Puzzling over hacking

By David T. Jones on August 2, 2017

Washington, DC ~ For an extended period now, Washington and President Trump’s administration have been wrapped around the axle over Russian “hacking” of Democrat-associated e-mails and Moscow’s alleged concurrent effort to assist the Trump campaign win the election.

The effort to “get to the bottom of it” does not seem anywhere near to reaching any bottom.  Indeed, it has metastasized into investigations by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller that appear to be casting their investigatory nets in ever-widening directions, ensnaring President Trump’s son and son-in-law as well as assorted odds-and-ends deal-makers/fixers/lawyers of one nationality or another.

It has prompted various red herring distractions ranging from President Trump’s legal right to pardon everyone from himself to the White House cook for any offense.  This is balanced by the wild-eyed, “string-‘m-up” crowd demanding Trump’s impeachment.

 All U.S. intelligence agencies (after some early demurs) have now concluded the Russians directly intervened in the U.S. election, supplying hacked e-mails from Democratic Party computers to media and media-associated outlets.  The intelligence agencies have concluded that the operation was authorized by Russian President Putin and designed to assist Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by discrediting, to the extent possible, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Following the election, then-president Obama expelled the Russians from two long held recreational properties and directed departure of 35 Russian diplomats.  To the surprise of many, long accustomed to “tit-for-tat” reactions, Putin did not.  Instead, he claimed the high ground suggesting that he didn’t want to deprive U.S. Embassy children of their recreational facilities at Christmas.  A skeptical/cynical observer might hypothesize that then-pending NSC director Lt.Gen. Michael Flynn quietly assured the Russian ambassador that when Trump became president, he would reverse at least the seizure of the compounds.  If any such promise was made, it has now run into the sand, along with Flynn’s short-lived position as NSC director.  Congress has sought to reinforce the imposition of these sanctions. 

Now, however, Putin has demanded return of the compounds with unspecified threats of deferred retaliation.  (Bromance with President Trump be damned.)

But we still must contend with the essential “did they or didn’t they” question regarding Russian action during the U.S. election.

In their high-profile pre-G-20 meeting on 7 July, Trump reportedly pressed Putin twice regarding Russian interference in the U.S. election.  Putin flatly denied it.

No surprise there.  A KGB-trained agent could deny with a straight face an assassination where (s)he is caught with a bloody knife over a still steaming corpse as displayed on videotape. 

But what would Trump have gained by calling Putin a liar?  Pistols at dawn before the G-20 opening?

After all, he did win the election (an outcome probably surprising Moscow, which, as did others, believed the polls assuring a Clinton victory).  Much of the hacking didn’t seem particularly sophisticated; maybe it was the “JV team” given the project as a training exercise.  Or perhaps the greatest hope was that the Clinton’s character would be somewhat (further) muddied through the e-mail revelations.

So Trump-Putin agreed on a face-saving exercise:  acknowledging the “challenges of cyberthreats and interference in the democratic processes" in the United States and other countries and agreeing to work together to "create a framework" for dealing with such threats, including terrorism, efforts to hack into the “internal affairs of countries,” and any actions against "infrastructure.”

It is close to the “no blood; no foul” implicit rule in athletics.  Fearful of revealing “sources and methods,” U.S. intelligence agencies close-held the specifics justifying/documenting their accusations.  Having dealt with intelligence for much of my professional lifetime, I both believe them explicitly on a given case—and implicitly remain skeptical recalling the many intelligence community egregious errors over the decades (Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, anyone?)

Assorted unsourced, unverified leaks, e.g., alleged further conversation between now-Attorney General Sessions and the Russian ambassador regarding the campaign, may yet lead to prosecution for the leaker(s). But historically, leakers are rarely identified and even more rarely punished, especially when driven by politics.

If we can take away a near term positive from the entire exercise, it demonstrates blatantly the weakness of our computer systems, starting with voting material, to outside interference—whether from some lout on a couch in mama’s basement or from highly trained teams from foreign countries.  Russia is only one of many able to penetrate ostensibly secure systems.  It provides an absolute imperative for the USA to do much/much better in protecting our computer security, financial, infrastructure, and personal property (automobiles, bank accounts) from such hostile access.

We have been warned.


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