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To justify Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump, leading Democrats and their key media allies for years competed with one another to depict what they called “Russia’s interference in our elections” in the most apocalyptic terms possible. They fanatically rejected the view of the Russian Federation repeatedly expressed by President Obama — that it is a weak regional power with an economy smaller than Italy’s capable of only threatening its neighbors but not the U.S. — and instead cast Moscow as a grave, even existential, threat to U.S. democracy, with its actions tantamount to the worst security breaches in U.S. history.
This post-2016 mania culminated with prominent liberal politicians and journalists (as well as John McCain) declaring Russia’s activities surrounding the 2016 to be an “act of war” which, many of them insisted, was comparable to Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attack — the two most traumatic attacks in modern U.S. history which both spawned years of savage and destructive war, among other things.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) repeatedly demanded that Russia’s 2016 “interference” be treated as “an act of war.” Hillary Clinton described Russian hacking as “a cyber 9/11.” And here is Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) on MSNBC in early February, 2018, pronouncing Russia “a hostile foreign power” whose 2016 meddling was the “equivalent” of Pearl Harbor, “very much on par” with the “seriousness” of the 1941 attack in Hawaii that helped prompt four years of U.S. involvement in a world war.
With the Democrats, under Joe Biden, just weeks away from assuming control of the White House and the U.S. military and foreign policy that goes along with it, the discourse from them and their media allies about Russia is becoming even more unhinged and dangerous. Moscow’s alleged responsibility for the recently revealed, multi-pronged hack of U.S. Government agencies and various corporate servers is asserted — despite not a shred of evidence, literally, having yet been presented — as not merely proven fact, but as so obviously true that it is off-limits from doubt or questioning.
Any questioning of this claim will be instantly vilified by the Democrats’ extremely militaristic media spokespeople as virtual treason. “Now the president is not just silent on Russia and the hack. He is deliberately running defense for the Kremlin by contradicting his own Secretary of State on Russian responsibility,” pronounced CNN’s national security reporter Jim Sciutto, who last week depicted Trump’s attempted troop withdrawal from Syria and Germany as “ceding territory” and furnishing “gifts” to Putin. More alarmingly, both the rhetoric to describe the hack and the retaliation being threatened are rapidly spiraling out of control.
Democrats (along with some Republicans long obsessed with The Russian Threat, such as Mitt Romney) are casting the latest alleged hack by Moscow in the most melodramatic terms possible, ensuring that Biden will enter the White House with tensions sky-high with Russia and facing heavy pressure to retaliate aggressively. Biden’s top national security advisers and now Biden himself have, with no evidence shown to the public, repeatedly threatened aggressive retaliation against the country with the world’s second-largest nuclear stockpile.
Congressman Jason Crow (D-CO) — one of the pro-war Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee who earlier this year joined with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to block Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan — announced: “this could be our modern day, cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” adding: “Our nation is under assault.” The second-ranking Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin (D-IL), pronounced: “This is virtually a declaration of war by Russia.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has for years been casting Russia as a grave threat to the U.S. while Democrats mocked him as a relic of the Cold War (before they copied and then surpassed him), described the latest hack as “the equivalent of Russian bombers flying undetected over the entire country.” The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee also blasted Trump for his failure to be “aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action,” though — like virtually every prominent figure demanding tough “retaliation” — Romney failed to specify what he had in mind that would be sufficient retaliation for “the equivalent of Russian bombers flying undetected over the entire country.”
For those keeping track at home: that’s two separate “Pearl Harbors” in less than four years from Moscow (or, if you prefer, one Pearl Harbor and one 9/11). If Democrats actually believe that, it stands to reason that they will be eager to embrace a policy of belligerence and aggression toward Russia. Many of them are demanding this outright, mocking Trump for failing to attack Russia — despite no evidence that they were responsible — while their well-trained liberal flock is suggesting that the non-response constitutes some form of “high treason.”
Indeed, the Biden team has been signalling that they intend to quickly fulfill demands for aggressive retaliation. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Biden “accused President Trump  of ‘irrational downplaying’” of the hack while “warning Russia that he would not allow the intrusion to ‘go unanswered’ after he takes office.” Biden emphasized that once the intelligence assessment is complete, “we will respond, and probably respond in kind.”
Threats and retaliation between the U.S. and Russia are always dangerous, but particularly so now. One of the key nuclear arms agreements between the two nuclear-armed nations, the New START treaty, will expire in February unless Putin and Biden can successfully negotiate a renewal: sixteen days after Biden is scheduled to take office. “That will force Mr. Biden to strike a deal to prevent one threat — a nuclear arms race — while simultaneously threatening retaliation on another,” observed the Times.
This escalating rhetoric from Washington about Russia, and the resulting climate of heightened tensions, are dangerous in the extreme. They are also based in numerous myths, deceits and falsehoods:
First, absolutely no evidence of any kind has been presented to suggest, let alone prove, that Russia is responsible for these hacks. It goes without saying that it is perfectly plausible that Russia could have done this: it’s the sort of thing that every large power from China and Iran to the U.S. and Russia have the capability to do and wield against virtually every other country including one another.
But if we learned nothing else over the last several decades, we should know that accepting claims that emanate from the U.S. intelligence community about adversaries without a shred of evidence is madness of the highest order. We just had a glaring reminder of the importance of this rule: just weeks before the election, countless mainstream media outlets laundered and endorsed the utterly false claim that the documents from Hunter Biden’s laptop were “Russian disinformation,” only for officials to acknowledge once the harm was done that there was no evidence — zero — of Russian involvement.
Yet that is exactly what the overwhelming bulk of media outlets are doing again: asserting that Russia is behind these hacks despite having no evidence of its truth. The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro, host of the paper’s popular The Daily podcast, asked his colleague, national security reporter David Sanger, what evidence exists to assert that Russia did this. As Barbaro put it, even Sanger is “allowing that early conclusions could all be wrong, but that it’s doubtful.” Indeed, Sanger acknowledged to Barbaro that they have no proof, asserting instead that the basis on which he is relying is that Russia possesses the sophistication to carry out such a hack (as do several other nation-states), along with claiming that the hack has what he calls the “markings” of Russian hackers.
But this tactic was exactly the same one used by former intelligence officials, echoed by these same media outlets, to circulate the false pre-election claim that the documents from Hunter Biden’s laptop were “Russian disinformation”: namely, they pronounced in lockstep, the material from Hunter’s laptop “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” This was also exactly the same tactic used by the U.S. intelligence community in 2001 to falsely blame Iraq for the anthrax attacks, claiming that their chemical analysis revealed a substance that was “a trademark of the Iraqi biological weapons program.”
These media outlets will, if pressed, acknowledge their lack of proof that Russia did this. Despite this admitted lack of proof, media outlets are repeatedly stating Russian responsibility as proven fact.
“Scope of Russian Hacking Becomes Clear: Multiple U.S. Agencies Were Hit,” one New York Times headline proclaimed, and the first line of that article, co-written by Sanger, stated definitively: “The scope of a hacking engineered by one of Russia’s premier intelligence agencies became clearer on Monday.” The Washington Post deluged the public with identically certain headlines:
Nobody in the government has been as definitive in asserting Russian responsibility as corporate media outlets. Even Trump’s hawkish Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, crafted his accusation against Moscow with caveats and uncertainty: “I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
If actual evidence ultimately emerges demonstrating Russian responsibility, it would not alter how dangerous it is that — less than twenty years after the Iraq WMD debacle and less than a couple of years after media endorsement of endless Russiagate falsehoods — the most influential media outlets continue to mindlessly peddle as Truth whatever the intelligence community feeds them, without the need to see any evidence that what they’re claiming is actually true. Even more alarmingly, large sectors of the public that venerate these outlets continue to believe that what they hear from them must be true, no matter how many times they betray that trust. The ease with which the CIA can disseminate whatever messaging it wants through friendly media outlets is stunning.
Second, the very idea that this hack could be compared to rogue and wildly aberrational events such as Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attack is utterly laughable on its face. One has to be drowning in endless amounts of jingoistic self-delusion to believe that this hack — or, for that matter, the 2016 “election interference” — is a radical departure from international norms as opposed to a perfect reflection of them.
Just as was true of 2016 fake Facebook pages and Twitter bots, it is not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. Government engages in hacking attacks of this sort, and ones far more invasive, against virtually every country on the planet, including Russia, on a weekly basis. That does not mean that this kind of hacking is either justified or unjustified. It does mean, however, that depicting it as some particularly dastardly and incomparably immoral act that requires massive retaliation requires a degree of irrationality and gullibility that is bewildering to behold.
The NSA reporting enabled by Edward Snowden by itself proved that the NSA spies on virtually anyone it can. Indeed, after reviewing the archive back in 2013, I made the decision that I would not report on U.S. hacks of large adversary countries such as China and Russia because it was so commonplace for all of these countries to hack one another as aggressively and intrusively as they could that it was hardly newsworthy to report on this (the only exception was when there was a substantial reason to view such spying as independently newsworthy, such as Sweden’s partnering with NSA to spy on Russia in direct violation of the denials Swedish officials voiced to their public).
Other news outlets who had access to Snowden documents, particularly The New York Times, were not nearly as circumspect in exposing U.S. spying on large nation-state adversaries. As a result, there is ample proof published by those outlets (sometimes provoking Snowden’s strong objections) that the U.S. does exactly what Russia is alleged to have done here — and far worse.
“Even as the United States made a public case about the dangers of buying from [China’s] Huawei, classified documents show that the National Security Agency was creating its own back doors — directly into Huawei’s networks,” reported The New York Times’ David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth in 2013, adding that “the agency pried its way into the servers in Huawei’s sealed headquarters in Shenzhen, China’s industrial heart.”
In 2013, the Guardian revealed “an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow,” and added: “foreign politicians and officials who took part in two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted on the instructions of their British government hosts.” Meanwhile, “Sweden has been a key partner for the United States in spying on Russia and its leadership, Swedish television said on Thursday,” noted Reuters, citing what one NSA document described as “a unique collection on high-priority Russian targets, such as leadership, internal politics.”
Other reports revealed that the U.S. had hacked into the Brazilian telecommunications system to collect data on the whole population, and was spying on Brazil’s key leaders (including then-President Dilma Rousseff) as well as its most important companies such as its oil giant Petrobras and its Ministry of Mines and Energy. The Washington Post reported: “The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.” And on and on.
[One amazing though under-appreciated episode related to all this: the same New York Times reporter who revealed the details about massive NSA hacking of Chinese government and industry, Nicole Perlroth, subsequently urged (in tweets she has now deleted) that Snowden not be pardoned on the ground that, according to her, he revealed legitimate NSA spying on U.S. adversaries. In reality, it was actually she, Perlorth, not Snowden, who chose to expose NSA spying on China, provoking Snowden’s angry objections when she did so based on his view this was a violation of the framework he created for what should and should not be revealed; in other words, not only did Perlroth urge the criminal prosecution of a source on which she herself relied, an absolutely astonishing thing for any reporter to do, but so much worse, she did so by falsely accusing that source of doing something that she, Perlroth, had done herself: namely, reveal extensive U.S. hacking of China].
What all of this makes demonstrably clear is that only the most deluded and uninformed person could believe that Russian hacking of U.S. agencies and corporations — if it happened — is anything other than totally normal and common behavior between these countries. Harvard Law Professor and former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith, reviewing growing demands for retaliation, wrote in an excellent article last week entitled “Self-Delusion on the Russia Hack: The U.S. regularly hacks foreign governmental computer systems on a massive scale”:
The lack of self-awareness in these and similar reactions to the Russia breach is astounding. The U.S. government has no principled basis to complain about the Russia hack, much less retaliate for it with military means, since the U.S. government hacks foreign government networks on a huge scale every day. Indeed, a military response to the Russian hack would violate international law . . . .
As the revelations from leaks of information from Edward Snowden made plain, the United States regularly penetrates foreign governmental computer systems on a massive scale, often (as in the Russia hack) with the unwitting assistance of the private sector, for purposes of spying. It is almost certainly the world’s leader in this practice, probably by a lot. The Snowden documents suggested as much, as does the NSA’s probable budget. In 2016, after noting “problems with cyber intrusions from Russia,” Obama boasted that the United States has “more capacity than anybody … offensively” . . . .
Because of its own practices, the U.S. government has traditionally accepted the legitimacy of foreign governmental electronic spying in U.S. government networks. After the notorious Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said: “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.” The same Russian agency that appears to have carried out the hack revealed this week also hacked into unclassified emails in the White House and Defense and State Departments in 2014-2015. The Obama administration deemed it traditional espionage and did not retaliate. “It was information collection, which is what nation states—including the United States—do,” said Obama administration cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel this week.
But over the last four years, Americans, particularly those who feed on liberal media outlets, have been drowned in so much mythology about the U.S. and Russia that they have no capacity to critically assess the claims being made, and — just as they were led to believe about “Russia’s 2016 interference in Our Sacred Elections” — are easily convinced that what Russia did is some shocking and extreme crime the likes of which are rarely seen in international relations. In reality, their own government is the undisputed world champion in perpetrating these acts, and has been for years if not decades.
Third, these demands for “retaliation” are so reckless because they are almost always unaccompanied by any specifics. Even if Moscow’s responsibility is demonstrated, what is the U.S. supposed to do in response? If your answer is that they should hack Russia back, rest assured the NSA and CIA are always trying to hack Russia as much as it possibly can, long before this event.
If the answer is more sanctions, that would be just performative and pointless, aside from wildly hypocritical. Any reprisals more severe than that would be beyond reckless, particularly with the need to renew nuclear arms control agreements looming. And if you are someone demanding retaliation, do you believe that Russia, China, Brazil and all the other countries invaded by NSA hackers have the same right of retaliation against the U.S., or does the U.S. occupy a special place with special entitlements that all other countries lack?
What we have here, yet again, is the classic operation of the intelligence community feeding serious accusations about a nuclear-armed power to an eagerly gullible corporate media, with the media mindlessly disseminating it without evidence, all toward ratcheting up tensions between these two nuclear-armed powers and fortifying a mythology of the U.S. as grand victim but never perpetrator.
If you ever find yourself wondering how massive military budgets and a posture of Endless War are seemingly invulnerable to challenge, this pathological behavior — from a now-enduring union of the intelligence community, corporate media outlets, and the Democratic Party — provides one key piece of the puzzle.
Update, Dec. 24, 2020, 7:36 a.m. ET: Although the tweets from The New York Times’ Nicole Perlroth referenced above were deleted by her, as indicated, an alert reader notes that a Politico article at the time referenced part of my exchange with her, one prompted by anger from Washington Post reporters over an editorial by their own paper that argued against a Snowden pardon, even though that paper reported extensively on Snowden’s documents and won a Pulitzer for doing so:
The editorial is nothing if not a good excuse for a Twitter debate. Some journalists continued to air outrage yesterday over the editorial board’s defenestration of Snowden, while others either agreed with the board’s argument or at least defended its right to take a stand that it knew would no doubt rankle many in the Post’s newsroom. In one of the more notable exchanges, New York Times reporter cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth tangled with Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden/NSA story for The Guardian.
Perlroth: “Gotta say I agree w/ wapo. @Snowden leaked tens of thousands of docs that had nothing to do with privacy violations.” http://bit.ly/2cLPeLY
Greenwald: “They can start an august club: Journalists In Favor of Criminal Prosecution For Our Sources” http://bit.ly/2cLLIRz
That’s precisely what I was referencing here. It’s utterly repugnant that Perlroth advocated that her own source be imprisoned on the ground that he leaked documents “that had nothing to do with privacy violations” when it was she, Perlroth, who decided to reveal details of NSA spying on China, angering Snowden in the process. Clicking on the above link to her tweet demonstrates that she since deleted it.
One last point: there is an outstanding op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times about anger over the alleged Russian hack by Paul Kolbe, who served as a senior CIA clandestine operative for 25 years and is now director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard Kennedy School, entitled “With Hacking, the United States Needs to Stop Playing the Victim.” It details that “the United States is, of course, engaged in the same type of operations at an even grander scale” and therefore “it’s time for the United States to stop acting surprised and stop posturing.”