What if it wasn't Russia's fault?
Photographer: Daniel Acker
In 2003, when a number of former intelligence professionals formed a group to protest the way intelligence was bent to accuse Iraq of producing weapons of mass destruction, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a sympathetic column quoting the group's members. In 2017, you won't read about this same group's latest campaign in the big U.S. newspapers.
The Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) have been investigating the now conventional wisdom that last year's leaks of Democratic National Committee files were the result of Russian hacks. What they found instead is evidence to the contrary.
Unlike the "current and former intelligence officials" anonymously quoted in stories about the Trump-Russia scandal, VIPS members actually have names. But their findings and doubts are only being aired by non-mainstream publications that are easy to accuse of being channels for Russian disinformation. The Nation, Consortium News, ZeroHedge and other outlets have pointed to their findings that at least some of the DNC files were taken by an insider rather than by hackers, Russian or otherwise.
The January assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which serves as the basis for accusations that Russia hacked the election said, among other things: "We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks."
VIPS instead surmises that, after WikiLeaks' Julian Assange announced on June 12, 2016 his intention to publish Hillary Clinton-related emails, the DNC rushed to fabricate evidence that it had been hacked by Russia to defuse any potential WikiLeaks disclosures. To this end, the theory goes, the DNC used the Guccifer 2.0 online persona to release mostly harmless DNC data. Guccifer 2.0 was later loosely linked to Russia because of Russian metadata in his files and his use of a Russia-based virtual private network.
The VIPS theory relies on forensic findings by independent researchers who go by the pseudonyms "Forensicator" and "Adam Carter." The former found that 1,976 MB of Guccifer's files were copied from a DNC server on July 5 in just 87 seconds, implying a transfer rate of 22.6 megabytes per second — or, converted to a measure most people use, about 180 megabits per second, a speed not commonly available from U.S. internet providers. Downloading such files this quickly over the internet, especially over a VPN (most hackers would use one), would have been all but impossible because the network infrastructure through which the traffic would have to pass would further slow the traffic. However, as Forensicator has pointed out, the files could have been copied to a thumb drive – something only an insider could have done — at about that speed.
Adam Carter, the pseudonym for the other analyst, showed that the content of the Guccifer files was at some point cut and pasted into Microsoft Word templates that used the Russian language. Carter laid out all the available evidence and his answers to numerous critics in a long post earlier this month.
VIPS includes former National Security Agency staffers with considerable technical expertise, such as William Binney, the agency's former technical director for world geopolitical and military analysis, and Edward Loomis Jr., former technical director for the office of signals processing, as well as other ex-intelligence officers with impressive credentials. That doesn't, of course, mean the group is right when it finds the expert analysis by Forensicator and Carter persuasive. Another former intelligence professional who has examined it, Scott Ritter, has pointed out that these findings don't necessarily refutes that Guccifer's material constitute the spoils of a hack.
VIPS's record of unruly activism might have devalued its theories and conclusions in the eyes of mainstream journalists. Ray McGovern, a VIPS founder who used to prepare and deliver White House briefings at the Central Intelligence Agency, has been removed from Hillary Clinton's events for protesting her policies. While the group was right about Iraq in 2003, that doesn't mean it's right about Russia in 2017, with some of its members' intelligence work now long in the past.
And yet these aren't good reasons to avoid the discussion of what actually happened at the DNC last year, especially since no intelligence agency actually examined the Democrats' servers and CrowdStrike, the firm whose conclusions informed much of the intelligence community's assessment, had obvious conflicts of interest — from being paid by the DNC to co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch's affiliation with the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has generally viewed Russia as a hostile power.
One hopes that the numerous investigations into Trump-Russia are based on hard evidence, not easy assumptions. But since these investigations are not transparent at this point, the only way to make sure their attention is still focused on the technical aspects of the suspected Russian hacks and leaks is to present the available evidence, along with any arguments undermining it, to the public.
Many Americans' certainty about Russian involvement, which has led to increased hostility toward Russia, is partly Russian President Vladimir Putin's fault. Putin has earned a reputation for prevarication with the pointless denials of Russian involvement in Ukraine and with dogged attempts to falsify evidence in the shooting down of a passenger airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014. But it's also the result of an unabashedly partisan media battle.
Having been burned so badly on the Iraq intelligence claims in 2003, you would think major U.S. media would apply more journalistic skepticism and rigor here, even if, to the broader public, Russia is a faraway power to which it's easy to ascribe pretty much any nefarious activity. Instead, these outlets seem more intent on noting Putin's bare-chested physique and accusing him of further meddling on social networks. The alt-right may not need Russia's help in using Twitter bots to run its social media campaigns, but it gets less scrutiny for them than Russia.
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The U.S. public didn't quite buy Clinton's "the Russians did it" line last year, and she lost the election. By now, though, many Americans are sold on it. That may be an Iraq-sized mistake, leading to a dangerous failure to recognize that Donald Trump's victory was an American phenomenon, not a Russian-made one. Authoritarian regimes such as Putin's routinely use external enemies to gloss over domestic divisions and distract the public from problems at home. In a functioning democracy, such tactics should not succeed.
(Corrects volume of data transferred in sixth paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at [email protected]