My wife is English, so every Christmas we include in our celebration holiday crackers. For those unfamiliar with British traditions, the crackers are cardboard tubes wrapped in decorated paper. When you pull on the ends they pop open with a bang, and inside there is a paper crown to commemorate the visit by the three kings as well as a small gift item. This year my cracker would not pop open, a failure that I chose to attribute to Vladimir Putin.
On Facebook it is possible to find numerous accounts of mishaps where someone eventually comments, “Putin did it.” It is, of course, a joke—but it is a reflection of how the Russian president has been demonized to an absurd degree both in the media and by the American political class. The recent criticism derives largely from the allegation surfaced by a Central Intelligence Agency report suggesting that Russia or its proxies hacked into email accounts relating to the recent U.S. presidential election and then exploited the information.
Initially, the story claimed that the Russians were trying to discredit and damage America’s democratic institutions, but the tale soon morphed into an elaborate account of how Moscow was operating covertly to help elect Donald Trump. It is now being claimed in some circles that the Russian intervention, together with public statements by FBI Director James Comey, was decisive in defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and it has also been alleged that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the operation. Without a doubt, if all of that is true it is a serious matter, and calls for a thorough investigation of what took place are not misplaced.
Initially, the FBI did not agree with the still-classified CIA report, but eventually it was convinced, and the report’s conclusion has also been publicly embraced by both Hillary Clinton and the White House. Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin.
The allegation that Putin ordered the interference in America’s election is particularly troubling. As a former intelligence officer, I am aware that learning someone’s intentions is the most difficult task for a spy. Only someone in the president’s immediate circle would be privy to information that sensitive in nature, and there has been no indication that either CIA or any other Western intelligence service has that kind of agent in place. More likely, the CIA and now the White House are assuming, without any evidence, that such a high-level hack and influencing operation would have inevitably required Russian presidential approval. This assumption is certainly plausible, but it’s impossible to demonstrate, and lacking corroboration it should be considered as little more than speculation.
The most detailed examination I have seen of the alleged hack appeared at the The Intercept, concluding that the evidence for the Russian connection was “not enough.” More recently, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate the hack has concluded that the malware detected is related to malware used by Russian military intelligence units in Ukraine. That explanation is not completely convincing, as malware, once in place, is often picked up and used by other miscreants. Also, it would be unlikely that an actual government intelligence unit would be so reckless as to leave behind its own fingerprints when there are plenty of private-sector hackers available to serve as proxies.
And other quite plausible explanations have been offered. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray claims that he met in Washington with an associate of an American who worked for the DNC who provided the information to him for passage to WikiLeaks. Murray is a collaborator of Julian Assange, who, like Murray, has denied any Russian involvement in obtaining the information that was later posted on WikiLeaks. It is significant that, if the story is true, it was a Snowden-style leak, reportedly by a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter who was outraged by DNC shenanigans to deny his man the nomination, rather than a hack that produced the relevant information. And even if the Russians or their proxies were simultaneously hacking sites connected to the U.S. elections, which might be the case, it would have been incidental to the damage being done by the leaker, which shifts the narrative considerably.
The White House could, of course, order the release of at least some of the evidence for Russian perfidy to end all the confusion, but that does not seem to be in the cards. President Barack Obama may be hesitating because he is protecting intelligence sources and methods, but he should also be aware of the fact that the continuous Russia-bashing will have consequences even if President Donald Trump does succeed in moderating the vitriol toward Moscow once he is in office.
Going after Russia has become a bipartisan sport in Washington, predictably coming from Republican senators including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but also being pushed by Chuck Schumer and a number of other leading Democrats, if only to explain how they lost an election that appeared to be theirs for the taking. There is no indication that the situation will improve in the New Year, and one might usefully note the predictable lining up of Washington media and think tanks seeking to bait the Russian bear. The neocon Hudson Institute has two feature articles entitled “Putin is no partner on terrorism” and “How President Obama can retaliate against Russia,” while the American Enterprise Institute posts an article by Leon Aron headlined “Don’t Be Putin’s Useful Idiot.”
And the frenzy about Russia is also letting some of the loonies out of the closet. Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, a Hillary Clinton foreign-policy advisor, claimed before the election that Putin had recruited Trump as an “unwitting agent” of the Russian Federation. He also called for covertly killing Russians and Iranians in Syria to send a message, and he is now declaring that the alleged Russian hack is the “political equivalent of 9/11,” demanding a similar robust response. He identifies several ways he might have reacted in Obama’s shoes, including carrying out a major cyberattack, initiating devastating sanctions, and arming Ukrainians and encouraging others hostile to Moscow. In any event, his approach would have “two key pieces to it. One is it’s got to be overt. It needs to be seen. A covert response would significantly limit the deterrence effect. If you can’t see it, it’s not going to deter the Chinese and North Koreans and Iranians and others, so it’s got to be seen. The second, is that it’s got to be significant from Putin’s perspective. He has to feel some pain, he has to pay a price here or again, there will be no deterrence, and it has to be seen by the rest of the world as being significant to Mr. Putin so that it can be a deterrent.”
Morell seems oblivious to the fact that an overt attack on Russia by either cyber or conventional means is the equivalent of war, in this case without any hard evidence being produced that Moscow actually did anything. Unfortunately, Morell is not alone in seeking a vigorous response to Russia heedless of the fact that the one imperative interest that Washington should have in common with Moscow is to avoid crises that might escalate into a nuclear exchange. Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers. And while Vladimir Putin’s Russia might not be to everyone’s taste, dealing realistically and cautiously with a powerful foreign leader who is not completely to one’s liking just might be better than starting World War III.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.