The Senate Armed Services Committee conducted a hearing this morning in which intelligence officials said they are convinced Russia was behind hacking of the presidential election. But even intel officials, and committee members, seemed reluctant to address the notion that Russian hacks might have altered vote totals.
Questions on that subject are disarming -- and their potential repercussions so unsettling -- that many media outlets (and public officials) apparently don't want to touch them.
Consider Matt Taibbi, one of the finest journalists of his generation, and his treatment of the issue in a recent article at Rolling Stone:
Adding to the problem is that in the last months of the campaign, and also in the time since the election, we've seen an epidemic of factually loose, clearly politically motivated reporting about Russia. Democrat-leaning pundits have been unnervingly quick to use phrases like "Russia hacked the election."
This has led to widespread confusion among news audiences over whether the Russians hacked the DNC emails (a story that has at least been backed by some evidence, even if it hasn't always been great evidence), or whether Russians hacked vote tallies in critical states (a far more outlandish tale backed by no credible evidence).
The second link in the highlighted section above goes to a CNN article titled "Russia's role is shocking, but there is no evidence the vote was hacked." It is not a news article; it's an opinion piece by Joshua A. Douglas, a professor and election-law expert at the University of Kentucky College of Law. From the article:
The revelations that Russia actively sought to influence the American election and help Donald Trump become the next president are shocking, mind-blowing and downright scary. But here is something they are not: evidence that the Russians hacked voting machines or changed the Election Day count. Unsubstantiated assertions that Russia actually manipulated the vote tally are themselves dangerous. . . .
Understanding what happened is vitally important, so the intelligence community should act quickly to assuage Americans' concerns.
But saying that Russia sought to influence the campaign and help Trump's chances is not the same as saying that Russia actually manipulated the voting process.
Indeed, the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration have both said that they do not have any evidence that Russia hacked voting machines or altered voting technology. A federal judge, in rejecting Jill Stein's lawsuit seeking a statewide recount in Pennsylvania, also pointed to a lack of evidence of election machine hacking.
This is mostly horse manure. Douglas says "understanding what happened is vitally important," but then he hints that we shouldn't look too hard because what we find might be upsetting, even "dangerous." I can't think of anything more dangerous than having Donald Trump in the White House, so I'm willing to take a risk on a serious investigation that could turn up hard evidence of election-day vote manipulation.
What are Joshua A. Douglas' credentials? His bio suggests he has right-wing bona fides. He clerked for U.S. Circuit Judge Edward C. Prado (Fifth Circuit), a George W. Bush appointee. He practiced litigation at the corporate, conservative law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, which has ties to Karl Rove and other unsavory GOPers. Does that mean Douglas' opinion should be roundly rejected? No. Does it mean his opinion piece, especially since it makes no attempt at seeking evidence. should be the last word on the subject? Absolutely not.
As for this morning's hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper touched on the vote-manipulation issue in a cursory fashion. From CNN:
Clapper said that the hacking did not succeed in changing any vote tallies, but that it was impossible for intelligence to assess how the information released from the breaches affected voters' attitudes.
How does Clapper know vote tallies weren't changed, and why wasn't the subject discussed in a more in-depth manner? That remains unclear.
Meanwhile, let's consider a few issues that hang in the air as Inauguration Day looms:
(1) The December 29 joint FBI/Homeland Security analysis was more significant than Matt Taibbi, and others, have let on.
From a December 30 report at Salon:
The 13-page joint analysis . . . was the first such report ever to attribute malicious cyber activity to a particular country or actors.
It was also the first time the U.S. has officially and specifically tied intrusions into the Democratic National Committee to hackers with the Russian civilian and military intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, expanding on an Oct. 7 accusation by the Obama administration.
The report said the intelligence services were involved in “an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens.” It added, “In some cases, (the Russian intelligence services’) actors masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online personas designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack.”
(2) Key media companies that produce vote totals easily could be hacked
From a November 7 article at mcclatchydc.com:
Experts have been warning for months that hackers could try to disrupt Tuesday’s election by penetrating local voting systems. But another target could prove easier to hack: U.S. media outlets offering election night results.
Upguard, a Mountain View, California, company that assesses how well companies are protecting themselves from hackers, has found that three major news organizations – The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and CBS News – tallied “pretty abysmal” scores on key criteria to thwart breaches.
All three are key sources of election night results, with the AP perhaps the largest provider of election tabulations in the country.
(3) We know voter-registration lists in certain states were hacked and . . . again, what about the Associated Press, and its poorly secured system?
From an October 18 article at New York Magazine:
It’s now clearly established that someone hacked voter-registration databases in Arizona and Illinois during the primary season. No one is sure, however, whether said hackers were testing the vulnerability of election-related systems or just wanted some rich personal data from one or both states. But it was worrisome in either event.
Reporter Ed Kilgore then turns his attention to concerns about AP:
But even those who are telling us all to chill about the election’s being hacked concede that malicious interference with the system, even on a relatively small scale, can create chaos and uncertainty. And that is why an emerging fear involves the possibility of a hack not of actual votes or even the counting of votes, but of the reporting of votes to media on Election Night. What if somebody messed with those Associated Press reports everybody uses to figure out who has won in particular states and counties? Politico has now raised that particular alarm:
"[T]he security community is worried The Associated Press’ army of reporters could get hacked and the wire service — the newsroom that produces the results data on which the entire media world relies — inadvertently starts releasing manipulated election tallies or that cybercriminals penetrate CNN’s internal networks and change Wolf Blitzer’s teleprompter."
Messing with Wolf Blitzer's teleprompter? Now, that is serious business -- sort of the equivalent of giving Walter Cronkite a wedgie during coverage of a major event in the '60s or '70s. It would be a case of going "straight to the source," and experts say it would not be hard to pull off, given AP's dismal scores on cyber-security checks.
(4) The Jill Stein recounts made no determination, one way or another, about possible vote manipulation
From a December 26 Associated Press report:
Jill Stein’s bid to recount votes in Pennsylvania was in trouble even before a federal judge shot it down Dec. 12. That’s because the Green Party candidate’s effort stood little chance of detecting potential fraud or error in the vote — there was basically nothing to recount.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states where the majority of voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically, without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the balloting. There’s almost no way to know if they’ve accurately recorded individual votes — or if anyone tampered with the count.
Large swaths of the country seem to believe the Stein recounts put the vote-manipulation issue to rest. In fact, they did not come close to doing that.
Will today's Senate hearing be a step toward unearthing evidence about the extent of Russian hacks? We don't know for sure, but we did learn this, as reported by CNN:
Meanwhile, a broad array of Democrats are calling for a public airing of Russia's efforts to sway the election. Senior Senate Democrats introduced a bill Wednesday to investigate the election interference.
Perhaps Democrats feel they have yet to receive the full story from intelligence officials. I suspect the Dems are right about that.