Alleged Russian involvement in the US – campaign

Dubious report of the intelligence services

by Nicola Ferronato, political scientist

On 6 January 2017, the American intelligence services CIA, FBI and NSA published a report of 25 pages (Background information on the “Assessment of Russian activities and intentions in recent American elections: Analytical process and attribution of cyber incidents”* condemning the Russian involvement in the American elections. It is claimed that Russia – and its President personally – were to blame for the hacker attacks on the server of the National Committees of the Democratic Party (DNC) and the camp of Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) to support Donald J. Trump in his race for Presidency. This article provides a brief analysis of the report and criticises it for its lack of arguments and evidence.

The report accuses Russia, 
without listing evidence

The American intelligence agencies are categorical: an entire nation is guilty. “Russia has launched a campaign with hacker attacks to influence the recently held US elections” (p. II), this claimed the introduction of the report as proven. It was obvious for the staff of the American intelligence service that Putin plans “to use again in future elections in other places of the world the knowledge he acquired during these elections[…]” (p. III). This report, written by the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence Agencies (hereafter called “report” ) takes into account the analyses by CIA, FBI and NSA, and leaves no doubt of the guilt of Russia and especially of President Putin personally. “We come to the conclusion that the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered to make an influence campaign with aim of the American presidential election of 2016”  (p. II). This is the first direct accusation however remaining unproven. Unfortunately, it really appears that the allegations in this report are based primarily on considerations and opinions. The intelligence services are clear: “Most of the main arguments of this report […]accord with our assessment of Russia’s behaviour.”  No technical clarification is stated at all. This is most embarrassing for three of the world’s most respected intelligence agencies. The report accuses Russia without leading evidence, – according to the model of the CIA report 2002 to the purported weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Bush Administration relied mainly on this review of 2002 to legitimise their war policies in the Middle East in the following years. We mustn’t underestimate the influence this type of document can have on the foreign policy of the United States. By the 6th of January the report shows already consequences. Due to its release the former President Barack Obama tightened his sanctions against Russia. Other government agencies, as well as six Russian citizens were subject to economic constraints. Two buildings of the Russian Embassy in the United States (in Long Island and Maryland’s eastern shore) lost their diplomatic status and the diplomats had to leave the premises just within 24 hours. In addition, 35 diplomats were expelled from the United States with their families for “Suspicion of espionage” .

Allegations of intelligence services against Moscow seem unfounded

Several other accusations of U.S. intelligence services to Moscow seem so far unsubstantiated. In the report, we read for example, that “Moscow’s campaign against the American elections reflects years of efforts and preparation of the equipment”. Have the Russians then been knowing for years that Trump would compete in the election against Mrs Clinton? A further accusation is that “the Russian secret services had access to the server of the Democratic Party National Committee (DNC) in July 2015 and could use it at least until June 2016. It is however difficult to imagine and little plausible that a hacker could hold open an unlimited access to the server of the DNC, since a cyber-attack isn’t the most discreet of all funds, and that the Kremlin should be this hacker, is even less plausible. The only more or less technical information in this report is the following: “We conclude that the GRU (Russian Intelligence Service) has used ‘Guccifer 2.0’, ‘DCLeaks. com’ and ‘Wiki-leaks’” (p. 2), to announce details suitable to damage the image of the American Government and the Democratic Party. And again, no evidence is given.

The report could be the work of a beginner

In the report on the alleged Russian cyber-attacks, written by the best news services in the world, about 9 out of 25 pages are devoted to the Russian television station RT (Russia Today). This government-subsidised TV station seems to have also participated in the criminal campaign against the democracy of the United States. One might already wonder why the American intelligence services rate the influence of RT so high that they present the alleged cyber-attacks against the elections in the same document as if it were the same topic. In reality, there are two different topics, and thus they have to be treated separately. By dealing with such different issues in the same report, traces are blurred, the significance of the text is diminished, and its understanding to the reader is obscured. One could almost say that was intended. It is difficult to recognize the link between RT and this report, especially when we recall its title: “Assessments of Russian activities and intentions in the recent American elections: analytical process and attribution of cyber-incidents“. What criminal act did the station RT make? The secret services accuse him of supporting Trump instead of Clinton. It really seems to be that the management of RT has rather supported Trump than HRC, but what does it matter? The board of directors of CNN, “The New York Times”, BBC and most other international “mainstream” media obviously preferred all HRC. At all, is it not entirely normal for the Russian media to prefer Trump, who announced during the campaign that he wanted to have better relations with Russia, while HRC openly and aggressively called for more direct confrontation and sanctions against Russia? It is ironic and almost funny that the news services express their astonishment that the Russians have their preferences.
To read endless allegations against a TV station in a report, which should be absolutely professional and of the highest standard is disappointing. Looking more closely at the report, it is found that the term “RT” appears 106 times on the 25 pages devoted to “cyber-incidents”. Taking into account the numerous almost empty title pages, the considerable space that this TV station takes in the eyes of the news services is very astonishing. Calculate yourself: 106 divided by 25 yields the number of RT-responses per page. In contrast, the word “cyber” appears in the entire document only 15 times, but the word “Putin” 30 times. To say the least, the report may have come from a beginner: it contains beautiful photos and simplified graphics and uses a simple vocabulary, without any claim to specialist vocabulary. One can legitimately ask whether it is really an intelligence report, or rather „a sensation seeking press statement“ to use an expression by Julien Assange.

Crass violation of the presumption of innocence

It is also unfortunate to find that some mass media (such as CNN, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian) have blindly and without any critical thinking relied on this report, so as to be entitled themselves to strike out against Russia.
However, a number of European media – namely “Le Monde” and “Le Figaro” in France as well as the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Der Spiegel” and the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” in Germany – have read the report somewhat more critically and make do without the exaggerations to be found in British and American media.
Despite the increased tensions between the US and Russia provoked by the report, the elected president Trump does not seem to embank on the level of mere allegations.
He seems rather to count on the presumption of innocence; that is a credit to him. For this principle is recognised in most democracies and is stated in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial ...”
Now of course Russia is not a natural person, but a legal person also deserves to be regarded as innocent until the contrary is proved. It is quite possible that the American news services have more reliable evidence than presented in their report. But apparently they do not want to publish it. It is also possible that dilettante cyber attacks originating in Russia and against American targets took place before or during the election period. It is also easily imaginable that American hackers penetrate Russian targets, especially in a world in which digital insecurity is rapidly increasing. It is, however, highly unlikely that the Kremlin and Putin himself commissioned such attacks. Perhaps we will eventually learn the truth about these stories of “hacks” and “leaks”. For the time being, however, we can but speculate about them. In this political contention it is not possible to draw definite conclusions on the basis of emotional arguments. It is conceivable that the three intelligence agencies have tripped themselves up. It is counterproductive to assert that the Russians can influence the outcome of a presidential election in the USA and to imply that Trump is not legally elected. These unreserved claims point to a lack of respect, or at least to a disregard for the democratic system of the US and the people that founded it.     •

*    Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution” , 6 January 2017

(Translation Current Concerns)