IN THE THROES OF A NATIONAL HISSY-FIT
A Skeptical Look at the National Intelligence Report and
the Drift Toward War with Russia
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
Never in the history of American elections, has so much fuss been made by so many about so little. (With Apologies to Winston Churchill).
I agree. And so too, I am sure, do most Americans.
So what are we to make of the just-released report of the Director of National Intelligence which assesses, with "high confidence," that "Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability... Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
This charge of official Russian "interference" has escalated in the media and among Clinton supporters to a high frenzy. For example, there is this from Clinton supporter Michael Morell, former CIA director: [The hack was] "an attack on our very democracy. It's an attack on who we are as a people. A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life... [T]his is the political equivalent of 9/11."
There is more: The hack, says Michael Gerson, could be "the largest intelligence coup since the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II." And the usually circumspect Michael Winship writes: "It is very likely now that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20, in no small part because of the direct intervention in and manipulation of the American electoral process by Vladimir Putin." (The Morrel, Gerson, and Winship sources are all here).
Finally, there is this from Malcolm Nance, MSNBC’s omnipresent intelligence guru:
Russia [has] conducted a cyber warfare attack on the fundamental structure of the American democratic system that has been in place for 240 years. At any other time in history this would almost be considered an act of war...
This is a fundamental attack on America's natural processes which has never been done in the history of this nation. And for those people were dismissing as a leak or a rumor, then you don't understand that America has never had an enemy put their hand on the arm of the scale of the American electoral process.
Quite frankly, I haven’t read or heard such excited and unanimous agreement from our politicians and media since the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002, when Vice President Cheney proclaimed that ""there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Following that, Colin Powell presented "evidence" to the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Editorial opinion dutifully supported Powell’s accusation.
We now know, with equal but opposite certainty, that both Cheney and Powell lied to the American people and the world. If anything positive can be gained from the disastrous Iraq War, it is this: belligerent accusations and rhetoric from the government and media, however unanimous, should be treated with suspicion. Governments do lie, and the mainstream media can uncritically accept and repeat those lies.
However, true or false, the "Putin hacking the Democrats" charge has evolved from an unsupported accusation to an unchallenged dogma – a "cognitive frame," to use George Lakoff’s trendy term – within which a "what to do about it" debate rages, while few step outside that frame to ask, "but did Putin really do it?" or "even if he did, what was the extent of the damage?"
In the meantime, public attention has been successfully drawn, to the great relief of the Democratic National Committee, from the embarrassing content of the purloined emails to the issues of the source and implications of the leaks. And the Democrats are successfully using Putin and his alleged "interference" as a blunt weapon against Trump.
I hasten to add that I am no admirer of Vladimir Putin.
Please keep this in mind as you read further. If I were a Russian, I would
not vote for Putin, as many (perhaps most) of my Russian friends did not in
the Presidential election of 2012. Neither did more than a third of the Russians who
voted in that election. Many of these individuals openly criticize Putin.
None of them, to my knowledge, have been harassed, much less sent to a Siberian
gulag, because of their opposition.
As it happens, there are good reasons for skepticism
regarding the charge that Putin and his government were behind the hacking
and the disclosure of the DNC emails.
But let’s put all that aside and assume that which has not been decisively proven, and which, nonetheless, the DNI proclaims in its report: namely that Vladimir Putin himself ordered and directed the effort to defeat Hillary Clinton and put Donald Trump in the White House.
The DCI reports that the "Russian influence campaigns are multifaceted," and yet deals with only two of these multiple "facets:" the DNC emails and the cable channel and website, RT (formerly "Russia Today"), with passing reference to email "trolling." Nowhere in the report are we told how much of this allegedly massive Russian propaganda assault "got through" to the American public in sufficient amounts to "win hearts and minds" of ordinary Americans and thus to influence the outcome of the election.
If in fact Putin revealed the contents of the DNC/Podesta emails, he chose a pitifully weak instrument to accomplish his nefarious plan. For surely, it is fair to ask: just what did he accomplish by exposing the content of those emails?
Answer: Those emails told us what we already knew: That the Democratic establishment in the DNC rigged the primaries and the debates against Sanders, and stacked the "super-delegates" in Clinton’s favor. There is no evidence that this disclosure of what the public already knew had a significant effect on the election outcome.
The effects of RT, "the Kremlin’s principal propaganda outlet" (DNI Report), is likewise underwhelming. To prove otherwise, the Report reprints a four year old article. There we find that in 2012 RT had about 450,000 You Tube subscribers. Impressive! Until you take a second look and realize that about one in 700 Americans (0.14%) subscribed to RT. Hardly a media powerhouse!
As for the rest, we read that Russia "conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election." Amazing! What "operations"? What "targets?" Tell us more!
The Report does not. It merely repeats its accusation
vaguely, abstractly, ad nauseam.
So it is doubtful that, as the DNI report charges, Russia successfully managed to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump" – not, at least, enough to affect the outcome of the election.
If not, then this was not "the political equivalent of 9/11" (Morrell), or "the largest intelligence coup since ... World War II" (Gerson), or "a fundamental attack on America's natural processes which has never been done in the history of this nation" (Nance).
Unless, of course, the Russians employed other means of manipulating the election, means not cited by either government or media.
And so we ask:
All this, I submit, was, in Michael Morell's words, "an attack on our very democracy."
Of course, the Russians did none of these things, and not even the DNI, the CIA, the FBI, or the most determined media conspiracy theorists have suggested otherwise.
In fact, all of this undermining of the American elections was done by American politicians – primarily Republicans. If the rigging of national elections corrupts the very soul of democracy – which it most certainly does – where is the outrage over domestic rigging which was unquestionably done on a vastly greater scale than that allegedly done by the Russians?
In fact, there is no outrage. Instead, crickets! To be fair, Trump’s free media coverage and voter suppression have received some mainstream media attention. But investigation and reporting of suspected hacking of paperless DRE machines, of cross-checking disenfranchisement, of exit-poll discrepancies – all this is verboten. And the rare MSM reporter who dares to mention these topics puts his career in jeopardy.
And so, Florida 2000. ("The people have spoken: all five of them" – Mark Russell. "Get over it!" -- Antonin Scalia). Also, Ohio, 2004, and numerous congressional elections.
But accuse the Russians of releasing the contents of DNC emails, the accuracy of which is not in dispute, and with no significant effect on the outcome of the election, and point out that the Russian government finances a cable channel which almost no one watches – do this, and all holy Hell breaks loose. The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
Get a grip, America!
We learn from press reports that when the Russian Duma (parliament) was told that Trump had won the elections, the members rose and cheered. Also, we learn that there were celebrations in the Kremlin by government officials. I have no doubt that both reports are true. Yet somehow we are expected to be shocked by these celebrations. However, they in no way serve as evidence that the Russians hacked or leaked the contents of those DNC emails.
So why the obvious Russian preference for a Trump victory? Just consider what the Russians have gained. The American people have elected as their president, an incompetent, narcissistic ignoramus, ignorant most significantly of his own shortcomings. Add to all that, because he is an unconstrained liar, nothing he says can be believed. Once the Trump administration takes office, the United States promises to be a nation in domestic disarray and in global disrepute, its international leadership severely compromised.
Say what you will about Vladimir Putin – that he may be a cruel despot, and a ruthless autocrat – one cannot deny that he is a wily tactician, well informed, smart and capable. And what are the capabilities of the incoming American leadership? Need I say more?
Regardless of whether or not the Russians had a hand in
determining the outcome of our election, they have much to celebrate. The
United States is a diminished and vulnerable adversary. And the Russians did
not do this to us. We did it to ourselves.
Our politicians and media complain vehemently that the Russians are interfering with our elections. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
We Americans openly proclaim and execute "regime change" without an iota of embarrassment – most recently, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, now Syria, arguably Ukraine, and if we could, Russia itself. And who bestowed upon The United States the office of judge, jury and executioner of other nations’ regimes? We appointed ourselves, of course!
The list of American "regime change" attempts, successful and failed, is long. And these attempts do not always "bring democracy" to the affected nations. In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence ousted the legitimately elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mossaddegh, who had the audacity to suggest that Iranian oil belonged to Iran. He was replaced with the despotic Shah (Reza Pahlevi). In 1973 Salvador Allende, the elected President of Chile was overthrown and succeeded by the brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
Most significantly, for our purpose, is the case of Russia in 1996: the re-election campaign of Boris Yeltsin. Then, a team of American "election experts" travelled to Russia, where they raised Yeltsin’s paltry single-digit approval ratings to an election victory. A nine-page Time Magazine cover story, dated July 15, 1996, spells out "how four US advisers used polls, focus groups, negative ads and all the other techniques of American campaigning to help Boris Yeltsin win." The tone of the article reeks with chauvinistic pride and smugness. There is not a hint that there might be something wrong about Americans "interfering with the outcome" of the Russian election.
The DNI reports that Russian intelligence has "infiltrated" American media, industry, and government.
Gee whiz – who’da thunk it!
C’mon, get real! Of course! This is what nation-states do, even to their allies. Were we not recently caught bugging German Chancellor Angela Merkle’s telephone? I’d like to believe that whatever snooping the Russians are doing we are doing it better. If we are not listening in on Putin’s conversations and reading his mail, then we are wasting the billions of dollars that we have invested in covert intelligence. Perhaps the Russians are far more careful than we are about the security of their strategic information. If so, then their effective access to and use of our secrets are our fault, not theirs.
Sorry, but I am not moved by all this lamentation over Russian "espionage."
Let’s step back for a moment and recall how this demonization of Putin has evolved over the past few years, from George Bush’s claim to have seen Putin’s "soul" in his eyes, to the current description of Putin as "an autocrat" and "dictator," and of Russia as an "existential threat" to the United States. Then let us ask ourselves just where this growing mutual hostility might be leading us.
We might be on a fast track to disaster. Richard Clarke, George Bush’s "cyber czar," warns that "It’s highly likely that any war that began as a cyber war would ultimately end up being a conventional war, where the United States was engaged with bombers and missiles."
Who and what gains from this escalating national hysteria? Obviously, the careers of military officers, the executives and stockholders of military contractors, and the media, the audience of which expands as that media, with a single voice, stokes the Russophobia and heats up the Cold War.
Who loses? All of us, as our essential national institutions – health, education, research, infrastructure – are underfunded, and our national crises – income inequality, racial strife, unemployment, environmental pollution, climate change – are neglected.
And if the tension between the US and Russia escalates out of control, everyone stands to lose, including the aforementioned military officers, military-industrial complex and media.
Has no one noticed? This growing fear and hatred of Putin, his government, and by extension all things Russian (and reciprocally in Russia, of all things American), is the sort of national frenzy that typically leads to war. We’ve seen it in the lead-up to the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq. Those who call for moderation and accommodation are condemned as "traitors." Facts and warnings become irrelevant. We are captivated by confirmation bias and "group-think." Communication and mediation between the rival nations breaks down.
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar).
"But Vladimir Putin is a brutal dictator – another Stalin or even Hitler." Personally, while I find much not to like about Putin, I don’t believe that Putin’s Russia is remotely as bad as Stalin’s Soviet Union. Neither do my friends in Russia, who should know. (That’s the topic of my next essay). But more to the point, if Putin is a brutal autocrat, that is the Russians’ problem and they should be left alone to deal with it. I am confident that most Russians, who seem to approve of Putin and his government, devoutly wish that we Americans bug-off and mind our own business.
So let us pause, reflect, and, if we are wise, disembark and reverse course. Let us to resume a conversation with the Russians, listen to their complaints even if we do not credit them, and then trade de-escalating concessions. (As I have suggested most recently in my essay, "A Martian View of the New Cold War).
The alternative is too horrible even to contemplate. Even so, I wish that more of our leaders, our media, and our fellow citizens would pause and consider where we all may be heading.
"Look down that lonesome road, before you travel on."