Hidden but important truths from the presidential debate

Summary: The last debate was mostly chaff, like the campaign mostly entertaining demonstrations of the obvious. But there were moments revealing deep truths about our government and us. They were, of course, ignored. Here is the story of one such moment, a statement by Hillary Clinton that is rich with useful insights — if we dig into it.

“Fire destroys all sophistry, that is deceit; and maintains truth alone, that is gold.”
— Leonardo da Vinci, from his Notebooks. A bad solution for political structures built on lies.

CyberEspionage

More essential insights from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept: “In the Democratic Echo Chamber, Inconvenient Truths Are Recast as Putin Plots”…

“Donald Trump, for reasons I’ve repeatedly pointed out, is an extremist, despicable, and dangerous candidate, and his almost-certain humiliating defeat is less than a month away. So I realize there is little appetite in certain circles for critiques of any of the tawdry and sometimes fraudulent journalistic claims and tactics being deployed to further that goal. In the face of an abusive, misogynistic, bigoted, scary, lawless authoritarian, what’s a little journalistic fraud or constant fearmongering about subversive Kremlin agents between friends if it helps to stop him?

“But come January, Democrats will continue to be the dominant political faction in the U.S. — more so than ever — and the tactics they are now embracing will endure past the election, making them worthy of scrutiny. Those tactics now most prominently include dismissing away any facts or documents that reflect negatively on their leaders as fake, and strongly insinuating that anyone who questions or opposes those leaders is a stooge or agent of the Kremlin, tasked with a subversive and dangerously un-American mission on behalf of hostile actors in Moscow.

“To see how extreme and damaging this behavior has become, let’s just quickly examine two utterly false claims that Democrats over the past four days — led by party-loyal journalists — have disseminated and induced thousands of people, if not more, to believe. …”

Both are straightforward lies by Team Hillary about the Wikileak emails of John Podesta, propagated by good liberals and her loyal journalists — allowing them to ignore the emails’ damaging content. His conclusion is spot-on.

The Intercept

“The problem is that none of this is going to vanish after the election. This election-year machine that has been constructed based on elite unity in support of Clinton — casually dismissing inconvenient facts as fraudulent to make them disappear, branding critics and adversaries as tools or agents of an Enemy Power bent on destroying America — is a powerful one. As is seen here, it is capable of implanting any narrative, no matter how false; demonizing any critic, no matter how baseless; and riling up people to believe they’re under attack.

“For a long time, liberals heralded themselves as part of the “reality-based community” and derided conservatives as faith-based victims of “epistemic closure.” The dynamics seen here are anything but byproducts of reason.”

Amidst this barrage of lies — supporting the Big Lie that these revelations result from Russian perfidy — one small statement in the debate by Hillary Clinton shows the weakness at the heart of our problems.

“{The Russians} have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the Internet. This has come from the highest levels of the Russian government, clearly, from Putin himself, in an effort, as 17 of our intelligence agencies have confirmed, to influence our election.”

The source for Clinton’s statement is a joint statement by James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence) and Homeland Security (Secretary Jeh Johnson).

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.”

There are three key things to remember when reading this. First, it is unlikely that all 17 US intelligence agencies confirmed the origin of the hacked emails. Did the Coast Guard, Department of Energy, Drug Enforcement Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (mapping) all confirm that the emails were hacked by Russia?

Second, since WWII US government officials have lied to us with increasing frequency about matters of the highest importance. Clapper famously lied to Congress about NSA’s illegal surveillance of US citizens (but of course remains unindicted). See this partial but still astonishing list of lies, all of which we believed at the time (and never any retaliation when we learned the truth).

In keeping with this sad history, press “fact-checkers” dutifully approved Clinton’s statement as “fact” based on the gospel according to our intelligence agencies (e.g., NPR, ABC).

Providing another layer of evidence, journalists credulously report conclusions of private cybersecurity agencies — as Thomas Rid does in Esquire: “How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History.” The intelligence community is the mother lode of funding for a vast constellation of individuals and firms, whose many sources consume approximately half of the $54 billion intelligence budget. (also see The Nation and the Congressional Research Service). No surprise that these firms align with the view of their government paymasters. Expecting otherwise is naive.

Third, attribution of cyberactivity is difficult — especially that done by pros. The government and its orbiters quickly identify attackers, blaming the standard foes. But experts have written about attribution often and at length, recommending skepticism about such claims. See Marcus Ranum’s works: About Attribution (identifying your attacker), How do we identify our attackers in cyberspace?, and The horror of cyberspace: we can’t easily identify our attackers. Emilio Iasiello wrote Identifying the guilty: tying nation states to cyber espionage and We Must Stop The Race to Attribution After Each Cyberattack.

Spirit Of Truth
Missing in Campaign 2016 because we don’t value it.

Conclusions

Campaign 2016 has been a campaign of lies. Trump lies constantly, probably from a mixture of ignorance and sociopathy. Hillary lies often, tactically and strategically — differing only in degree from our past leaders. We’re stuck with her for four years. But on November 9 we can begin to work for a better choice in 2020.

For More Information

An NSA whistle-blower contradicts the “Russia did the DNC hacks” story. But the press will ignore him and just repeat govenment’s story — “NSA Whistleblower: US Intelligence Worker Likely Behind DNC Leaks, Not Russia.

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7 thoughts on “Hidden but important truths from the presidential debate

  1. I basically agree with you, and I think it is probably (> 50% chance) *not* the case that Putin directed the DNC hacks. (I started out similarly skeptical about the N Korea attribution in the Sony hack, but subsequently I’ve changed my mind and think it’s more likely than not that it was directed by the N Korean state. But obviously the political stakes there were immensely lower.)

    That said, the commentary from skeptical cybersecurity experts I’ve seen points out that the NSA and other US agencies *probably can* make attributions with more confidence than private actors, because they simply have access to vastly more data. So while your point about the difficulty of attribution is valid and important, as it applies to the public statements made by firms like Crowdstrike, I’d like to think that the ODNI made a statement with such potentially important geopolitical ramifications on the basis of something more.

    Which gets me to my biggest problem with the government’s approach to all this, which you didn’t address. The amount of secrecy surrounding this sphere is insane and counterproductive. We cannot properly evaluate the credibility of claims made by our government when they regard discussing the evidentiary basis publicly as a security breach, and punish leakers (not named Hillary) so harshly. To be fair, a similar problem exists in traditional HUMINT, e.g. the famous case of “Curveball” in the runup to the Iraq war; this is in fact part of why I don’t particularly trust the CIA about anything. Yet to me the problem of excessive secrecy about intelligence sources and methods seems worse in the context of cyberwarfare. It’s hard to pin down why, but some factors are
    * The wide range of state and non-state actors, not all of which are well understood,
    * The poorly understood strategic theory for analyzing our own offensive and espionage-focused cyber operations,
    * The highly technical nature of the field, combined with the low technical knowledge of senior policy-makers, and widespread skepticism among informed observers about whether the US government always knows what the heck it’s talking about. While I don’t doubt that the government, especially the military, has made efforts to invest in hiring and training skilled personnel for their cyber units, we have no way to independently evaluate how successful their efforts have been! Again, this is a problem that has existed since WWII (military black budgets), but it’s harder to conceal how many planes and pilots the Air Force has, for example. CYBERCOM will tell us how many enlisted and officers they employ, but AFAIK there is no unclassified estimate of our “cyber capabilities” relative to Russia’s or China’s.
    * The rather cavalier attitude our senior officials seem to be taking about cyber attribution, even when there is no well understood military theory concerning deterrence in this sphere.

    It would be interesting to compare and contrast the current state of secrecy (and strategic theory) regarding cyber with the situation in 1950 in the real of nuclear weapons. I chose that date carefully to be a few years after Hiroshima, since we are now a few years after the corresponding case of Stuxnet. I don’t have the expertise in either cybersecurity or the history of nuclear war to do this comparison properly. But it screams out to me as a worthy project, a case where understanding a historical analogy could shed real light on a policy domain of grave importance.

    1. sfficht,

      “I’d like to think that the ODNI made a statement with such potentially important geopolitical ramifications on the basis of something more.”

      Yep, just like they did with the bomber gap, the missile gap, the Tonkin Bay incident, and the many other such incidents up to the Iraqi nukes that justified our invasion and occupation.

      I too would like to think that. But history suggests that such confidence is daft, indicating gullibility. We are a gift to our rulers!

    2. I take your point that HRC’s rhetoric about 17 intelligence agencies is stupid. But I think it is a genuinely interesting question whether something like the ODNI’s Russia attribution could be released without relatively high confidence from at least NSA, CIA, and State. Or, on the other hand, is it just a question of what Clapper says goes — or more generally whether the CIA dominates in these types of discussions, which is my impression (perhaps wrong) of the historical norm.

      You can see many cases of not ignorant political commentators in the media, but informed members of the (neocon/liberal interventionist wing of the) foreign policy Establishment “blob” apparently genuinely hewing to the line that the DNI assessment represents a “considered, consensus belief” among all components of the USIC. An example is at https://lawfareblog.com/why-doesnt-donald-trump-believe-us-intelligence-community. Here’s a key quote:

      “So the more likely explanation for his {Trump’s] rejection of the Intelligence Community’s assessment is one of two things: either he i) simply has an extreme inherent skepticism about any information that originates from the Intelligence Community; or, ii) he affirmatively chooses not to accept this particular assessment that Russia is behind the attacks, but he won’t explain to the public why he does not accept it.”

      It’s bizarre how reluctant some people are to acknowledge that we might be better off if our leaders had a healthy inherent skepticism about IC information. But it’s also bizarre how the author blithely ignores that her option (ii) is also valid. It’s true that DJT’s particularly poor communication skills have prevented him from coherently pointing out the obvious political reason to trust this particular Russia assessment less than others. But no doubt Donald is well aware of the politics, and probably he also understands something about their interplay with the current stance of misguided US policy in Syria.

    3. sflict,

      (1) “But I think it is a genuinely interesting question whether something like the ODNI’s Russia attribution could be released without relatively high confidence from at least NSA, CIA, and State.”

      That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Americans are truly a gift to our rulers. Has there ever been such a gullible people?

      (2) The Lawfare quote about Trump’s statement.

      Those people are not gullible. They are propagandists. The development of these sophisticated engines of deceit are one reason we are so ignorant. The origin of our gullibility is another, and deeper, question.

  2. I would not be surprised if in addition to the above the next Assange level dissident was actually droned and then the same treatment was eventually extended to lesser troublemakers.

    Though the more immediate danger is a confrontation with Russia run by people who have failed upwards all their political lives and who have probably come to believe their own propaganda. We might come to miss Obama when the new crew gets to try out “Putin is a bully, we smash him against the wall and he will fold” in real life

    1. marcelloi,

      Got to wonder about both of those! Obama easily made the decision to initiate a global assassination program. Ditto with the decision for the first public assassination of a US citizen by our government on executive order. We’ve passed the Rubicon in those events. I agree that further moves in that direction will come quickly, once events provide the impetus.

      As for Russia — I don’t know how bold Clinton will be. I can see why people worry.

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