Vladimir Putin has been far more visible lately with statements on the Russian-U.S. election story. Well-schooled in the art of Russian linguistic vagary, he alternately has said that Russian freelance hackers may have been involved, or that a 3-year-old may have been involved, all with a taunting snicker. Journalists—and for that matter, prosecutors—stuck in the literalism that constrains the Western brain are left to chase digital ghosts.
There is a critical piece I believe many observers are still missing.
Last fall, I talked with Finnish security expert Harri Hursti, who knows quite a bit about cyber war and Russian thinking. Even before the election, there were plenty of accusations that Russians were meddling in the process, and there were firm denials from the Kremlin. Both these things can be true, Hursti explained to me.
Here in talk-radio America, we love a good “this or that” argument: Either the Russians hacked the election, or they didn’t. But that’s not how it works. There’s a continuum of possibilities, and I’m sad to say, most of the options will prove unsatisfying in the end for those who want a traditional smoking gun.
Yes, there’s the possibility that elite hackers in the Russian military stole John Podesta’s email. And there’s also the possibility that an annoying teenager in the United States did it just for fun. But in between are a host of other possibilities.
Endless finger pointing
Whose hands were actually on the keyboard and what organization really deserves the blame for a hack? This is the problem that cyber investigators often call “attribution.”
Perhaps it was an elite private group of hackers in Russia being paid by (and perhaps assisted by) Russia’s intelligence forces. Or perhaps it was hacker mercenaries getting paid by Russia but working in China, in Iran, in … San Diego. Or perhaps it was an unaffiliated hacker who found the “hack,” then “sold” it to the highest bidder. Or perhaps such freelance groups had help they didn’t even realize was there, with tips (from Russian agents?) carefully placed in hacker hangouts.
Or, as Putin suggested last week and Hursti suggested to me last fall, “patriotic” Russian hackers just did what came naturally.
If you read what Putin said last week, and what Hursti said last fall, the two are stunningly similar—which makes me believe that may be the best explanation we’ll ever get.
According to CNN, Putin said this (remember, this is a translation):
“(Artists) may act on behalf of their country, they wake up in good mood and paint things. Same with hackers, they woke up today, read something about the state-to-state relations. If they are patriotic, they contribute in a way they think is right, to fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”
Loyalty to Mother Russia
And speaking to me last fall, Hursti said this:
“Something we in the Western world don’t understand is how deeply patriotic Russians are. Individual Russians, and self-organized groups, are willing to go to great lengths on their own, with their own initiative, if they believe that what they do will benefit Mother Russia, and/or in hope and belief that their actions, once known, will be rewarded.”
So these kind of self-initiated actions, which do resemble organized operations, are commonplace. Bearing in mind that the self-organized groups can have members whose day jobs are close to the government, the remaining question is, is the government aware of these groups, and if they are, are they encouraging or discouraging? Which is something we cannot know. But the fact of the matter is that Russia is self-organizing and self-providing the capability of plausible deniability which, in many cases, can be actually true that they didn’t know.
So perhaps Hillary Clinton’s tormentors really were freelancers just doing their duty. And who knows, a decade from now, they all might have nice homes and jobs in Moscow. But these things would be coincidences.
Government in shadows
It should be obvious that no international hacker operates in a place like Russia without some kind of tacit government approval. Totalitarian regimes can arrest and detain for as long as they wish. None of this hacking was done without facilitation by Russians. Recall that all of it was done in perfect harmony with Russian geopolitical aims. Only the tragically naive would think that a coincidence or attribute that to superior cyber defense by the Republican Party.
For some time now, I have believed the Russia investigation ultimately will frustrate investigators. They are very unlikely to find a photo of a Trump campaign worker handing a bag of cash to a Russian hacker as he types an email to WikiLeaks.
Clinton herself made the best case I’d yet heard for collusion last week during her talk at the Recode conference, arguing that the pitch-perfect political timing of hacker releases during the campaign had to be directed by someone connected to the Republican Party and aware of its polling. Persuasive, perhaps, but hardly evidence in a court of law, and probably not even in a court of public opinion.
Collusion is going to be very hard to prove, for all the reasons Hursti explained. If these are freelancers, a group of individuals acting on their own, operating out of patriotism, how can America find Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin guilty of anything?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue this investigation as far as it can go. It’s absolutely critical to learn as much as possible about how the Russians influenced our election, and continue to influence Western democracies. I’m afraid cyber warfare and Russian “kompromat” are a match made in heaven.
The problem of attribution and the multilayered game of statecraft work perfectly together, and Americans better get used to it. Our best defense is a better educated, more skeptical public—one that won’t fall for fake news stories about the pope endorsing Trump or Clinton harboring pedophiles in a pizza place. But since that’s a long-term project, we’ll need to build up our resistance to these techniques in other ways. Now.
Bob Sullivan is contributor to ThirdCertainty.com, where this article originally appeared.
More stories related to election hacking:
Creating chaos at the polls: Putting election hack risks into context
To maintain democracy, digital election networks must be improved
Cast ballot for tighter security on voter data