Whether Or Not You Believe Russia Interfered In The Election, We Should All Be Worried About Escalation Based On Secret Info

from the be-concerned dept

So, we just wrote about Obama administration’s tepid response to claims that Russians “interfered” with the Presidential election. In that post, we noted our concerns about the fact that we seem to be escalating a situation based on claims where we’re not allowed to see any of the actual evidence. I’ve seen a bunch of people arguing that anyone who won’t automatically accept that Russia interfered in the election should be dubbed either Putin supporters or, at the very least, “useful idiots” but we should be very, very careful about where this leads. I certainly think that there’s a tremendous possibility that Russian forces did intend to interfere with our election, but I’d certainly like to see some actual evidence — and the “evidence” provided so far shows no such thing.

And this should scare you. Not because it means that anyone is lying, but because it’s setting the stage for very dangerous things. If we’re setting the precedent that the US government can escalate situations based on purely secret knowledge, what’s to stop them from doing so over and over again? Put another way: for those who dislike Trump, but are happy about the White House calling out and sanctioning Russia, how will you feel when President Trump makes similar claims about some other country (perhaps one blocking a new Trump hotel?), and proceeds to issue US government sanctions on that country — but without releasing any actual evidence of wrongdoing beyond “government agencies say they did bad things.” Won’t that be concerning too?

Matt Taibbi, over at Rolling Stone, has an excellent article comparing this to when we started the war in Iraq — noting the similarities, in that the government (and the press) kept insisting that because certain government agencies said something (“Iraq has WMDs”), it must be true:

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.

And, as he later notes:

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.

And this is a big part of the problem. Because none of the evidence is public, beyond just statements of attribution, we’re left with no way to know what are actually reasonable responses. There’s a big spectrum of possibilities that might be described as “Russian interference” from merely helping some independent hackers release information (as some have charged) to using actual intelligence agencies to run a serious hacking operation (as others have charged), all the way up to actively tampering in voting systems (which some in the public now claim, but which no official has suggested actually happened).

The problem isn’t so much a question of whether or not the Russians did something. Maybe they did. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all if they did. At the very least, Russian officials seem to be laughing at everything going on now. The real issue is the danger of having the force and power of the US government responding to “actions” by stating things as true, without providing any evidence to back it up. In that space, a lot of mischief can and will occur. Looking back at the invasion of Iraq based on faulty reports is just one example. We should be learning from that lesson, not repeating it.

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Comments on “Whether Or Not You Believe Russia Interfered In The Election, We Should All Be Worried About Escalation Based On Secret Info”

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Sevin says:

Precedent ??

>>> “If we’re setting the precedent that the US government can escalate situations based on purely secret knowledge…”

Precedent (??)

Ever heard of the Gulf-of-Tonkin-Resolution or Saddam Hussein’s Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction ??

Your government thrives on deceit, secrecy, and non-transparency.

Your long emphasis upon FOIA problems should have long ago convinced you NOT to trust Federal politicians & bureaucrats.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Precedent ??

Not that any other “country” is better on that account. The russian government has been caught several times in completely transparent lies.

EUs trilogues are an opacity-engine and the situation around MH370 was severely hampered by military radars in the region being very slow to release information in a timely manner, seriously hampering the crucial first month of the search.

Opacity has many faces and historically it is good to have some jingoistic voices supported by opacity to assert the countrys exceptionalistic delusions and the best defence being an offensive war…

Jason says:

Is anyone here a fan of Babylon 5? More than once during the election process we’d hear about how Trump has this or that "inside information" (something that’s been in the news again this last few days) and we’d hear all about it at a speech later on that never ended up happening.

It recalls to me a line delivered by ISN after President Clark declared martial law, where he was expected to announce the reasons behind the declaration "at a later date".

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Well, they’re both straight out of Nixon’s playbook, his "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam.

Incidentally, there’s fresh evidence that as Nixon was touting that "secret plan" he was intentionally undermining peace talks because he was worried he might lose the election if the war ended: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/nixons-vietnam-treachery.html

I’ve seen a tendency among some people recently to suggest that maybe Nixon wasn’t so bad. But he really, really was.

Richard (profile) says:

Putin vs Obama

I’d believe that maybe Putin interfered with the US election – just like Obama tried to interfere with the UK -EU referendum – with whatever means were available to him.
(Btw I agreed with him on that one).

Face it – all’s fair in love, war and politics. The US has an extremely long record of dirty tricks as does every major western government and most political parties.

Given the way in which the US has behaved towards Russia over the last 20 years it is not surprising that the Russians would like to see a less gratuitously unfriendly face in the White House.

At the beginning of that period the Russians were trying to befriend the west – only to find that they got treated as the enemy regardless. The US seemed to have ignored the end of communism.

Trump seemed to be prepared to treat Russia as “just another country” whereas Obama/Clinton just seemed to hate Russia. In those circumstances it is not surprising that Russia tried anything it could to influence the result.

The fact that the US won’t release the evidence proves that either:

The did something equally bad to obtain it.


They don’t actually have any – but they believe that Russia’s current bad reputation (doping, Ukraine, Syria) means people will believe them anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Putin vs Obama

Have you forgotten about congress?

Many of them love to rattle their plastic sabers while bad mouthing russia, it’s the standard go to bullshit and has been for a long time. Guess old habits die hard?

IIRC, there are multiple experts in the field from many different countries that pretty much say the same thing about that story, and yet you say it is the us that refuses to divulge any data.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: False narrative

That’s correct, regardless of whether the Russians actually did hack the DNC and release the emails to Wikileaks.

The confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance peculiar to American politics these days means those revelations didn’t make much of a difference to the actual election; Hillary promised more of the same and Trump promised change.

Trump was elected because people were sick of the status quo, not because people who were going to vote Dem suddenly thought, “Oh, poor Bernie. We wuz robbed! That’s it, I’m voting for Trump, now!!”

This Red Scare II nonsense is being pushed by desperate Dems who believe they can shoehorn Hillary in at the last minute if they can get enough people to believe that Trump got in via Russian cheating. Don’t fall for it.

That Trump is getting ready to take his seat in the Oval Office is the will of the people; I’d be surprised if leaks like the DNC ones had any real impact on their choices since the binary/least worst option vote is so baked in. And I doubt if even the most egregious leak would sway anyone’s opinion of a particular candidate if they are firmly invested in the culture wars; they’d vote for the party candidate regardless on the grounds that at least X is better than Y.

Zarvus (profile) says:

This is a silly argument. You expect the government to do what it has done, which is to give members of Congress with the security clearance to view it access to the information that they have. It’s not like 99% of the electorate is an expert in international manipulation. That’s what Congress is supposed to be validating. The WMD case is an example where this failed, but again, what is supposed to be happening in cases where they’re working with classified information? Yes, the government can lie and manipulate Congress, but if you’re suggesting the alternative is for the government to make its case to the general public, that seems pointless. Most won’t understand what they’re looking at or any of the nuances involved. Yes, at some level the people have to depend on the government not to mislead them. No, it’s not possible in the very partisan environment we have now, where there are no such things as facts. The US democracy is broken (or working as intended based on to whom you’re speaking), however this article is pointing at a symptom in a much larger problem and wagging a finger at it.

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