Russiagate has become both the gift that keeps on giving and the scandal that will not die. This week we take a look at the allegations, the perceptions and the misconceptions, examining how the ‘fake news’ crisis grew out of the claim that the Russian government hacked the 2016 US presidential election. I ask whether this is merely the latest attempt by the liberal establishment to restore their fading authority and public support, or something more complex.
The earliest evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, as it is now known, comes from November 2015, at a time when Trump was merely one candidate among the usual Republican clown car posse we’ve come to expect in recent elections. Russian emigre Felix Sater, who had consulted for the Trump organisation for years, wrote an email to Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen saying, ‘Michael… I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and I can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.’
Now, this has been identified by some as the origin of the conspiracy between the Trump organisation and the Russian government, usually referred to in media coverage as ‘the Russians’ or simply ‘Putin’. But there’s no evidence I can find that Felix Leiter, I mean, Felix Sater ever reached out to the Russian government and in any way put this in motion. Nor am I sure he has any sway with the Russian government, since his father was reputedly an underboss in the Russian mafia and Felix himself pled guilty in 1998 to a $40 million stock fraud scam initiated by the Russian mafia.
This is where the Rorschach politics come in: those who believe Russiagate will say that the Russian mafia and the Russian government are one and the same, but that isn’t true. The Russian government has to tolerate and deal with the Russian mob, no doubt, but one might argue all major governments have to deal with organised criminals of one kind or another. That certainly doesn’t extend as far as equating ‘pled guilty to Russian mafia stock scam’ to ‘enlisted the help of the Russian government in getting Trump elected’.
On the flipside we have people denying that greasy Felix has anything to do with anything, even though he’s now, quite recently, pled guilty to being involved in a money-laundering scheme, and is apparently co-operating, just as he did nearly 20 years ago after pleading guilty to his role in the stock fraud scam. So this is a man who turned against the Russian mafia, or some bits of it, in order to save his own skin. Why would the Russian government trust such a man? He’s a corporate consultant who is the son of a mob boss, why would anyone get into business with someone like this? Let alone be willing to have them be a key connection in a conspiracy to rig the US election? You’d have to be Dotarded to get involved with such a man.
But instead of discussing any of that, the pro-Russiagaters just keep repeating that he has pleaded guilty and that he’s got obvious ties to the Russian mafia, or just ‘ties to Russia’, as though any connection with the country of Russia makes you part of this all-encompassing conspiracy. Likewise, instead of the discussing any of that the anti-Russiagaters just accuse the accusers of being liberals who can’t accept that Hitlery lost, or of being anti-Trump for some reason, or sometimes of being Russophobics or at least neo-cons using Russophobia to further their agenda. We’ll get to those counter-accusations later, but for me the important thing is that, 2 years into this story, there is still no sign of a sensible debate emerging.
The next major step in the story was in March 2016, when someone launched a phishing attack against John Podesta, the campaign manager for Hitlery. Someone sent Podesta an email purporting to be from Google, saying that someone in Ukraine had unsuccessfully tried to log into his Gmail account, and that he needed to click this link and change his password. One of Podesta’s staff said it was real and that he needed to do it, but it was a phishing site based in the Netherlands with a web address relating to a territory in the South Pacific controlled by New Zealand. Podesta typed in his login details and hey presto, the people behind this got access to his gmail account.
This has been attributed to the hacking group Fancy Bear, who various US security firms have said is sponsored by the Russian government. Now, obviously I haven’t a clue who any of the people working for this essentially anonymous organisation really are or whether they’re working for the Russian government, but just as with the Cambridge Analytica story, a lot of the media coverage of this attempts to blind you with tech-babble in the hope you won’t ask obvious questions.
For example, the pro-Russiagate media describes how Fancy Bear use method that are consistent with those used by government agencies, specifically trying to associate them with the GRU, Russian military intelligence. But this sort of phishing attack is not difficult to attempt – you just email someone with a false link requiring them to input their password or credit card details. I’ve been receiving – often quite obvious – emails like this ever since I’ve had an email address. Everyone uses this – from Estonian bitcoin farmers looking to slave your computer through to whoever those people are who pretend to be Charles Soludo, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Nigeria.
That’s right – this sort of scam is so common that 10 years ago there was a comedy show called Fonejacker based around prank calling people aping this sort of scam. The star of the show was Kayvan Novak, who you may remember playing Waj in Four Lions. So, 10 years before Podesta receives this email, this sort of scam is already so common that mainstream TV is doing sketches about it. And we’re supposed to believe that this sort of attack is so technically sophisticated that only Fancy Bear, the GRU-sponsored hacker collective, could possibly be behind it? But because they use terms like ‘Cybersecurity experts’ and ‘spear-phishing’ it makes it sound like some bunch of really clever people using state-of-the-art technology to hack into his emails. In reality, they sent him a fake email and he was dumb enough to give them his information.
Exactly how these emails then ended up being published by Wikileaks, I am not sure. The ‘intelligence community’ – in reality just the NSA, CIA and FBI – concluded that the Russian government gave Wikileaks the emails, who started publishing them in October. But why would the Russian government wait 6 or 7 months to provide these emails to Wikileaks? If they wanted to screw up the Hitlery campaign then they could have started releasing the emails in March, with months of Democratic primaries still to go. In particular the emails about Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, for which she was very well paid and where she talked about the need for politicians to have two faces, would not have played well against the left wing Bernie Sanders. Instead, they supposedly waited until the DNC rigged the primary to ensure Clinton won, and for a bunch of other stuff that happened afterwards, and only provided the emails to Wikileaks over 6 months after their GRU-sponsored hackers obtained them?
Again, these aren’t the sorts of questions being asked. Instead we’re getting this narrative whereby either you trust the CIA, NSA and FBI who are trying to protect our democracies against those nasty Russians, or you see this whole thing as an attack on Trump by some monolith we’re now calling the ‘deep state’. The notion that the deep state has different factions, and that one of those factions supports Trump and that they might have hacked and then leaked Podesta’s emails doesn’t seem to have occurred to many people.
Likewise, the idea that some punk kid might have orchestrated this not-especially-clever hack and then leaked the emails to Wikileaks for whatever reason just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. When it comes to this topic, almost everyone is a conspiracy theorist. Either you are supposed to believe the conspiracy theory that this is all a Russian government plot or you believe this is some kind of anti-Trumpist conspiracy, an attempted soft coup.
The DNC ‘Hack’?
I’m not going to go through all the different aspects and allegations that make up the Russiagate scandal but there are some other pieces of this story I’d like to talk about. There is, of course, the DNC email hack, which has also been blamed on the Russian government by the CIA, FBI and NSA. Now, I’m not going to get into that in detail, save to say that former British ambassador Craig Murray says he knows personally that it was a leak from a DNC insider, not a hack. Likewise, so Kim Dotcom has endorsed this view, though he doesn’t seem to have any personal knowledge or experience backing that up.
I cannot be sure Craig Murray is telling the truth, but I’ve never known him to get caught in a lie. I disagree with some of what he says but I don’t believe he’s lying about this. If he’s being truthful and, of course, is right that he say what he thinks he saw and it wasn’t somehow staged for his benefit or whatever, then the Russian government didn’t hack the DNC. They just didn’t. Exactly how the ‘intelligence community’ of 19 agencies – in reality a small group of people at the FBI, NSA and CIA – concluded that it was a hack is not at all certain.
Indeed, here is as good a place as any to bring up the problems with that report released by the three intelligence agencies. Not just because they pretended it was all these different agencies including Defense Intelligence, the State Department and so on when no one outside of the big three took part in the assessment. But also because they never presented any evidence, merely an assessment or in other words the conclusions of their analysis. Exactly how they came to these conclusions isn’t remotely clear. And the conclusion in the report was that the Russian government tried to influence the election in various ways, not that they succeeded. Nonetheless, at that time it was taken as proof that ‘Russia hacked the election’ by those wishing to believe it, and helped fuel the Trump vs the Deep State narrative.
Since then both the liberal media and the Democrats seemed to have backed off from the hacking claims. Now it’s that ‘Russia influenced the election’ or ‘Russia meddled with the election’. Now, I have no doubt that both the Russian government and rich Russians had some influence on the election. After all, anyone covering the election or buying any adverts on facebook or psychographics big data firms had some influence, these things didn’t happen in a consequenceless vacuum. The question is how much influence these things had, which in many respects is impossible to assess because how do you isolate the different factors? Though I’m pretty sure the over $1 billion Clinton campaign had more influence than 13 Russians running a troll farm. I refer, of course, to the latest indictments from the Mueller investigation, which anyone who has been following media coverage of this knew about months ago.
Why, then, have the Democrats backed off from the hacking accusation to these much more vague and in some ways meaningless claim of ‘influence’ or ‘meddling’? It’s partly because the facts have forced them to do so. The claim that the Russian government tried to hack the voting systems in 21 states was denied by several of the states themselves, and then effectively withdrawn by the Department of Homeland Security. While it’s highly likely that Russian intelligence were snooping around, testing the security of these systems, the same could probably be said for a couple of dozen other nations including my own.
Likewise the smoking gun proving some kind of collusion in the release of the DNC emails immediately proved to be a false story – fake news, if you like. As noted in an excellent article by Glenn Greenwald, who despite everything still occasionally does a piece of excellent journalism:
The spectacle began Friday morning at 11 a.m. EST, when the Most Trusted Name in News™ spent 12 straight minutes on air flamboyantly hyping an exclusive bombshell report that seemed to prove that WikiLeaks, last September, had secretly offered the Trump campaign, even Donald Trump himself, special access to the Democratic National Committee emails before they were published on the internet. As CNN sees the world, this would prove collusion between the Trump family and WikiLeaks and, more importantly, between Trump and Russia, since the U.S. intelligence community regards WikiLeaks as an “arm of Russian intelligence,” and therefore, so does the U.S. media.
This entire revelation was based on an email that CNN strongly implied it had exclusively obtained and had in its possession. The email was sent by someone named “Michael J. Erickson” — someone nobody had heard of previously and whom CNN could not identify — to Donald Trump Jr., offering a decryption key and access to DNC emails that WikiLeaks had “uploaded.” The email was a smoking gun, in CNN’s extremely excited mind, because it was dated September 4 — 10 days before WikiLeaks began promoting access to those emails online — and thus proved that the Trump family was being offered special, unique access to the DNC archive: likely by WikiLeaks and the Kremlin.
The article continues:
There was just one small problem with this story: It was fundamentally false, in the most embarrassing way possible. Hours after CNN broadcast its story — and then hyped it over and over and over — the Washington Post reported that CNN got the key fact of the story wrong.
The email was not dated September 4, as CNN claimed, but rather September 14 — which means it was sent after WikiLeaks had already published access to the DNC emails online. Thus, rather than offering some sort of special access to Trump, “Michael J. Erickson” was simply some random person from the public encouraging the Trump family to look at the publicly available DNC emails that WikiLeaks — as everyone by then already knew — had publicly promoted. In other words, the email was the exact opposite of what CNN presented it as being.
When CNN tried to explain the mistake, they claimed that multiple sources who had seen this email confirmed the wrong date to them. Realistically, how is this possible unless all those sources were people who were conspiring to deceive CNN into pushing a false story? It’s impossible that several sources would all read the wrong date on an email – and all give the same wrong date to CNN, independently and in private. So either CNN are just lying, which is possible, or their sources were colluding. In which case they should name and shame them, which they haven’t done.
I’m sure by now you get the impression – every single one of the hacking claims turns into something like this, where false stories, misinformation, presumably disinformation swirl around and eventually the original claim is forgotten, left behind. Both those who made it and those who argued against it seem to be in a tacit agreement to just let these things go, let it slide that false accusations of cyberattacks by a foreign superpower were made, for political reasons. As long the pro-Russiagaters get to keep harping on about a ‘threat to our Republic’ and the Trumpists get to use the whole thing to deflect criticism from McDotard, everyone seems happy enough to just let this stuff go.
So now we’re in a second or third phase, where the criminal investigations are mostly to do with money laundering – which may well have involved Trump, or at least he benefited from deals with the people who were doing it – and to do with lying to the FBI during the original phase of the investigation. Several key Trump advisers and managers have been nailed for lying to the Bureau, when one wonders if they would have lied had there not been so much undue paranoia about any and all Russians ties? In some ways Russiagate became a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing people to commit crimes which they then got caught for, which in turn reinforced the Russiagate narrative even if the people weren’t pleading guilty to any kind of collusion.
But then, circular logic never stopped anyone.
Russiagate in the UK
Naturally, this nonsense has spilled over into the UK. It has happened in two principal ways – first, the claim that Russia hacked the EU referendum, and second the allegation that Corbyn was a Communist spy. The former claim came and went rather quickly, though it will probably be recycled in the months to come. The most recent data from Twitter identified 49 accounts who posted 942 tweets. 942. So hardly the avalanche of fake news we’ve been warned about, in reality that’s 0.005% of the tweets about the referendum, so any influence has to be considered negligible, even if these were Russian government trolls. Indeed, I’d imagine if the Russian government were trying to influence the vote – which isn’t outside the realms of possibility – then they’d have done it better than this.
The other recent set of allegations concern Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his contact with a Czech intelligence officer in the 1980s, back when Czechoslovakia was one Communist nation. As far as the files actually record, Corbyn met the guy four times, always in the House of Commons, while the guy was pretending to be a diplomat. No money changed hands, Corbyn didn’t carry out any missions, he didn’t provide any information. So he wasn’t a Communist spy, he is not James Bond, however much a certain demographic of middle aged women might like to think he is.
This hasn’t stopped this Czech officer from waging a one-man disinformation campaign against Corbyn, making all sorts of ludicrous claims not supported by the documents. Even the BBC, who seem to realise the writing is on the wall for the Tories and in all likelihood that means Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister at some point, quickly figured out that this story is bullshit.
So both on the nationalist Right and the socialist Left we’re seeing allegations of collusion with Russia. In the US it’s primarily the nationalist Right – or just the Trump administration – who are accused of this, though at times some media have tried to throw Jill Stein and the Green Party – the biggest Left wing party in the US – into the mix. So this is no doubt partly motivated by an attempt to re-establish the neoliberal centre ground, the liberal consensus, which has been abandoned by millions of people.
Tied into this is the notion of fake news, which was initially weaponised by the neolibtard centrist Hitlery Clinton and her campaign. Now everyone is using it, but the popularisation of the term began as an attempt to re-establish some kind of factual consensus. I was recently on Pearse’s show to talk about Homeland and we discussed an interview that showrunner Alex Gansa gave where he talked about the meetings they have in Georgetown to research each season. Gansa mentioned how in previous years they had to keep the journalists and the intelligence people separate, but they have now joined forces to combat the anti-factual Trump administration, basically he admitted the CIA are working with the Washington Post and the NY Times to undermine the president. I’m fairly sure that’s technically a crime but at this point I doubt anyone will even point that out let alone do anything about it.
Here in the UK the government has set up a unit to combat fake news, which will of course be used to quell dissenting voices no matter of their origins or motives. After all, senior members of the government have endorsed this fake news story about Corbyn being a commie spy, this isn’t about facts or reality, it’s about who can generate and maintain a consensus.
The Rorschach Politics of Russiagate
Since we’re on the subject of hacking elections and referenda, we should note just how many high-profile hacks there have been in recent years. Everything from the iCloud hack of celebrity nude pictures to Sony Pictures to Stratfor to dating apps and email providers and Snapchat – all have been hacked. Just as with the Cambridge Analytica story, we live in a world of technology that most people either don’t understand, or don’t feel that they understand. So when the media uses terms like ‘troll farms’ and ‘spear-phishing operations’ people think it’s some hi-tech black magic when in reality it means a bunch of people posting on facebook and fake emails trying to get your personal information.
This lack of knowledge, or at least the widespread feeling of a lack of knowledge, is what makes people feel helpless, and this has fuelled the Russiagate conspiracy theory and the counter-conspiracy theory about Trump fighting the Deep State. In either case there’s some secret power at play that we don’t really understand and can do nothing to fight against except to share news stories about it on social media.
This doesn’t even break down along the left-right divide because I know people on the left who believe Russiagate, and believe that Putin is fuelling right wing nationalism because he’s some sort of fascist. In reality, Russian nationalists mostly dislike Putin and don’t think he’s anywhere near nationalist enough for their liking. But I also know plenty of people on the left, mostly very anti-war people, who think this is bullshit. Not because they’re necessarily pro-Trump or pro-Brexit, some of them are, some aren’t. I also know quite a lot of right wingers who think this is nonsense, but not because they are pro-Trump. So while there is a binary media dialogue whereby Trump is either being slandered by the Deep State or is Putin’s puppet, the spectrum of people’s beliefs is much broader and more complicated.
So why is this happening? I do think there are groups of Democrats who are using this to try to avenge losing the election, and still haven’t come to terms with it being their own fault for not going with their populist candidate. I also think there are quite a few neo-cons who are jumping on the bandwagon because it feeds into their agenda. There is, as I said before, the attempt to re-establish the centre ground and some kind of political-media consensus, and I have no doubt that the Russian government is trying to encourage this trend of people moving away from that.
As I said in the fake news episode, the current landscape has lots of smaller groups in their own echo chambers, each advocating the same ideas to a bunch of people who already believe in them. One clip that illustrates how this mentality works from a pro-Russiagate point of view is from an interview The Real News did with Luke Harding, the author of a book endorsing the idea that Trump has been colluding with the Russian state for decades.
So, because the Russian government might have interfered in the French election, we should believe they interfered in the German and Estonian elections, and this is why we should also believe they interfered in the US election and the UK EU referendum. Everything is a contextual argument for everything else, but none of them is proof that any of this actually happened. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, for the most part I don’t know, but it’s interesting that Harding tries to make out this is somehow new and different to the British and American governments doing similar things.
It’s interesting, because he’s wrong. All sorts of organisations, both governmental and otherwise, employ these tactics to try to influence public opinion.
For one thing, I saw a recent post on facebook by the former admin for pro-Hitlery facebook pages who said they attacked Sanders-supporting pages, even posting child pornography on them to get them shut down. There’s also the question of firms like Cambridge Analytica, who offer their services to pretty much anyone who pays them. I raised in that episode the possibility of rich, fascistic billionaires paying companies like that to promote the hard right nationalism that has grown so vocal in recent years. I suspect this is true because whenever I click on the ‘trending topics’ bit on facebook in the wake of a news story that’s easy to exploit from that point of view, I see quite a few posts from obviously fake accounts with 76 friends, three almost identical profile pics that look like they’ve been stolen from another profile, hardly any posting history. Indeed, from my entirely informal browsing it seems around a third of the people saying we should just shoot all Muslims because a breaking news story says there’s been a terrorist attack come from profiles like this. In terms of influencing the Brexit vote, my money would be on the Mercer family and their associated organisations rather than Putin.
Indeed, one angle I’ve not seen explored was whether any liberal billionaires were doing the same in reverse, trying to get people to vote to stay in the EU. I’d be somewhat surprised if they weren’t, because some people’s businesses actually depend fairly heavily on easy movement of money, goods and people between the UK and the EU. They’ve got a business motive just as much as some right wing billionaires have business motives, even leaving aside political motives.
As such, to isolate Russiagate, either from a pro- or anti- point of view, seems to me to be naive and fairly pointless. The only people who I’ve seen do anything constructive with this story are people who don’t buy either conspiracy theory, everyone who had thrown in their lot with one of the main camps just seems to be running round in circles over it. So at the end of all this commentary my final thought is to take all of this with a pinch of salt, otherwise your own desires to believe one or another thing will take over, and be fuelled and coaxed and provoked and validated by one or another section of the political-media spectrum seeking to exploit this for their own ends. Resist the Rorschach effect when it comes to Russiagate, and maybe learn to enjoy watching events unfold. Or ignore it entirely.