My Turn: Democrats and the Russia chimera

  • U.S President Donald Trump (center left) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (center right) as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (top right) and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (left) look on during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/22/2019 8:00:21 AM
Modified: 8/22/2019 8:00:10 AM

The American public has been bombarded by claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election on a near-daily basis ever since the 2016 election.

For many Democrats, this claim has been used to explain the otherwise unaccountable (to them) election of Donald Trump. This bombardment includes a Jonathan Baird column in the Monitor based on the Mueller report headlined “Russians aren’t done meddling in elections” (Monitor Forum, July 13). But the Mueller Report’s findings of Russian interference rest on a shaky factual foundation, just as shaky as Robert Mueller’s own recent performance before a congressional committee.

To be clear, I hold no brief for Trump. I believe he is uniquely unsuited for the office of president, and that most of his policies are harmful. But Donald Trump won the 2016 election fairly and without Russian help. His election has much more to do with the failings of the Democrats – especially Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I recommend Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? for an incisive and scathing look at how the modern Democratic Party has morphed into a party of corporate and cultural elitism.

The IRA

A close examination of the findings in the Mueller Report, combined with previously known facts (underreported in mainstream media), reveals how little substance there is to claims of Russian interference. While the Mueller Report found no evidence of a conspiracy between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, the report went on to cite “evidence” to support the widespread view that Russian meddling helped Trump and hurt Clinton.

The report claims that the interference operation occurred on two fronts: Russian military intelligence officers hacked and leaked embarrassing Democratic Party documents, and that a government-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, orchestrated a far-reaching social media campaign that denigrated Hillary Clinton and promoted Trump. But after two years and $35 million, Mueller failed to find any direct evidence linking the IRA’s activities to the Kremlin. Further, in a July 1 ruling, a federal judge rebuked Mueller and the Justice Department for having “improperly suggested a link” between the IRA and the Russian government.

The Mueller report says the IRA spent $100,000 on Facebook ads between 2015 and 2017. Of that amount, only $46,000 was spent by the IRA on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. By way of comparison, the two campaigns spent a total of $81 million on Facebook ads during the election. IRA spending amounted to a miniscule 0.05% of this figure. This figure, in turn, is a tiny fraction of the estimated $2 billion spent overall by the candidates and their supporting PACs for the 2016 election.

More important still, very little of this supposed election interference campaign content actually concerned the election. The Mueller Report cited a review by Twitter of tweets from “accounts associated with the IRA” in the 10 weeks before the 2016 election, which found that “approximately 8.4% . . . were election-related.” This tracks with a report commissioned by the U.S. Senate that found that “explicitly political content was a small percentage” of the content attributed to the IRA. The IRA’s posts “were minimally about the candidates,” since “roughly 6% of tweets, 18% of Instagram posts and 7% of Facebook posts” mentioned Clinton or Trump by name.

One final point on the IRA: Mueller’s claim that Russian posts reached “as many as 126 million” Facebook users is a gross exaggeration, based upon a guess from Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch in congressional testimony in October 2017. “Our best estimate,” Stretch told lawmakers, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a page associated with the IRA at some point during the two-year period.” This “two-year period” extends far past the 2016 election – to August 2017. Overall, according to Stretch, posts from suspected Russian accounts that showed up in Facebook’s news feed amounted to “approximately 1 out of (every) 23,000 pieces of content.”

The DNC ‘hack’

The other claim, that Russian intelligence operatives hacked the DNC, and then gave the hacked information to Wikileaks, which then published the information detailing how the DNC skewed the primary campaign to favor Hillary Clinton, is also likely false. The FBI investigation of the DNC “hack” was cursory and inadequate, and took the DNC at its word. The FBI never examined the DNC computers for itself but instead relied on “Crowdstrike,” a private internet security firm working for the DNC, for its information on the supposed hack.

The FBI also never interviewed William Binney, former technical director of the NSA, whose nonpartisan organization, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), found that the documents were most likely obtained via a direct connection to DNC computers from inside the DNC, because the speed of the download was too fast for existing internet connections. In other words, Wikileaks most likely obtained the documents directly from someone inside the DNC, most likely using a memory stick.

Before his arrest and imprisonment in England, Julian Assange offered hints that Seth Rich, whose murder in a D.C. suburb remains unsolved, was the person who gave the documents to Wikileaks. He emphatically stated the Russians were not involved. But the FBI never interviewed Assange either.

Thus, there is strong evidence not only disproving the claim that Russian interference tilted the election to Trump but disproving the claim made by Mueller and others that Russian “interference” exists on a scale to threaten U.S. election outcomes.

Russiagate

So where did the “Russiagate” claim originate? Writing in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report that the claim of Russian hacking was “set within twenty-four hours of (Clinton’s) concession speech. . . . (Robbie Mook and John Podesta) went over the script they would pitch to the press and public. . . . Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”

From this point, John Brennan, head of the CIA, took the story and ran with it. A March 2018 report from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee says that Brennan personally oversaw the entire CIA investigation of Russiagate claims from start to finish. In December 2016, the GOP report states, President Obama “directed … Brennan to conduct a review of all intelligence relating to Russian involvement in the 2016 elections.” The resulting report “was drafted by CIA analysts” and merely “coordinated with the NSA and the FBI.” The GOP report observes that Brennan’s CIA analysts were “subjected to an unusually constrained review and coordination process, which deviated from established CIA practice.” A Democratic response to the GOP report does not refute any of this. Once out of office, Brennan spent the next two years as a talking head on MSNBC accusing Trump of treason.

What are we then to make of all this? First, the mainstream media’s acquiescence in, and acceptance of, the false claims of substantial Russian interference in the 2016 election, and of collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign, should give every citizen, of whatever political stripe, pause. The absence of skepticism about the claims by the DNC and by the CIA under John Brennan, and the nearly complete absence of fact-checking or investigative journalism on the topic by the mainstream press, should be a scandal in itself.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and most of the corporate-controlled media asked for none. This includes the New York Times and the Washington Post, whose stance from day one was casual acceptance that “Russian interference” in the election was both a fait accompli and that it explained the “shocking” (to them) election of Donald Trump.

Nearly all the major news outlets accepted these claims as fact. Russiagate was a nightly theme for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, for example. There were good and sound reasons for skepticism of these claims all along, but they escaped the notice of nearly every talking head in the mainstream media. Most disturbing of all, those who made (and still make) these claims, and those who repeated them, preferred risking the start of a new Cold War with Russia, using McCarthyite smear tactics, rather than accept the election of Donald Trump as president.

Before the 2016 election, Trump went “off the reservation” by defying the foreign policy establishment on two core issues: he questioned whether NATO might have outlived its usefulness and he labeled the Iraq War a failure and a waste. For these transgressions (actually rare moments of truth-telling by a politician) of the “Washington consensus,” elements of the foreign policy establishment went all in on the Russiagate narrative.

The entire episode repeats the behavior of most of the media with regard to government claims of WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq War. One could even go so far as to say that “Russiagate” was an effort to undo the 2016 election – in effect an attempt at a soft coup against Trump by the foreign policy and political establishment.

Those of us hoping for a true progressive candidate to win in 2020 should treat Russiagate as a cautionary tale about the challenges faced in opposing the Washington “consensus” of money and power that dominates both parties.

(Bruce Currie lives in Concord.)


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