What The US Intelligence 'Russia Hacked Our Election' Report Could Have Said... But Didn't

from the why-didn't-it? dept

By now it's quite clear that many in the US intelligence community believe strongly that Russia tried to influence the US election, and part of that included hacks into the DNC's computer systems, a spearphishing attack on Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's emails and some exploratory surveillance hacking into the computer systems of state election systems (but not into the voting machines themselves). The US intelligence services said it back in October. And they said it again last month. And, they said it again on Friday with the release of an unclassified "incident attribution" report.

Because the debate over this issue has gotten quite silly in some places -- and ridiculously political as well -- let's start with a few basic points: It is absolutely entirely possible that the Russians hacked into all these systems and that it was trying (and perhaps succeeding?) to influence the election. Nothing in what I'm saying here is suggesting that's not true. What I am concerned about is the evidence that's presented to support that claim -- mainly because I think we should all be terrified when we escalate situations based on secret info where the government just tells us to "trust us, we know." And, yes, governments (including the US) have done this going back throughout history. That doesn't make it right.

But here's the thing: there actually is some pretty good evidence that Russia was behind the hack. But here's the crazy thing: that evidence is not in this report, but presented elsewhere. If you keep reading below, I'll point out an example of some pretty compelling evidence that Russia was behind the hack -- and it's the kind of evidence that the US intelligence community could have easily provided, but did not.

And that's where the problems lie. Because very little in this new report provides any evidence at all of Russia doing anything. It certainly goes deep into the motivations for why Russia might want to influence our election. It's also not surprising that Russia might have the ability and expertise to do these things. But it would be nice to see actual evidence. As Lovenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai at Motherboard notes, there's really very little in the new report that we didn't know already:
But this report adds nothing we didn’t already know from public information. The only significant statement is that, yes, American spies are convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin himself directed the hacking and influence campaign—something they already stated in early October.
Marcy Wheeler similarly notes that there's plenty of work on motives, but little on evidence:
What we see of it is uneven. I think the report is strongest on Russia’s motive for tampering with the election, even if the report doesn’t provide evidence. I think there are many weaknesses in the report’s discussion of media. That raises concerns that the material on the actual hack — which we don’t get in any detail at all — is as weak as the media section.
The "media" section is actually pretty ridiculous. It basically notes that RT, the American-targeted TV station owned by the Russian government, has a history of pushing Russian-approved propaganda. Well, sure.

And just one more pointer on this. Former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington also has a really thorough analysis of the report and comes to basically the same conclusions:
While the report provides new and important details on the multifaceted Russian operation, its failure to include declassified primary source data for key claims ensures the controversy has not been put to rest.
So, what kind of evidence could the intel community have provided? Well, Matt Tait, who used to work at the UK's GCHQ, and who now tweets at @pwnallthethings gave a pretty damn good example of digging down into publicly available data to present quite compelling evidence that Russian interests were behind, at the very least, the hack of John Podesta's emails. This is not 100% conclusive, certainly, but it's a hell of a lot more compelling than anything released by the US government:

See? That's pretty damn compelling. Perhaps it's not conclusive, but it's a very, very strong argument for why the hack came from Russia. And it's a hell of a lot more compelling that what the US government put out.

I've seen lots of people arguing that the intelligence community couldn't reveal more details because it would "burn sources and methods" that were used to determine the attribution of the hacks -- but Matt Tait did figure all that out with public information (ironically, some of it revealed via Wikileaks). Now, perhaps the intelligence community that hates Wikileaks doesn't want to use that as a "source" in its report. Or perhaps it's something else. And, yes, it makes sense that the intelligence community should not burn sources and methods to reveal stuff like this. But there are ways to present compelling details without compromising those things. But, of course, this is the US intelligence community we're talking about, and they're generally not fans of revealing anything at all. So I'm sure even the details in this report were like pulling teeth. And that's dumb.

Again, more and more of what happens in the world is going to happen via computer systems and networks. And we're not always going to know. But it's a serious problem when governments are escalating situations and making angry posturing moves against one another based on totally secret information where the best we're being told by the government is "trust us." Especially when that very same government has a long history of not being so trustworthy.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2017 @ 2:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Smoke Screen detected

    My point was made in the election booth to the tune of a Republican House, Senate and Whitehouse. Oh, and soon the Supreme Court.

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