Confused Reporter Doubles Down On Bogus Trump/Russian Server Story With 'I'm Just Asking Questions' Non-Apology

from the this-fucking-election dept

Franklin Foer is a pretty famous reporter. But this week he totally blew a story that a ton of other media operations had passed on (for good reason), claiming that there was an internet server out there owned by Donald Trump, that was communicating almost exclusively with a server for a Russian bank. It took all of a few minutes to debunk this as technological confusion on the part of Foer, and a whole heck of a lot of confirmation bias between Foer and the security researchers who had concocted this conspiracy theory with data that they’re only supposed to be using for malware research. Of course, in this stupid election season where both candidates simply love to fling ridiculous accusations at one another, Hillary Clinton herself tweeted out two separate tweets about the article, and called it “the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow.”

Except, of course, that was bullshit. It was nothing of the sort. It was some confused security researchers, teaming up with a reporter who famously doesn’t like the internet or technology, getting a story so ridiculously wrong that it hurts. Some of us kept waiting for Slate to correct or just pull down the story, but they didn’t. They put one small update and one small correction that didn’t even touch on the core elements of the story that Foer completely flubbed.

On Thursday, instead, Foer released a new story, which he claims is him “revisiting” the story to evaluate “new evidence and countertheories.” But that’s also bullshit. The original theory made no sense at all. The “countertheories” are perfectly logical explanations backed up by data — but Foer basically puts them all on equal footing and claims he stands by his original reporting. Ridiculously, Foer tries to debunk the claims that everyone made that this was just an outsourced Trump hotel spam server, by arguing that it never appeared on any spam blackhole lists:

Was the server sending spam?unsolicited mail?as opposed to legitimate commercial marketing? There are databases that assiduously and comprehensively catalog spam. I entered the internet protocal address for to check if it ever showed up in Spamhaus and There were no traces of the IP address ever delivering spam. Perhaps the spam went uncataloged because it was being sent to a single bank in Russia, but L. Jean Camp, an Indiana University computer scientist and a source in my original story, thought that possibility unlikely. ?It?s highly implausible that spam would continue for so many months, that it would never be reported to spam blocker, or that nobody else in the world would see the spam during that time frame,? she told me.

Wait, what? This seems to be Foer doubling down on his ignorance and confusion about the story. Almost everyone discussing how this was a spam server was using “spam” in the colloquial sense of “marketing emails.” They weren’t arguing that it was a literal unsolicited email server spewing things like fake Viagra or fake diplomas (though, with Trump, I guess that last one is a possibility too). It’s just a marketing server. People who stay at Trump hotels get on a mailing list. I get that kind of spam all the time from hotels or hotel chains I’ve stayed at. I don’t categorize it as outright spam in the purely scammy sense, but it’s marketing spam. But Foer and Camp seem to act as if everyone meant the scammy kind of spam.

And, as Rob Graham notes in yet another debunking of Foer, this shows a serious misunderstanding of how spam blacklists work anyway:

Cendyn is constantly getting added to blocklists when people complain. They spend considerable effort contacting the many organizations maintaining blocklists, proving they do “opt-outs”, and getting “white-listed” instead of “black-listed”. Indeed, the entire spam-blacklisting industry is a bit of scam — getting white-listed often involves a bit of cash.

Those maintaining blacklists only go back a few months. The article is in error saying there’s no record ever of Cendyn sending spam. Instead, if an address comes up clean, it means there’s no record for the past few months. And, if Cendyn is in the white-lists, there would be no record of “spam” at all, anyway.

Later, Foer does consider the marketing email idea, but also tries to discount it.

Still, the marketing email theory has a few holes. A typical marketing campaign would involve the wide distribution of emails, spreading word of discounted prices and hotel openings far and wide. It seems unlikely that a campaign would so exclusively focus its efforts on a bank in Russia and a health care company in Michigan (which received a small batch of DNS look-ups), even if, as one critic has claimed, executives from Alfa Bank had a penchant for staying in Trump hotels.

Except that’s misleading too. Because the information that has been revealed publicly does not prove that the server in question only communicated with the Russian server. In fact, others have argued it’s not true.

Graham also raises some pretty serious questions about one of the “DNS experts” that Foer relies on, Jean Camp:

Jean Camp isn’t an expert. I’ve never heard of her before. She gets details wrong. Take for example in this blogpost where she discusses lookups for the domain She says:

This query is unusual in that is merges two hostnames into one. It makes the most sense as a human error in inserting a new hostname in some dialog window, but neglected to hit the backspace to delete the old hostname.

Uh, no. It’s normal DNS behavior with non-FQDNs. If the lookup for a name fails, computers will try again, pasting the local domain on the end. In other words, when Twitter’s DNS was taken offline by the DDoS attack a couple weeks ago, those monitoring DNS saw a zillion lookups for names like “”.

He then goes on to reproduce that kind of merged hostname situation. Graham has a number of other examples of technical points that Foer just gets totally wrong. It’s kind of embarassing actually. Rather than admit he’s wrong, Foer tries to just post these “countertheories” and then pulls out a “well, I just hope that my reporting gets us closer to the truth.”

I pursued this story because I was impressed by the emphatic belief of the experts I consulted, my suspicions were raised by the evidence they presented, and I thought I would be remiss if I sat on data that I believed deserves to be evaluated and understood before we elect the next president. The underlying context for the piece is that Donald Trump has cultivated a troubling relationship with Russia, and the U.S. government has identified Russia as trying to meddle in this election. Not every nexus between the candidate and Russia is nefarious. This one might well be entirely innocent or even accidental. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, after my story published, the FBI looked into the server activity but ?ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.? Or maybe it?s less than innocent, as the computer scientists suggested and still believe. (I?ve checked back with eight of the nine computer scientists and engineers I consulted for my original story, and they all stood by their fundamental analysis. One of them couldn’t be reached.) I concluded my account of these scientists? search for answers by arguing that the servers and their activity deserved further explanation. Hopefully my story and the debate that has followed will move us closer to a fuller understanding.

Except, it seems like “the truth” almost certainly is that there’s no story at all here, and in publishing as if it was a story, a whole bunch of people are making questionable claims. The whole “Russian connection” thing that keeps popping up in this election is getting pretty ridiculous. It may very well be that the Russians are trying to muck with our election. Lots of credible people are suggesting that’s the case. But then coming up with a bunch of weak conspiracy theories based on technical ignorance and confirmation bias is just like being scared of monsters in the shadows.

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Companies: alfa bank, slate

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Comments on “Confused Reporter Doubles Down On Bogus Trump/Russian Server Story With 'I'm Just Asking Questions' Non-Apology”

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Steve Zissou (profile) says:

Re: Re: When did you stop beating your wife?

This is the United States after all… journalists are not over-privileged little shits… they’re just little shits.

We all have an equal voice and you get to call out journalists as much as you like and point out how stupid they’re being… take the above article for example.

Once you add in the threat of State force… well that’s the real threat to democracy isn’t it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Don’t worry, the system is working as designed. It was made to fail so that a full and complete takeover of the healthcare industry can had. Of course all the out of work insurance people is not a side effect but part of the plan as well. More people to be put on social programs (i.e. control) and vote for Dems.

Sadly, the government can typically only break things yet everyone looks toward them for the solutions. Look at the mess that copyright, the pet subject of this blog, creates. Or the VA hospital. The cable monopolies. The fact that corporations create regulatory capture to stop competitors. But don’t worry, a larger more powerful government is the answer.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

…I was going to respond to this, but then I remembered that it is a comment on an article about a reporter not understanding how DNS lookups works.

So instead of trying to debate the subject of the Affordable Care Act, I am going to say hey, I’d appreciate it if you’d go rant about the Affordable Care Act somewhere else, where it is actually relevant to the conversation that everyone else is having.

John Mayor says:


New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives have uncovered evidence of a ‘child sex ring’ on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, that… some say… could “put Hillary Clinton away for life (see, )“.
According to NYPD sources, files found on Weiner’s newly found laptop which he shared with his wife Huma Abedin, show evidence of a political pedophile ring operating within Washington, involving members of Congress as well as numerous top Clinton aides and insiders.
. reports:
NYPD sources said these new emails include evidence linking Clinton herself and associates to:
◾Money laundering
◾Child exploitation
◾Sex crimes with minors (children)
◾Pay to play through Clinton Foundation
◾Obstruction of justice
◾Other felony crimes
NYPD detectives and a NYPD Chief, the department’s highest rank under Commissioner, said– openly!– that if the FBI and Justice Department fail to garner timely indictments against Clinton and co- conspirators, NYPD will go public with the damaging emails now in the hands of FBI Director James Comey and many FBI field offices.
“What’s in the emails is staggering!… and as a father, it turned my stomach,” the NYPD Chief said. “There is not going to be any Houdini-like escape from what we found. We have copies of everything. We will ship them to Wikileaks!… or I will personally hold my own press conference if it comes to that.”
The NYPD Chief said once Comey saw the alarming contents of the emails he was forced to reopen a criminal probe against Clinton.
“People are going to prison,” he said.
Meanwhile, FBI sources said Abedin and Weiner were cooperating with federal agents, who have taken over the non-sexting portions the case from NYPD. The husband-and-wife Clinton insiders are both shopping for separate immunity deals, sources said.
“If they don’t cooperate they are going to see long sentences,” a federal law enforcement source said.
NYPD sources said Weiner or Abedin stored all the emails in a massive Microsoft Outlook program on the laptop. The emails implicate other current and former members of Congress and one high-ranking Democratic Senator as having possibly engaged in criminal activity too, sources said.
Prosecutors in the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara have issued a subpoena for Weiner’s cell phones and travel records, law enforcement sources confirmed. NYPD said it planned to order the same phone and travel records on Clinton and Abedin, however, the FBI said it was in the process of requesting the identical records. Law enforcement sources are particularly interested in cell phone activity and travel to the Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands and other locations that sources would not divulge.
The new emails contain travel documents and itineraries indicating Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton, Weiner and multiple members of Congress and other government officials accompanied convicted pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on his Boeing 727 on multiple occasions to his private island in the U.S Virgin Islands, sources said. Epstein’s island has also been dubbed “Orgy Island” or “Sex Slave Island” where Epstein allegedly pimps out underage girls and boys to international dignitaries.
Both NYPD and FBI sources confirm based on the new emails they now believe Hillary Clinton traveled as Epstein’s guest on at least six occasions, probably more when all the evidence is combed, sources said. Bill Clinton… it has been confirmed in media reports spanning recent years!… that he, too, traveled with Epstein over 20 times to the island.
Lastly, in a series of Internet media reports, evidence has been amassed concerning the complicit involvement of Donald Trump in CHILD ABUSE!… and as indicated in the info at,… and…… and…… and…… and…… and… )! And the latter of which– if confirmed!– should also lead to the arrest of a “Presidential WANNA-BE”!
Simply put, if what is alleged in these aforenoted reports is true, then America is truly at a crossroads!… AND!… NEITHER OF THESE CANDIDATES SHOULD HOLD OFFICE! And!… unless there is repentance– AND, AN IMMEDIATE POLITICAL TURNAROUND!… then God’s judgement is SOON to follow! And… then!… ISIS will be the least of America’s concerns!
However!… if the abovenoted in not true, I would have you note the following…
The abovenoted statute makes it a FELONY for someone to use any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or system (the FBI, CIA, NSA, or otherwise!… and e.g., ) with the intent to kill, injure, HARASS, INTIMIDATE, or place under surveillance (through proxy!) with the intent to kill, injure, HARASS, OR INTIMIDATE another person and engage in a course of conduct that places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury, OR CAUSES, ATTEMPTS TO CAUSE, OR WOULD REASONABLY BE EXPRECTED TO CAUSE SUBSTANTIAL EMOTIONAL DISTRESS!
In Romans, Chapter 13: 1-3, Christians– in particular (but, not exclusively!)!– are to be subject to that which is in authority! And!… the PARAMOUNT AUTHORITY within a democratic country (at least!), is a country’s respective national constitution!… AND, WHICH– INVARIABLY!– CONTAINS RIGHTS, AND FREEDOMS! And so!… to resist such!… and in keeping with Romans 13: 1-3!… IS TO RESIST GOD’S COMMAND, AND AUTHORITY!… AND, HIS HOLY SPIRIT!
Proverbs 6: 16-19 [NIV] states…
16) There are six things the Lord hates… seven that are detestable to him:
17) 1. Haughty eyes,
2. A lying tongue,
3. Hands that shed innocent blood,
18) 4. A heart that devises wicked schemes,
5. Feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19) 6. A false witness who pours out lies,
Luke 10: 16, “Whoever listens to you (a Christian Messenger!) listens to Me (Jesus Christ!); whoever rejects you (a Christian Messenger!) rejects Me (Jesus Christ!); but whoever rejects Me (Jesus Christ!) rejects Him who sent Me (GOD!)! [NIV]
Matthew 25: 40, “And the King answering, will say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least of these brothers of Mine (E.G., FAILING TO ADHERE TO ROMANS 13: 1-3!… AND, A COUNTRY’S GODLY INSPIRED PARAMOUNT LAW!… IN RESPECT TO THE NEEDS OF ONE OF THE LEAST OF THE BROTHERS OF CHRIST!), you did it to Me.” [Berean Literal Bible]
GALATIANS 6: 7, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked (BUT NOTE AGAIN, LUKE 10: 16!). Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return.” [NIV]
And so… in addition to what may be true or bogus in the Trump/ Russian server story, there are a host of reports flying around the Net that Netizens (and prospective American voters!) should be up in arms about! Freedom of the Press is one thing!… but!… Freedom to create HAVOC, is quite another!! And it’s this HAVOC (if proven to be so!), that the FBI should be zeroing in on!!… AND ENDING!!
Please!… no emails!

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Point of order in re the proper definition of spam

The correct, canonical definition of spam is “unsolicited bulk email”, or UBE for short. The purpose is irrelevant. The content is irrelevant. The method is irrelevant. The intention is irrelevant. If it’s UBE, then it’s spam, whether it’s marketing for a hotel or shilling for bogus drugs or even if the messages are completely blank.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Point of order in re the proper definition of spam

If you have ever done business with a company then email from them is not “unsolicited.”

Since when did doing business once with a company mean that all future emails from them is solicited, especially advertising stuff? Note, I do not consider a minuscule opt out button hidden in the small print as giving them permission if it is overlooked.

Jim says:


With the Don’s other problems? It is a direct line. To the oligarchs of a foreign country. Running for president, would it not have inhanced his image to have shut it down. No? Or have researchers looked into the past communications, that went out from there? Any emails, traces of wiping? Links to other servers used for bouncing, or sorry, our journal only goes back so many days. But, its amazing, every one harps on the hill, about communications, and don’t apply the same standards to the other party. Another ruse?

Eponymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: But:

When the entire premise of this article is showing that Foer’s initial article is almost entirely crap, I think we can safely assume that no, this isn’t something that matters in the slightest. A company server sending marketing emails is a breed apart from a personal server housing classified information, so your attempt at establishing equivalence is pretty weak.

By the by, your liberal usage of commas left me reading your comment as a person very seriously out of breath.

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