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Tough Love for Russia's (Alleged) Election Hack

Illustration for article titled Tough Love for Russias (Alleged) Election Hack

I just finished reading the DNI’s intelligence report on Russia’s alleged 2016 election hack, and there’s simply not much there.1


The report’s title includes the words, “Cyber Incident Attribution,” so I was ready to finally see hard evidence that Russia had hacked the DNC’s email servers and leaked their compromising emails.

But the report proves none of that — it doesn’t include a single shred of forensic proof showing cyber espionage. The best it offers is that Russia “probably” began cyber operations in March of 2016. Not exactly compelling.


Forensic evidence is critical, since cyberattackers can mask attribution by spoofing IP addresses or launching attacks from compromised servers thousands of miles away. Backtracing where attacks originated is necessary to establish an attack’s source (assuming a source can be established).2 

Compare the DNI’s malnourished, 14-page offering to the evidence-packed, 74-page report on Chinese hacking released by Mandiant in 2013, and the DNI’s lack of proof becomes glaring.3


The DNI writes that cyber evidence was omitted in order to protect intelligence gathering’s secret “sources and methods,” but I don’t buy it. Revealing evidence of a hack doesn’t necessarily expose how it was collected. Network activity data can be aggregated or plotted on a map without revealing if the data came from routers, firewalls, servers, network taps, human operators, or other sources — and redacting sensitive text is always an option. The DNI offers none of these.

Cybersecurity and criminal investigations are similar: until enough evidence has been gathered to establish event probabilities,4 investigators must work mostly from theories and gut. Proving a hypothesis requires supporting evidence.


So, where’s the cyber evidence here? Is it even accurate? It seems a fair question, since the U.S. intelligence community has been fooled before.

The DNI should release its detailed evidence for two reasons. First, any breach of voting integrity strikes at the very heart of Democracy. The public should know to what degree our democratic process was violated; this, after all, is the very reason we have election observers: to spot and report unfairness. Second, most of the Internet’s infrastructure is privately owned.5 Any routers, firewalls, or servers traversed by alleged Russian hackers may still contain evidence that could be revealed by these systems’ private owners at any time, despite whatever “sources and methods” the government supposedly used. So, why is the mere traversal of networks top secret?


But, as we’ve seen elsewhere, cyberattack cover-ups are the new norm.

It’s the Propaganda (Again)

Setting aside the question of who hacked the DNC for a minute, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Russia did conspire to influence the election by leaking emails, regardless of how it obtained them. After all, Russia’s degree of influence seems to be the most pressing question on the table. Nearly all of the DNI’s report is spent trying to show that covert influence was Putin’s goal, whether through leaks, disinformation, or PR campaigns — in short, through propaganda.


But if the real issue is propaganda, we shouldn’t forget that election candidates and their myriad corporate sponsors spent $1.5 billion on the 2016 election campaign.6, 7 The Koch Brothers alone shelled out nearly $900 million.8 And this well-funded propaganda machine of researchers, focus groups, pollsters, special interests, and advertisers had but one purpose: to influence.

What bearing, then, did Russia’s efforts really have on this already massive propaganda juggernaut? Was the emails’ dirty laundry any worse than the hundreds of millions of advertising dollars spent to brutally discredit political opponents? I don’t think the answer is clear yet.


Colorful political propaganda campaigns can be traced all the way back to the American Revolution,9 and today’s problem isn’t unlike what forebears faced in the 1700s: if voters can’t resist being swayed by dis(information) campaigns, then we have a bigger challenge ahead than a few hacked servers.

An Unfortunate Mirror

Some have called for retaliation against Russia,10 but this seems a shade hypocritical, given America’s own history of tampering with foreign politics.


Carnegie Mellon found that the U.S. tampered in foreign elections 81 times from 1946 through 2000,11 and those numbers don’t include:

  • the CIA’s many attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro12
  • the CIA’s overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile13, 14
  • the CIA’s overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh15
  • the CIA-backed assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba16, 17
  • the secret funding of the Contras against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua18
  • ...and many more examples of covert influence19

Don’t get me wrong; much of the CIA’s mission is important. But it’s naïve to think that foreign political influence is new — or that we haven’t engaged in it wildly ourselves — or that it will stop anytime soon.


In fact, given our real-time news cycle — and hackers’ ability to access all things digital — we should probably expect foreign election tampering to increase, as the DNI report implies.

The geopolitical game hasn’t changed much; hanging propaganda posters has simply been replaced by leaking stolen emails.


Fortunately, there’s a solution: learn to detect propaganda, critically assess it, and then ignore it, just like savvy early voters did.20 Focusing on political issues close to our hearts, electing leaders who can deliver, and ignoring the filthy rest might be the best path forward — and maybe our only choice.

So, let Russia spin its yarns — just like corporate sponsors do! — while the rest of us keep our eyes on the prize.



1. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). (2017, January 6). Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution. Washington, D.C.: DNI.


2. Baba, T., & Matsuda, S. (2002, April). Tracing Network Attacks to Their Sources. IEEE Internet Computing.

3. Mandiant. (2013). APT1, Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units. Alexandria, VA: Mandiant.


4. Kim, D.H., & In, H.P. (2008). Cyber Criminal Activity Analysis Models using Markov Chain for Digital Forensics. In 2008 International Conference on Information Security and Assurance. Proc. in ISA, IEEE, Busan, Korea.

5. Wilshusen, G. (2007, October 23). Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, Internet Infrastructure: Challenges in Developing a Public/Private Recovery Plan, p. 4. Washington, D.C.: GAO.


6. Wesleyan Media Project. (2016, August 24). Over 2 Million Political Ads Aired This Cycle.

7. Levin, D. (2016, February 17). When the Great Power Gets a Vote: The Effects of Great Power Electoral Interventions on Election Results. International Studies Quarterly, 16.


8. Confessore, N. (2015, January 26). Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending. The New York Times.

9. Stampler, L. (2015, July 4). Here’s some incredible pro-independence propaganda from the American Revolution. Business Insider.


10. Nelson, L. (2016, October 11). White House says U.S. will retaliate against Russia for hacking. Politico.

11. Agrawal, N. (2016, December 21). The U.S. is no stranger to interfering in the elections of other countries. Los Angeles Times.


12. RT News. (2016, November 26). Myriad ways CIA tried and failed to assassinate Fidel Castro.

13. The National Security Archive. (2013, September 11). Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record.


14. Briscoe, D. (2006, January 6). CIA Admits Involvement in Chile. ABC News.

15. Kangas, S. (2016, May 17). A Timeline of CIA Atrocities. Global Research.

16. Weissman, S. (2014, August). What Really Happened in Congo. Foreign Affairs.


17. Slattery, L. (2001, January 10). The Congo: How and why the West organised Lumumba’s assassination. World Socialist Web Site.

18. Rosen, J. (1998, August 10). The Perjury Trap. The New Yorker.

19. Ibid., Kangas.

20. Ibid., Stampler.

Scotch Wichmann (@countercastle), M.S., CISSP, CEH is a cybersecurity researcher by day, and a performance artist by night. His madcap comedy novel, Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss And Do Things With Him, was published in 2014.

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