Trying to Unravel the Russian Hacking Scandal

Influencing elections in foreign countries is part of power politics. While the recent Russian scandal involves hacking and modern devices, it does not change the basic idea of countries helping those they prefer get to power.

 In the most recent example of this tradition, the American intelligence community issued a declassified report on Russian intervention in the November U.S. presidential election. After leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency testified before Congress, the agencies released a report which said that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

“Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on U.S. presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin,” the report said. It went on to say that this time the interventions included hacking, social media and fake news.

While there has not yet been an official response from the Kremlin, Russian commentators and politicians have vigorously denied the allegations. Many of the retorts focused on the lack of concrete evidence in the report as well as the false conclusions of the same agencies about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. A member of the Russian Parliament said on Twitter: “Mountain gave birth to a mouse: all accusations against Russia are based on ‘confidence’ and assumptions. US was sure about Hussein possessing WMD in the same way.”

The response to the report within the incoming U.S. Administration was not clear. President-elect Donald Trump was initially skeptical of the findings, going so far as to cast doubts on the accuracy of the intelligence agencies conclusions. After an intelligence briefing on January 6, Trump acknowledged in a statement that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democratic National Committee.”

Moreover, on Fox News Sunday January 8, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said that the president-elect “is not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign.” “I think he accepts the findings,” Priebus said of the report. However, Priebus downplayed the uniqueness of this case, saying that “this is something that has been going on in our elections for many years. It happens every election cycle.”

There are numerous questions to be raised: How accurate is the information? No concrete evidence was revealed in the declassified report. Was President Putin directly involved? There is a significant difference between identifying Russia as the culprit and showing that President Putin gave direct orders. Is this a unique case of Russian intervention? If this is not a unique case, then why all the excitement except to whitewash the Democrats loss and increase tensions between the United States and Russia.

What is most intriguing, and what has yet to be answered, is the use of similar tactics by the United States. The Russian media has pointed to the actions of the United States in 2014 that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine as well as other influence-peddling by the U.S. in the former Soviet Union during the Rainbow Revolutions.

The most public recent example of media influence in foreign countries by the United States involves John Rendon. He proudly announced in a 1996 speech to the Air Force Academy cadets that he was "an information warrior and a perception manager.” The Rendon Group is a public relations firm that has worked closely with the American government in countries around the world and was influential in organizing the Iraqi National Congress. The Rendon Group states on its website that "Through its network of international offices and strategic alliances the company has provided communications services to clients in more than 78 countries, and maintains contact with government officials, decision-makers, and news media around the globe.”

To accuse the Russians of trying to influence the United States presidential election may be true, but it implies that the United States has never tried to influence elections outside its borders. For example, the United States Department of Defense created an Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) in 2001.

What is new in this present case is the element of hacking and cyber security. The means have changed, but the ends of influencing politics in other countries have remained the same. Didn’t the Iranians hold the hostages until President Carter was defeated? Didn’t President Nixon and Henry Kissinger prolong the Vietnam War for electoral purposes as has just been confirmed by a newly discovered memo? It would have been fascinating if a member of Congress had asked one of the agencies leaders if the United States had ever used similar tactics.

The shock of the Americans that the Russians would do such a thing is an overreaction to the failures of security systems and a denial of the use of similar tactics. People who live in glass houses…

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