Russia’s US election hacking / information war campaign

This is a big deal: the Russians are possibly trying to manipulate the outcome of the US election using a combination of hacking and information war. Whether they will have any success is another matter. But that they are doing this, is not open to debate, as this story shows. The story was published the same day it emerged publicly that Russians hackers had hacked the DNC.

Two short quotes.

From a Clinton spokesman: “What appears evident is that the Russian groups responsible for the DNC hack are intent on attempting to influence the outcome of this election.”

Sure, Russia fears a Hillary Clinton presidency. After all, Clinton was behind the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, an event that has sent chills up the spine of Russia’s leader, Clinton is a former secretary of state, well-acquainted with geopolitical realities. Clinton, a child of the Cold War, wouldn’t probably flinch at countering Vlad through Eastern Europe – and beyond. Plus Putin would probably find dealing with a really powerful woman in the White House a challenge.

The Russian end goal, according to one ex-NSA voice, isn’t necessarily to pick sides in the US election but to weaken them all. From Bloomberg:

Russia uses sophisticated “information operations” to advance foreign policy, and the target audience for this kind of mission wouldn’t be U.S. voters or even U.S. politicians, said Brendan Conlon, who once led a National Security Agency hacking unit.

“Why would Russia go to this trouble? Simple answer — because it met their foreign policy objectives, to weaken the U.S. in the eyes of our allies and adversaries,” said Conlon, now CEO of Vahna Inc., a cyber security firm in Washington. Publishing the DNC report on Trump “weakens both candidates — lists out all the weaknesses of Trump specifically while highlighting weaknesses of Clinton’s security issues. The end result is a weaker president once elected.”

There is a long history to this strategy.

It goes back at least as far as Russia’s success in converting the Sacco and Vanzetti murder case from a local crime to a show trial to demonstrate America’s fear and loathing for the foreign-born proletariat.In it’s day, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial was an issue any thinking, caring person had to have an opinion on. And likely a strong one. To this day, the Sacco and Vanzetti are remembered as martyrs, even if the reality may have been quite a bit different.


Today I suppose Putin’s support for Trump may be more about trying to strengthen a particularly weak and offensive candidate in order to make the US campaign more extreme than it genuinely should be. I’ve heard that the Russian perception of the US, at least during the Cold War, was so vastly distorted there was a tendency for Russians to misjudge the efforts their propaganda would actually have. And that may be happening too, as Trump is forcing a needed crisis within the Republican Party [paywall].

In any case, Russia is helping make this the first US election in which a foreign power is actively using online information war techniques to try to influence it. And that’s a Big Effin’ Deal.



Could Edward Snowden’s real job be disinformation and division of allies?

Former counterintelligence officer John Schindler recently commented on a view by German intelligence head Hans-Georg Maassen, that ex-NSA contractor/digital folk hero Edward Snowden was likely working for the Russians to undermine US security relationships.

I find it interesting because just watching the fallout of the Snowden revelations, they have extended far past real reform of the NSA into the realm of reputation-bashing of the US and the countries that get along with the US.

How could this be possible? Snowden’s power seems balanced on this axis: many people deeply invested in tech don’t know a tremendous about the reality of world politics today, and people who know about world politics understand little about technology, including the unofficial culture of technology. Into that space, the Snowden digital martyr story thrives.

Here is what Hans-Georg Maassen said, according to John Schnindler in a post that’s worth reading on its own.

“This would be an espionage operation joined with an operation for disinformation and influence,” he stated: “In order to drive a wedge between the USA and its closest allies, especially Germany.”

And here, for the record, is what I wrote in early 2015, on the real purpose of Snowden.

The film Citizenfour [keeps] stoking the flames of the Snowden uproar. Or at least, that’s how the Russians would have done it nearly 100 years ago. They would have ensured that intellectuals of consequence in the West had a view on Edward Snowden, and were given ample and frequent opportunity to air that view, at events, speeches, prize ceremonies. Heck, even the Oscars. So frequent, in fact, would these views be aired that those who espouse the values of liberal democracies may begin to see democracy as a sham, particularly at a time when other very real issues, like pervasive inequality color the picture. The Russians of nearly 100 years ago would assure that there are two sides: either you support the arguments of the Snowden crowd (“the highest of the high-ground” – how can Glenn Greenwald not come to mind?) or you are an apologist for state surveillance. You can’t be anything in between. You can’t be someone who recognizes the need for democracies to have effective oversight of their intelligence services in a time of ever increasing technological ability and who also wonders why we are all singing from a songbook held by a hostile and anti-Western Russia?

Defend Trade Secrets Act: Lawfare on the new frontier

For all of the dysfunction of Washington, I’m always interested in the bills that do make it into law. That this has happened with a bill aimed at combating economic theft is significant. It shows that amid the theater of polarized politics, there are essential issues that can still unify American politicians. And apparently, the wholesale and systematic theft of US innovation and invention online is one of them.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act also effectively extends the frontier of US law to a new place, wherever in the world US intellectual property is stolen and there is an American plaintiff. Increasingly, that place is China. Allowing ex-parte seizures will also recalibrate the penalties of economic cyberhacking against US targets. Don’t underestimate the impact of the law change.

If the internet is the frontier, this law sets the stage for a new sheriff, or more accurately, a new judge and jury, to come to town. I don’t mean this as some kind of America cowboy adventurism, either. But the concept of bringing order to an untamed frontier is a simple analogy for the public that speaks to the complex economic, legal and geopolitical reality of cybertheft.

Frederic Remington’s  The Scout: Friends or Foes?

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