’s put all that aside and assume that which has
not been decisively proven, and which, nonetheless, the DNI proclaims in its
report: namely that Vladimir Putin himself ordered and directed the effort
to defeat Hillary Clinton and put Donald Trump in the White House.
The DCI reports that the "Russian influence campaigns are
multifaceted," and yet deals with only two of these multiple "facets:" the
DNC emails and the cable channel and website, RT (formerly "Russia Today"),
with passing reference to email "trolling." Nowhere in the report are we
told how much of this allegedly massive Russian propaganda assault "got
through" to the American public in sufficient amounts to "win hearts and
minds" of ordinary Americans and thus to influence the outcome of the
If in fact Putin revealed the contents of the DNC/Podesta
emails, he chose a pitifully weak instrument to accomplish his nefarious
plan. For surely, it is fair to ask: just what would he have accomplished by exposing
the content of those emails?
Answer: Those emails told us what we already knew: That
the Democratic establishment in the DNC rigged the primaries and the debates
against Sanders, and stacked the "super-delegates" in Clinton’s favor.
There is no evidence that this disclosure of what the public already knew
had a significant effect on the election outcome.
In fact, the available evidence indicates that the
alleged "hack" had no effect whatever.
As Robert Parry astutely
"Clinton's chances continued to improve in the three weeks after the
Regarding RT, the effects of "the Kremlin’s principal propaganda
outlet" (DNI Report), is likewise underwhelming. To prove otherwise, the
Report reprints a four year old article. There we find that in 2012 RT had
about 450,000 You Tube subscribers. Impressive! Until
you take a second look and realize that about one in 700 Americans (0.14%)
subscribed to RT. Hardly a media powerhouse!
As for the rest, we read that Russia "conducted cyber
operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential
election." Amazing! What
"operations"? What "targets?" Tell us more!
The Report does not. It merely repeats its accusation
vaguely, abstractly, ad
So it is doubtful that, as the DNI report charges, Russia
successfully managed to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J.
Trump" – not, at least, enough to affect the outcome of the election.
If not, then this was not "the political equivalent of
9/11" (Morrell), or "the largest intelligence coup since ... World War II" (Gerson),
or "a fundamental attack on America's natural processes which has never been
done in the history of this nation" (Nance).
Unless, of course, the Russians employed other means of
manipulating the election, means not cited by either government or media.
And so we ask:
Did the Russians somehow persuade FBI Director James
Comey to send that infamous letter suggesting a re-opening of the
Clinton email investigation?
Did the Russians force the broadcast and cable
networks to give Trump up to two billion dollars worth of free
Did the Russians tell the media poobahs to tone down
the reporting of Trump’s lies and to enforce "balance"
Did the Russians engineer the
voter cross-checking scheme that
disqualified over a million minority (and predominantly Democratic)
Did the Russians bribe Republican state legislators
to enact voter suppression laws? Absent such laws in several key states,
among them Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Hillary Clinton would have
won the electoral college vote.
Did the Russians sabotage
voting machines in Detroit? Because of "machine malfunction" in
those overwhelmingly Democratic precincts, more than 70,000 votes were
not counted, which by itself, would have been more than enough to
deliver Michigan to Clinton. Those votes, on paper Opti-Scan ballots,
could have been counted. But state GOP officials stymied that effort.
Did the Russians "infect" unverifiable paperless DRE
voting machines with
viruses that flipped votes from D to R?
Were the Russians responsible for fact that several
Wisconsin counties reported more votes cast than registered voters?
Did the Russians direct the GOP lawyers and judges to
interrupt Jill Stein’s recount efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan and
All this, I submit, was, in Michael Morell's words, "an
attack on our very democracy."
Of course, the Russians did none of these things, and not
even the DNI, the CIA, the FBI, or the most determined media conspiracy
theorists have suggested otherwise.
In fact, all of this undermining of the American
elections was done by American politicians – primarily Republicans. If the
rigging of national elections corrupts the very soul of democracy – which it
most certainly does – where is
the outrage over domestic
rigging which was unquestionably done on a vastly greater scale than that
allegedly done by the Russians?
In fact, there is no outrage. Instead, crickets!
To be fair, Trump’s free media coverage and voter suppression have received
some mainstream media attention. But investigation and reporting of
suspected hacking of paperless DRE machines, of cross-checking
disenfranchisement, of exit-poll discrepancies – all this is verboten.
And the rare MSM reporter who dares to mention these topics puts his career
And so, Florida 2000. ("The people have spoken: all five
of them" – Mark Russell. "Get over it!" -- Antonin Scalia). Also, Ohio,
2004, and numerous congressional elections.
But accuse the Russians of releasing the contents of DNC
emails, the accuracy of which is not in dispute, and with no significant
effect on the outcome of the election, and point out that the Russian
government openly finances a cable channel which almost no one watches – do this,
and all holy Hell breaks loose. The
Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
Get a grip, America!
We learn from press reports that when the Russian Duma
(parliament) was told that Trump had won the elections, the members rose and
cheered. Also, we learn that there were celebrations in the Kremlin by
government officials. I have no doubt that both reports are true. Yet
somehow we are expected to be shocked by these celebrations. However, they
in no way serve as evidence that the Russians hacked or leaked the contents
of those DNC emails.
So why the obvious Russian preference for a Trump
victory? Just consider what the Russians have gained. The American people
have elected as their president, an incompetent, narcissistic ignoramus,
ignorant most significantly of his own shortcomings. Add to all that,
because he is an unconstrained liar, nothing he says can be believed. Once
the Trump administration takes office, the United States promises to be a
nation in domestic disarray and in global disrepute, its international
leadership severely compromised.
Say what you will about Vladimir Putin – that he may be a
cruel despot, and a ruthless autocrat – one cannot deny that he is a wily
tactician, well informed, smart and capable. And what are the capabilities
of the incoming American leadership? Need I say more?
Regardless of whether or not the Russians had a hand in
determining the outcome of our election, they have much to celebrate. The
United States is a diminished and vulnerable adversary. And the Russians did
not do this to us. We did it to ourselves.
Our politicians and media complain vehemently that the
Russians are interfering with our elections. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
We Americans openly proclaim and execute "regime change"
without an iota of embarrassment – most recently, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, now
Syria, arguably Ukraine, and if
we could, Russia itself. And who bestowed upon The United States the
office of judge, jury and executioner of other nations’ regimes? We
appointed ourselves, of course!
The list of American "regime change" attempts, successful
and failed, is long. And these attempts do not always "bring democracy" to
the affected nations. In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence ousted the
legitimately elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mossaddegh, who had the
audacity to suggest that Iranian oil belonged to Iran. He was replaced with
the despotic Shah (Reza Pahlevi). In 1973 Salvador Allende, the elected
President of Chile was overthrown, assassinated, and succeeded by the brutal dictator,
Most significantly, for our purpose, is the case of
Russia in 1996: the re-election campaign of Boris Yeltsin. Then, a team of
American "election experts" travelled to Russia, where they raised Yeltsin’s
paltry single-digit approval ratings to an election victory. A
nine-page Time Magazine cover story, dated
July 15, 1996, spells out "how four US advisers, along with a few
Russian billionaire-oligarches, used polls, focus groups,
negative ads and all the other techniques of American campaigning to help
Boris Yeltsin win." The tone of the article reeks with chauvinistic pride
and smugness. There is not a hint that there might be something wrong about
Americans "interfering with the outcome" of the Russian election.
The DNI reports that Russian intelligence has
"infiltrated" American media, industry, and government.
Gee whiz – who’da thunk it!
C’mon, get real! Of
course! This is what
nation-states do, even to their allies. Were we not recently caught bugging
German Chancellor Angela Merkle’s telephone? I’d like to believe that
whatever snooping the Russians are doing we are doing it better. If we are
not listening in on Putin’s conversations and reading his mail, then we are
wasting the billions of dollars that we have invested in covert
intelligence. Perhaps the Russians are far more careful than we are about
the security of their strategic information. If so, then their effective
access to and use of our secrets are our fault, not theirs.
Sorry, but I am not moved by all this lamentation over
Let’s step back for a moment and recall how this
demonization of Putin has evolved over the past few years, from George
Bush’s claim to have seen Putin’s "soul" in his eyes, to the current
description of Putin as "an autocrat" and "dictator," and of Russia as an
"existential threat" to the United States. Then let us ask ourselves just
where this growing mutual hostility might be leading us.
We might be on a fast track to disaster. Richard
Clarke, George Bush’s "cyber
czar," warns that "It’s highly likely that any war that began as a cyber war
would ultimately end up being a conventional war, where the United States
was engaged with bombers and missiles."
Who and what gains from this escalating national
hysteria? Obviously, the careers of military officers, the executives and
stockholders of military contractors, and the media, the audience of which
expands as that media, with a single voice, stokes the Russophobia and heats
up the Cold War.
Who loses? All of us, as our essential national
institutions – health, education, research, infrastructure – are
underfunded, and our national crises – income inequality, racial strife,
unemployment, environmental pollution, climate change – are neglected.
And if the tension between the US and Russia escalates
out of control, everyone stands to lose, including the aforementioned
military officers, military-industrial complex and media.
Has no one noticed? This growing fear and hatred of
Putin, his government, and by extension all things Russian (and reciprocally
in Russia, of all things American), is the sort of national frenzy that
typically leads to war. We’ve seen it in the lead-up to the wars in Viet Nam
and Iraq. Those who call for moderation and accommodation are condemned as
"traitors." Facts and warnings become irrelevant. We are captivated by
confirmation bias and "group-think." Communication and mediation between the
rival nations breaks down.
"O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and
men have lost their reason." (Shakespeare,
"But Vladimir Putin is a brutal dictator – another Stalin
or even Hitler." Personally, while I find much not to like about Putin, I
don’t believe that Putin’s Russia is remotely as bad as Stalin’s Soviet
Union. Neither do my friends in Russia, who should know. (That’s the topic
of my next essay). But more to the point, if Putin is a brutal autocrat,
that is the Russians’ problem and they should be left alone to deal with it.
I am confident that most Russians, who seem to approve of Putin and his
government, devoutly wish that we Americans bug-off and mind our own
So let us pause, reflect, and, if we are wise, disembark
and reverse course. Let us to resume a conversation with the Russians,
listen to their complaints even if we do not credit them, and
then trade de-escalating concessions. (As I have suggested most recently in
my essay, "A
Martian View of the New Cold War).
The alternative is too horrible even to contemplate. Even
so, I wish that more of our leaders, our media, and our fellow citizens
would pause and consider where we all may be heading.
"Look down that lonesome road, before you travel on."