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Is the United States the victim of an unprovoked cyber and media attack by Russia and China or are the chickens coming home to roost after Washington’s own promotion of such activity worldwide? On Thursday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while no foreign government had been able to interfere with actual voting machines, “U.S. agencies are more confident than ever that Russia interfered in America’s recent presidential election. And he called the former Cold War foe an ‘existential threat’ to the nation.” Pressed by Senator John McCain whether the “attack” constituted an “act of war,” Clapper demurred, saying that it would be a “very heavy policy call” to say so. He also said that he could not judge if the election outcome had been changed due to the claimed outside interference.
Clapper also claimed that the Russian effort included including the creation and dissemination of fake stories, explaining that “ While there has been a lot of focus on the hacking, this is actually part of a multifaceted campaign that the Russians mounted.” Clapper singled out Russian state funded TV channel RT, previously called Russia Today. “Of course RT…was very, very active in promoting a particular point of view, disparaging our system.” [Full disclosure: I have been on RT numerous times.]
Apart from the nonsense about foreign broadcasters being part of a conspiracy to “disparage our system” and destroy our democracy, I confess that I was willing to be convinced by what seemed to be the near-unanimous intelligence and law enforcement agency verdict but, any such expectations disappeared when the 17 page report on the hack was actually released on Friday. Entitled Declassified Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, the report is an exercise in speculation minus evidence indicting alleged Russian interference in the recent election. It even came with a significant caveat, “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
So I am still waiting to see the actual evidence for the Russian direct involvement and have to suspect that there is little to show, or possibly even nothing. Saying that Russian government agents were employed in passing the stolen emails from the DNC server to WikiLeaks raises more questions than it answers, particularly as it is now clear from media leaks that the parties involved were using what is referred to as cut-outs to break the chain of custody of the material being passed. Does the intelligence community actually know exactly who passed what to whom and when or is it engaged in reconstructing what it think happened? Does it really believe that intercepted unencrypted phone calls among Russian officials expressing pleasure over the election result equate to an actual a priori conspiracy to determine the outcome? And based on what evidence do they know that conspiracy was “ordered” by President Vladimir Putin as is now being alleged? Or are the only assuming that it must have been him because he is head of state?
And what about the possibility that activity of Russian intelligence agencies to penetrate computers in the United States was little more than routine information collection, which Clapper conceded is normal activity for Washington as well? And above all, where is a truth and consequences analysis of America’s global role as a contributor to the tit-for-tat, obscured by a prevailing mainstream media narrative that prefers to see everything in terms of good guys versus bad guys?
One can reasonably argue that Washington started the practice of cyber-warfare and has been a long-time practitioner of both regime change and election tampering in its relationship with much of the world. The Snowden papers indicate that NSA hacking of targets in China has been going on for many years as has routine interception of cell phones of allied European and other world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the UN Secretary General. NSA has deliberately sought to have the capability to penetrate nearly every electronic communications network in the world, frequently in real time, and has come close to achieving that ability under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The information obtained in the huge dumps of intelligence obtained by NSA is, at least in theory, used to confront possible threats to the United States and to obtain competitive advantage over both adversaries and competitors. But the intrusion into systems has also been weaponized, witness for example the creation of the Stuxnet worm in collaboration with the Israelis. Stuxnet was intended to disable key elements in Iranian nuclear research but it also went beyond that, creating dysfunction in other economic and industrial systems unrelated to its laboratories. The assault on Iran was more of an act of war than the hack of the DNC computers. And the damage was not limited to Iran. There have also been concerns that the Stuxnet virus had migrated from the Iranian systems and become viable on other civilian use computers.
There have been numerous military interventions in Latin America ever since the U.S. became involved in the region in the wake of the Spanish-American War. The subsequent interventions in the so-called Banana Wars by U.S. Marines in Central America and the Caribbean were on behalf of United Fruit Company and other commercial interests. The cynical use of force to support American business moved the highly-decorated Marine Major General Smedley Butler to describe himself as “a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers … a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism” while declaring that “war is a racket.” More recently, the CIA arranged for the removal of populist Jacopo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, initiating 60 years of political instability in that country while the Agency role in the military coup in Chile that ousted Salvador Allende and its involvement with the Nicaraguan contra rebels subsequently are similarly notorious.
When I was in Europe with CIA the U.S. government regularly interfered with elections, particularly in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, all of which had active communist parties. The Agency would fund opposition parties directly or indirectly and would manage media coverage of the relevant issues to favor the non-communists. The end result was that the communists were indeed in most cases kept out of government but the resulting democracy was frequently corrupted by the process. Italy in particular suffers from that corruption to this day.
The United States has directly interfered in Russia, using proxies, IMF loans and a media controlled by the oligarchs to run the utterly incompetent Boris Yeltsin’s successful campaign in 1996 and then continuing with more aggressive “democracy promotion” projects until Putin expelled many of the NGOs responsible in 2015. More recently there have been the pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe and the upheaval in Ukraine, which came about in part due to a $5 billion investment by the United States government in “democracy building” supplemented by regular visits from John McCain and the State Department’s activist Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
And then there are Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria as well as endorsement of the ongoing carnage in Yemen. The Congress meanwhile continues to call for regime change in Iran. So it leads to the question “Who is actually doing what to whom?”
One can well understand the anger at Russian actions but much of the sentiment is being fueled by a hostile press and deliberate U.S. government fear mongering orchestrated by the Obama Administration as its parting gift to the American people. A new Cold War would be good for no one. Stepping back a bit, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that anything Russia did or is suspected of doing in 2016 pales in comparison to what the United States has been doing for much longer and on a much wider scale. The Defense Department runs a cyber warfare command with a budget of $7 billion and the White House has ordered military interventions to bring about regime change in four Muslim majority countries while also interfering in a number of others since 9/11. The Obama response to an alleged Russian conspiracy that has yet to be demonstrated has been to send more soldiers to the Baltics while ordering a massive politically motivated retaliation that included the persona non grata expulsion of 35 Russian officials and their families. Moscow did not retaliate and instead invited U.S. diplomatic families to a Christmas celebration at the Kremlin. Sure, it was political theater to a certain extent but it has to make one wonder who was actually the adult in the room whenever Obama and Putin would meet.