Monday, January 2, 2017

Why does Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, one of America's finest journalists, seem to be on a crusade to debunk the stories of Russia's election interference?

Perhaps the most head-scratching news event over the holidays involves an apparent effort, in both the U.S. and UK, to debunk the story of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The biggest head-scratcher of all is that it involves Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, whom I've long considered one of the finest investigative journalists still walking the planet. So what is with Taibbi's December 31 piece titled "Something About This Russia Story Stinks," which might charitably be called "flimsy" (at best) and "nonsensical" (at worst)? And what is with Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. who has been in the debunking business for several weeks now at his blog? Murray, a long-time associate of Julian Assange, seems to be a serious fellow -- but his reports on the Russia-interference story seem to be long on intrigue and short on solid reporting or analysis.

Is Taibbi following Murray's lead, without knowing where it's headed? That is unclear, but Taibbi seems to be shrugging off what could be the biggest political story of our lifetimes, what some have called the "Crime of the Century." (Taibbi is not alone in the U.S. Robert Parry, of Consortium News, published "Intel Vets Dispute Russia Hacking Claims" on December 12, followed by "Details Still Lacking On Russian 'Hack'" on December 29. Like Taibbi, Parry has serious journalism credentials.)

Taibbi's main concern seems to be that journalists will again find themselves on the wrong end of what he calls an "Iraq-WMD faceplant." That is a reference to the faulty weapons of mass destruction intelligence that led the United States into war with Iraq. What does that have to do with the current story about alleged Russian interference that helped put the wildly unqualified Donald Trump on the front step of the White House? We're not sure, but Taibbi says his journalistic colleagues are queasy about reporting on another story that could rest, they think, on shaky intelligence. After noting sanctions that President Obama imposed late last week on Russia, Taibbi writes:

This dramatic story puts the news media in a jackpot. Absent independent verification, reporters will have to rely upon the secret assessments of intelligence agencies to cover the story at all.

Many reporters I know are quietly freaking out about having to go through that again. We all remember the WMD fiasco. "It's déjà vu all over again" is how one friend put it.

So, angst among reporters somehow means a story isn't true, or isn't worth pursuing? Does that mean the CIA/Homeland Security assessment of October 7 is filled with holes, even though President Obama clearly does not see it that way?  Does that mean that an FBI/Homeland Security report of December 29 also has no merit?

The December 29 report, Taibbi notes, "details how Russian civilian and military intelligence services (termed "RIS" in the report) twice breached the defenses of 'a U.S. political party,' presumably the Democrats." He then proceeds to brush it off:

This report is long on jargon but short on specifics. More than half of it is just a list of suggestions for preventive measures.

At one point we learn that the code name the U.S. intelligence community has given to Russian cyber shenanigans is GRIZZLY STEPPE, a sexy enough detail.

But we don't learn much at all about what led our government to determine a) that these hacks were directed by the Russian government, or b) they were undertaken with the aim of influencing the election, and in particular to help elect Donald Trump.

Those are reasonable quibbles, but do they mean the Russian story has no legs, that it "stinks"? It's hard to see how. Less than two months have passed since the election, and we're dealing with a possible international crime involving sophisticated computer-related machinations (and yes, even jargon). That's supposed to be fully resolved in the time it takes Donald Trump to knock out a few mindless Tweets?

Taibbi seems nonplussed that the whole thing hasn't been wrapped up with a colorful bow by now. And oh, there is that Iraq-WMD thing:

The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.

If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now.

But do we know this is the beginning and end of the U.S. response? Could further investigation, which clearly is needed, yield a more firm response? Could it even prompt efforts to block or force Trump from the White House? Taibbi acts as if the story is over, when perhaps it has barely begun.

At its heart, Taibbi's piece is about journalism -- how it's produced, how it's received -- not about a possible international crime of incomprehensible scope:

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).

As noted in The Intercept and other outlets, an Economist/YouGov poll conducted this month shows that 50 percent of all Clinton voters believe the Russians hacked vote tallies.

This number is nearly as disturbing as the 62 percent of Trump voters who believe the preposterous, unsourced Trump/Alex Jones contention that "millions" of undocumented immigrants voted in the election.

That is quite a slap at Hillary Clinton supporters, comparing them to Trump and Alex Jones. But is it unreasonable for Clinton supporters to ask a few questions, such as:

* Exit polls, pretty much across the board, showed our candidate solidly ahead going into election day. How did exit polls, which have proven reliable in the past, get it so wrong this time?

* The narrative going into election day was that Trump needed to win almost all of a string of states -- Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. What are the odds of a candidate actually winning all of those states, under such circumstances? Has anything like it happened in American history?

In the end, Taibbi admits we might have a huge story on our hands:

Did the Russians do it? Very possibly, in which case it should be reported to the max. But the press right now is flying blind. Plowing ahead with credulous accounts is problematic because so many different feasible scenarios are in play.

On one end of the spectrum, America could have just been the victim of a virtual coup d'etat engineered by a combination of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which would be among the most serious things to ever happen to our democracy.

But this could also just be a cynical ass-covering campaign, by a Democratic Party that has seemed keen to deflect attention from its own electoral failures.

The outgoing Democrats could just be using an over-interpreted intelligence "assessment" to delegitimize the incoming Trump administration and force Trump into an embarrassing political situation: Does he ease up on Russia and look like a patsy, or escalate even further with a nuclear-armed power?

That last paragraph is a real knee-slapper. Democrats need to "delegitimize" a Trump administration? Isn't Donald Trump capable of doing that on his own? Does Trump really need help creating "embarrassing political situations"?

Perhaps without knowing it, Taibbi gets to the heart of the matter. Americans need to know their elections produce "legitimate" results. We need to know Donald Trump is in the White House for "legitimate" reasons, not because Vladimir Putin put him there.

I still think Matt Taibbi is one of our best journalists, but he flopped badly with this story. One could even say it "stinks."

As for Craig Murray, the British fellow who seems to be blazing a trail for Taibbi, we will examine his work in an upcoming post.

(To be continued)


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you tackle this, Schnauzer. Not sure where Taibbi is coming from, and he's usually quite reliable.

Anonymous said...

Seems a little early for anyone to be jumping to conclusions, one way or another.

Anonymous said...

I admire Taibbi's work, he's a smart guy. But he seems to be throwing up his hands on this one, and I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

This story, indeed, puts journalists in a tough spot. It needs to be covered, but the leg work takes time. In the 24-hour news cycle, no one has the patience to dig.

Chuckles said...

Pretty funny, the notion that Democrats would need to delegitimize the Trump admin. He will do that on his, probably in the first two months.

Anonymous said...

Taibbi has written a lot of strong stuff about Trump, so hard to understand this article. It's like he's singing from the Trump hymnal, which says the CIA on Russian hacking is the same bunch that said Iraq at WMD

biscuits&gravy said...

because there is no evidence. I don't necessarily DOUBT Russian hacking (in the same way I am certain of OUR government hacking into THEIR business) , but until ACTUAL evidence is produced, this issue is just a WEE bit too 'convenient' a narrative as to why the democrats lost the election...The fact that it's not being pursued VIGOROUSLY and openly by the current administration (whose party lost) says VOLUMES...If they really had evidence (and actually believed) that this was the case, It would have been the only game in town per the democratic party and the Media. The implications of Russia hacking our ACTUAL elections is SO enormous that if it was indeed TRUE, we'd be responding VERY differently that we are...

Anonymous said...

biscuits&gravy you're just another anonymous commenter who knows nothing about the bigger Internet security picture. People in the security community have seen this kind of thing quite often and it's almost always the work of state actors. The attack on the Podesta email was a sophisticated spear phishing attack -- there was no criminal motivation or use for the data -- it was an intelligence effort. We also have a pretty good idea of the individuals and groups involved. Again, experts understand this because we study it every day.

Actual evidence? You wouldn't know it if it smacked you in the head. From everything I've seen I'd say Russian hackers 99%.

I agree that the administration's response was weak. I think they should have shut down the Russian banks for a couple of days, but they are saving that stuff for another day I expect, maybe when Russian tanks roll into the Baltic States.