Washington Post Columnist Debunks Claims Of Russia Affecting Election Result Despite Many Other Misleading Articles At The Post On Russia

The Washington Post has been spreading a lot of false stories which increase hysteria about Russia, similar to stories about fictitious WMD in Iraq prior to the Iraq war. However, despite the general fallacious editorial view of the newspaper, one columnist actually got matters right recently, debunking claims that Russian ads on social media affected the election results.

Glenn Greenwald once again criticized the coverage in The Washington Post yesterday in an article entitled  WashPost Is Richly Rewarded for False News About Russia Threat While Public Is Deceived:

In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom.

The second story on the electric grid turned out to be far worse than I realized when I wrote about it on Saturday, when it became clear that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid” as the Post had claimed. In addition to the editor’s note, the Russia-hacked-our-electric-grid story now has a full-scale retraction in the form of a separate article admitting that “the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility” and there may not even have been malware at all on this laptop.

But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).

After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.

Baron himself, editorial leader of the Post, is a perfect case study in this irresponsible tactic. It was Baron who went to Twitter on the evening of November 24 to announce the Post’s exposé of the enormous reach of Russia’s fake news operation, based on what he heralded as the findings of “independent researchers.” Baron’s tweet went all over the place; to date, it has been re-tweeted more than 3,000 times, including by many journalists with their own large followings:

But after that story faced a barrage of intense criticism — from Adrian Chen in the New Yorker (“propaganda about Russia propaganda”), Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone (“shameful, disgusting”), my own article, and many others — including legal threats from the sites smeared as Russian propaganda outlets by the Post’s “independent researchers” — the Post finally added its lengthy editor’s note distancing itself from the anonymous group that provided the key claims of its story (“The Post … does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings” and “since publication of the Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list”)…

Greenwald proceeded to provide many more examples of poor media coverage. Of course misleading coverage is not limited to The Washington Post as I described here. There have been multiple examples of various news sources posting material on Russia which was later retracted as false. Then there is the hysterical coverage at MSNBC.

Despite the overall misleading coverage, there is a recent exception at The Washington Post. Philip Bump wrote, There’s still little evidence that Russia’s 2016 social media efforts did much of anything. This overlaps with the material  I previously posted here, but includes some additional facts worth reading. As I previously noted, the information released after the Congressional investigations showed that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook.

Bump discussed the false narrative that Russia was responsible for Clinton’s loss, and wrote:

All of that, though, requires setting aside what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a series of examples of the sorts of ads purchased by the Russians in November. Many, as The Washington Post reported, focused on highlighting divisive cultural issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration.

Of the 30 ads shared by the Democrats, six, viewed 1.2 million times in total, ran in 2015. Only seven ran in the last month of the campaign, totaling about 340,000 views. The ads targeted none of the four closest states in the election — New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — specifically; most were national ad buys. States that were targeted specifically included Texas and New York, neither of which was considered a swing state.

A little-noticed statement from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailed how unsophisticated the Russian ad targeting actually was in the context of the election. Among the points he made:

  • Maryland was targeted by nearly five times as many ads as was Wisconsin (262 to 55).
  • Thirty-five of the 55 ads targeting Wisconsin ran during the primary.
  • More ads targeted DC than Pennsylvania.
  • A total of $1,979 was spent in Wisconsin — $1,925 of it in the primary.
  • The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania were $823 and $300, respectively.
  • More of the geographically targeted ads ran in 2015 than in 2016.

Facebook’s own public numbers hint at how the ads were weighted relative to the campaign. Ten million people saw ads run by the Russian agents — but 5.6 million of those views were after the election.

Bump also debunked the claims regarding Twitter:

Just before Election Day in 2016, Twitter announced 1 billion tweets had been sent from August 2015 through that point. Even assuming all 202,000 of those tweets from the Russian accounts were in that period, it means they constituted 0.02 percent of the election-related tweets. On Election Day itself, there were another 75 million election-related tweets. If all of the Russian-linked tweets had been dropped on Election Day — closer to the point at which they would have directly helped suppress or boost turnout — they would still only have constituted 0.27 percent of the tweets that day. But they weren’t.

Perhaps, one might argue, there is classified information about Russia’s meddling that suggests a more dramatic problem. Perhaps. On Thursday morning, though, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) of the House intelligence committee told CNN he hadn’t seen much evidence of any criminal collusion the American people weren’t already aware of. (There’s also the argument that, in an election as close as that of 2016, even small efforts by Russian actors might have had an outsized effect. This is true, but it is also true of hundreds of other small things that happened (and didn’t) in the closing days of the presidential race.)

As it stands, the public evidence doesn’t support the idea that the Russians executed a savvy electoral strategy on social media to ensure Trump’s victory. In fact, it seems less the case that they did so now than seemed might be possible back in July.

In other words, while there is evidence of Donald Trump acting to cover-up crimes such as money laundering, the evidence disputes Clinton’s claims of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia which altered the election results.

The Nation Debunks Russiagate Conspiracy “Fantasyland” And Irresponsible Media Coverage

As was the case in the run up to the Iraq war when a small number of us were disputing the claims used to justify war, there also continues to be articles disputing the Russiagate conspiracy theory that Donald Trump and Russia successfully colluded to alter the 2016 election result. This is most often spread by establishment Democrats who cannot face the fact that Hillary Clinton was such a terrible choice for the nomination that she could not beat someone as awful as Donald Trump. While Robert Mueller’s investigation is uncovering evidence of financial crimes, and obstruction of justice, no evidence has been presented to support the claims of Russia altering the election results which has not been quickly retracted or debunked. Yesterday I quoted from an article by Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University. Another article on this subject by Aaron Maté in The Nation is less extensive but has the benefit of being more likely to be read by Democrats who are being duped this conspiracy theory.

There have been so many debunked claims regarding Russiagate that no single article can deal with them all. Maté concentrated on the numerous reports which have been circulated by the mainstream media, only to be quickly shown to be false–a subject I previously discussed here. He also touched on the false claims of Russian hackers hacking the voting systems of 21 states and the claim that there was a consensus from all the intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee. This later claim continues to be repeated by many Clinton apologists despite having been retracted by The New York Times last June. It is also worth noting that, while no evidence has been presented so far showing that Russia hacked the DNC, if future evidence should happen to show this, it would be a negative regarding Russia but would still not support Clinton’s argument that Russia is responsible for her loss. The hacked email which was released by Wikileaks provided factual information regarding unethical behavior by Clinton and the DNC, and Clinton would still be responsible for any votes lost because of this.

There are at least five reasons why the Russiagate conspiracy theory is so dangerous. It allows the Democratic establishment to deny responsibility for their mistakes, making reform less likely. It promotes McCarthyism and promotion of restrictions on freedom of expression in the United States. It unnecessarily increases conflict with a nuclear power (playing into the hands of Clinton’s neocon allies who desire to attempt regime change in Russia). It strengthens Putin by showing him to be a far greater master strategist than he is, to the frustration of anti-Putin forces in Russia. Maté began his article with a fifth reason. Concentrating on such false charges distracts from forming a true resistance to the many terrible things Donald Trump has been doing.

After this introduction, Maté more directly addressed the unsupported claims regarding the 2016 election:

The basis for the “virtually uncontested truths” of the year’s “biggest story” remains the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s January 2017 report, which accused Russia of hacking Democratic e-mails and using social media to influence the 2016 election. Yet the report openly acknowledges that its conclusions are “not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.” Nearly one year later, we have yet to see a shred of proof.

What we have in its stead is a stream of Russiagate stories that make bombastic entrances only to quietly slink away. The pattern persists thanks to a media and political culture that embraces credulity and shuns accountability.

Virtually every major outlet reported claims in September that Russian-government-backed hackers targeted the voting systems of 21 states. But last month Christopher Krebs, a senior cyber-security official at the Department of Homeland Security, quietly informed Congress that no such hacking had occurred. “The majority of the activity was simple scanning,” Krebs told a House panel. “Scanning is a regular activity across the Web. I would not characterize that as an attack.… If that context was not provided, I apologize.” He added: “When we talk about that scanning, it was not also necessarily an election system that was scanned.”

Krebs’s contrition did not ring out among the media that had fervently reported the scanning as a hacking attack, and continue to do so as part of Russiagate’s “virtually uncontested truths.” The falsity of the “21 states” claim went largely unreported, outside C-SPAN and the marginal Russian website that took notice.

Meanwhile, accountability has been resisted even when the mistakes are seismically embarrassing. The most recent case was CNN’s erroneous report that the Trump campaign was offered access to Wikileaks’ trove of stolen Democratic Party e-mails before their public release. In a story line worthy of Better Call Saul, it turned out that CNN got the date wrong—someone had in fact e-mailed the Trump campaign a link to the Wikileaks e-mails, only after they were already all over the Internet. As Glenn Greenwald noted, the mistake was egregious not just for the story’s ultimate uselessness, but also for the fact CNN and other outlets all reported they had confirmed it with multiple sources. Yet none of the networks have explained how their “multiple sources” all “confirmed” the same incorrect date.

Maté discussed CNN’s error in greater detail. He next discussed the claims that Russia affected the Brexit vote. As was the case with Russia’s actions on Facebook and Twitter in the United States, he showed that the claims regarding Brexit were highly exaggerated, and then discussed Russia Today and the investigation of Jill Stein:

Just weeks ago, The New York Times warned that reports of Russian-linked social-media activity around the Brexit vote “could raise questions about the legitimacy of the referendum” itself. “I have a very simple message for Russia,” declared British Prime Minister Theresa May on November 13. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”

We now have a full accounting of what Russia was doing: According to Twitter, the Kremlin-backed network Russia Today spent just over $1,000 to promote its Brexit coverage to UK-based viewers. Facebook reported a grand total of 97 cents spent on three ads, “all centered on immigration and aimed at American users,” reaching no more than 200 of them over four days. Whatever Russia was doing, May’s confidence that they would not succeed was doubtless well-founded.

The unquestioning faith in evidence-free or overblown claims coincides with the targeting of those who dare challenge them. The forced registration of RT America as a “foreign agent” was followed by the revoking of the outlet’s congressional press pass, with the usual silence from press-freedom groups and media outlets, even progressive ones. Without explanation, The Huffington Post removed an article by veteran reporter Joe Lauria that methodically challenged Russiagate’s precepts. On Tuesday, Green Party candidate Jill Stein confirmed that she is complying with a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation looking into, in the words of panel chair Senator Richard Burr, “collusion with the Russians.”

Despite multiple interviews explaining the nature of a 2015 trip to Moscow, Stein remains the target of a smear campaign, cheered on by liberal groups, painting her as a Kremlin stooge. “Here’s hoping this lying sack of piety-spewing shit goes to jail with the rest of the bastards Mueller is investigating,” commented liberal sex-advice columnist Dan Savage. Zac Petkanas, a Democratic Party senior adviser and Clinton campaign staffer, was so enthused by the Senate probe that he repeated the phrase “Jill Stein is a Russian agent” to his Twitter followers eight times.

Stein calls the investigation part of a “resurgence of McCarthyism, to suppress opposition voices, to suppress independent politics.” But for its proponents to recognize that would mean acknowledging that it derives from the same kind of behavior that is recognized in Trump. “Any genuine interest in objective reality left the building a while ago, replaced by a self-sustaining fantasyland,” the New York Times editors write of Trump’s right-wing defenders. The tragedy of Russiagate is that its enthusiasts have constructed a “self-sustaining fantasyland” of their own. A fantasyland is no place from which to confront Trump’s reality.

Historian Analyzes The Many Problems With The Russiagate Narrative And Democratic Support For Interventionism

Many partisan Democrats have believed Clinton’s claims that she lost as a consequence of Russian interference in the election, as opposed to her own mistakes, despite the lack of evidence for such claims. Many of those viewing the matter more seriously have expressed skepticism, seeing the current hysteria as reminiscent of claims of WMD in Iraq. Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University, has an essay on this at the London Review of Books. He looked at subjects including the lack of evidence that Russia was responsible for the DNC hack, along with how this narrative distracts from the evidence of corruption in the DNC which was revealed in their email. He noted, as I also provided examples of recently, that many of the claims in the media have been quickly shown to be incorrect. He also discussed how the Democratic Party’s fixation on Russiagate has led to them ignoring other issues, including the need to take a stand against the military interventionism advocated by Clinton. While I would recommend reading his full article, here are some excerpts:

American politics have rarely presented a more disheartening spectacle. The repellent and dangerous antics of Donald Trump are troubling enough, but so is the Democratic Party leadership’s failure to take in the significance of the 2016 election campaign. Bernie Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton, combined with Trump’s triumph, revealed the breadth of popular anger at politics as usual – the blend of neoliberal domestic policy and interventionist foreign policy that constitutes consensus in Washington…

A story that had circulated during the campaign without much effect resurfaced: it involved the charge that Russian operatives had hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, revealing embarrassing emails that damaged Clinton’s chances. With stunning speed, a new centrist-liberal orthodoxy came into being, enveloping the major media and the bipartisan Washington establishment. This secular religion has attracted hordes of converts in the first year of the Trump presidency. In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, though it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria during the early 1950s.

The centrepiece of the faith, based on the hacking charge, is the belief that Vladimir Putin orchestrated an attack on American democracy by ordering his minions to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump. The story became gospel with breathtaking suddenness and completeness. Doubters are perceived as heretics and as apologists for Trump and Putin, the evil twins and co-conspirators behind this attack on American democracy. Responsibility for the absence of debate lies in large part with the major media outlets. Their uncritical embrace and endless repetition of the Russian hack story have made it seem a fait accompli in the public mind. It is hard to estimate popular belief in this new orthodoxy, but it does not seem to be merely a creed of Washington insiders. If you question the received narrative in casual conversations, you run the risk of provoking blank stares or overt hostility – even from old friends. This has all been baffling and troubling to me; there have been moments when pop-culture fantasies (body snatchers, Kool-Aid) have come to mind.

Like any orthodoxy worth its salt, the religion of the Russian hack depends not on evidence but on ex cathedra pronouncements on the part of authoritative institutions and their overlords. Its scriptural foundation is a confused and largely fact-free ‘assessment’ produced last January by a small number of ‘hand-picked’ analysts – as James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, described them – from the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. The claims of the last were made with only ‘moderate’ confidence. The label Intelligence Community Assessment creates a misleading impression of unanimity, given that only three of the 16 US intelligence agencies contributed to the report. And indeed the assessment itself contained this crucial admission: ‘Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation and precedents.’ Yet the assessment has passed into the media imagination as if it were unassailable fact, allowing journalists to assume what has yet to be proved. In doing so they serve as mouthpieces for the intelligence agencies, or at least for those ‘hand-picked’ analysts.

It is not the first time the intelligence agencies have played this role. When I hear the Intelligence Community Assessment cited as a reliable source, I always recall the part played by the New York Times in legitimating CIA reports of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the long history of disinformation (a.k.a. ‘fake news’) as a tactic for advancing one administration or another’s political agenda. Once again, the established press is legitimating pronouncements made by the Church Fathers of the national security state. Clapper is among the most vigorous of these. He perjured himself before Congress in 2013, when he denied that the NSA had ‘wittingly’ spied on Americans – a lie for which he has never been held to account. In May 2017, he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the Russians were highly likely to have colluded with Trump’s campaign because they are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favour, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique’. The current orthodoxy exempts the Church Fathers from standards imposed on ordinary people, and condemns Russians – above all Putin – as uniquely, ‘almost genetically’ diabolical…

Meanwhile, there has been a blizzard of ancillary accusations, including much broader and vaguer charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It remains possible that Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who has been appointed to investigate these allegations, may turn up some compelling evidence of contacts between Trump’s people and various Russians. It would be surprising if an experienced prosecutor empowered to cast a dragnet came up empty-handed, and the arrests have already begun. But what is striking about them is that the charges have nothing to do with Russian interference in the election. There has been much talk about the possibility that the accused may provide damaging evidence against Trump in exchange for lighter sentences, but this is merely speculation. Paul Manafort, at one point Trump’s campaign manager, has pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to register his public relations firm as a foreign agent for the Ukrainian government and concealing his millions of dollars in fees. But all this occurred before the 2016 campaign. George Papadopolous, a foreign policy adviser, has pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI about his bungling efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump’s people and the Russian government – an opportunity the Trump campaign declined. Mueller’s most recent arrestee, Michael Flynn, the unhinged Islamophobe who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser, has pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about meeting the Russian ambassador in December – weeks after the election. This is the sort of backchannel diplomacy that routinely occurs during the interim between one administration and the next. It is not a sign of collusion.

So far, after months of ‘bombshells’ that turn out to be duds, there is still no actual evidence for the claim that the Kremlin ordered interference in the American election. Meanwhile serious doubts have surfaced about the technical basis for the hacking claims. Independent observers have argued it is more likely that the emails were leaked from inside, not hacked from outside. On this front, the most persuasive case was made by a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, former employees of the US intelligence agencies who distinguished themselves in 2003 by debunking Colin Powell’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, hours after Powell had presented his pseudo-evidence at the UN. (There are members of VIPS who dissent from the VIPS report’s conclusions, but their arguments are in turn contested by the authors of the report.) The VIPS findings received no attention in major media outlets, except Fox News – which from the centre-left perspective is worse than no attention at all. Mainstream media have dismissed the VIPS report as a conspiracy theory (apparently the Russian hacking story does not count as one). The crucial issue here and elsewhere is the exclusion from public discussion of any critical perspectives on the orthodox narrative, even the perspectives of people with professional credentials and a solid track record.

Both the DNC hacking story and the one involving the emails of John Podesta, a Clinton campaign operative, involve a shadowy bunch of putatively Russian hackers called Fancy Bear – also known among the technically inclined as APT28. The name Fancy Bear was introduced by Dimitri Alperovitch, the chief technology officer of Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to investigate the theft of their emails. Alperovitch is also a fellow at the Atlantic Council, an anti-Russian Washington think tank. In its report Crowdstrike puts forward close to zero evidence for its claim that those responsible were Russian, let alone for its assertion that they were affiliated with Russian military intelligence. And yet, from this point on, the assumption that this was a Russian cyber operation was unquestioned. When the FBI arrived on the scene, the Bureau either did not request or was refused access to the DNC servers; instead it depended entirely on the Crowdstrike analysis. Crowdstrike, meanwhile, was being forced to retract another claim, that the Russians had successfully hacked the guidance systems of the Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainian military and the British International Institute for Strategic Studies both contradicted this claim, and Crowdstrike backed down. But its DNC analysis was allowed to stand and even become the basis for the January Intelligence Community Assessment…

Sceptical voices, such as those of the VIPS, have been drowned out by a din of disinformation. Flagrantly false stories, like the Washington Post report that the Russians had hacked into the Vermont electrical grid, are published, then retracted 24 hours later. Sometimes – like the stories about Russian interference in the French and German elections – they are not retracted even after they have been discredited. These stories have been thoroughly debunked by French and German intelligence services but continue to hover, poisoning the atmosphere, confusing debate. The claim that the Russians hacked local and state voting systems in the US was refuted by California and Wisconsin election officials, but their comments generated a mere whisper compared with the uproar created by the original story. The rush to publish without sufficient attention to accuracy has become the new normal in journalism. Retraction or correction is almost beside the point: the false accusation has done its work.

The most immediate consequence is that, by finding foreign demons who can be blamed for Trump’s ascendancy, the Democratic leadership have shifted the blame for their defeat away from their own policies without questioning any of their core assumptions. Amid the general recoil from Trump, they can even style themselves dissenters – ‘#the resistance’ was the label Clintonites appropriated within a few days of the election. Mainstream Democrats have begun to use the word ‘progressive’ to apply to a platform that amounts to little more than preserving Obamacare, gesturing towards greater income equality and protecting minorities. This agenda is timid. It has nothing to say about challenging the influence of concentrated capital on policy, reducing the inflated defence budget or withdrawing from overextended foreign commitments; yet without those initiatives, even the mildest egalitarian policies face insuperable obstacles. More genuine insurgencies are in the making, which confront corporate power and connect domestic with foreign policy, but they face an uphill battle against the entrenched money and power of the Democratic leadership – the likes of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons and the DNC. Russiagate offers Democratic elites a way to promote party unity against Trump-Putin, while the DNC purges Sanders’s supporters.

For the DNC, the great value of the Russian hack story is that it focuses attention away from what was actually in their emails. The documents revealed a deeply corrupt organisation, whose pose of impartiality was a sham. Even the reliably pro-Clinton Washington Post has admitted that ‘many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.’ Further evidence of collusion between the Clinton machine and the DNC surfaced recently in a memoir by Donna Brazile, who became interim chair of the DNC after Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in the wake of the email revelations. Brazile describes discovering an agreement dated 26 August 2015, which specified (she writes)

that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics and mailings.

Before the primaries had even begun, the supposedly neutral DNC – which had been close to insolvency – had been bought by the Clinton campaign…

Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota and Douglas Kriner of Boston University analysed election results in three key states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – and found that ‘even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.’ Clinton’s record of uncritical commitment to military intervention allowed Trump to have it both ways, playing to jingoist resentment while posing as an opponent of protracted and pointless war. Kriner and Shen conclude that Democrats may want to ‘re-examine their foreign policy posture if they hope to erase Trump’s electoral gains among constituencies exhausted and alienated by 15 years of war’. If the insurgent movements within the Democratic Party begin to formulate an intelligent foreign policy critique, a re-examination may finally occur. And the world may come into sharper focus as a place where American power, like American virtue, is limited. For this Democrat, that is an outcome devoutly to be wished. It’s a long shot, but there is something happening out there.

Democracy Under Attack–From Both Major Political Parties

The fundamental principles of democracy have been under attack for several months, unfortunately by both major political parties. The lack of respect for democratic norms by Donald Trump and his Republican supporters has been well documented. Rather than presenting a clear alternative, the last nominee for the Democratic nomination has also been attacking Democratic norms, including acceptance of election results and freedom of speech. Hillary Clinton repeated her attacks on the legitimacy of the 2016 election in an interview with Ari Berman of Mother Jones.

During the election, when there was a question of Donald Trump not accepting the results of the election, Hillary Clinton said that Donald Trump “threatens democracy” by not accepting the election results. She also said, “We know, in our country, the difference between leadership and dictatorship. And the peaceful transition of power is something that sets us apart.”

Since then, Hillary Clinton lost the election after running a terrible campaign. It was a huge mistake for the Democrats to essentially rig the nomination for a weak candidate as opposed to allowing a stronger candidate capable of winning a national campaign to be its nominee. Democrats made a terrible mistake, but once the election results were in, in a democracy there was no choice but to accept the results and look forward to the next election. Instead, as was revealed by in Shattered, Hillary Clinton devised a strategy of blaming others, including Russia, for her loss within twenty-four hours of losing.

The claim that Russia affected the election result was largely based upon the Steele Dossier. Clinton and the DNC had covered up their role in paying for this report for months, casting doubt on its reliability. More recently we learned that Christopher Steele is saying he believes the report is 70% to 90% accurate. In other words, he admits that thirty percent could be inaccurate.

Over the last several month, as information has come out on the Congressional and Mueller investigations, the evidence has cast further doubt on Clinton’s claims. We have seen substantial evidence of improper business dealings between Trump, members of his family, and key people in his campaign having improper business relations with Russia. We have seen evidence of Trump conspiring to cover this up. The indictments to date have related to financial dealings, and it appears that this is what Mueller is concentrating on.

On the other hand, evidence released through the Congressional hearings have shown that Russia’s advertising on Facebook and use of Twitter was too inconsequential to have had an impact. We learned during the recent Congressional testimony that material including ads from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. We also learned that the Russian Twitter accounts were not very large and that, of the tweets attributed to troll accounts Russia’s Internet Research Agency, only  “9 percent of the tweets were election-related .” Even former Clinton adviser Mark Penn has argued that the Facebook ads were not the reason Clinton lost.

It has been commonplace to see sensational headlines of a smoking gun of Russian tampering with the election results, only to have them quickly shot down. One supposedly Russian site consisted of pictures of puppies. Just this week we had the revelation that Russia had designated money “to finance election campaign of 2016.” Rather being a smoking gun, this appears to have been money spent on the Russian Parliamentary elections. Yes, Russia has been caught meddling in their own election.

With report after report falling apart, we have no evidence of any more Russian meddling in the 2016 election than has been occurring for decades–with the United States similarly meddling in other elections. There is no evidence of a vast and successful conspiracy to change the results of the 2016 election. The biggest success attributed to Russia on Facebook has been to get 5000 to 10,000 people to turn out for a rally–a rally protesting against Donald Trump after the election.

In the interview Clinton claimed, “This is the first time we’ve ever been attacked by a foreign adversary and then they suffer no real consequences.” This is an especially chilling statement from a politician who has already participated in lying the country into wars, and is aligned with neoconservatives who wish to attempt regime change in Russia.

Just as chilling has been how this contrived scandal has been used to restrict political discourse. With the new McCarthyism which has overtaken many Democrats, to question this march towards conflict with Russia, no matter how reminiscent it is of the march towards war with Iraq over fake WMD, is countered with attacks of being pro-Russia. To oppose conflict with Russia over fake claims from the Clinton camp and other neocons no more means one is pro-Russia than opposing the rush to war with Iraq over false claims of WMD meant one was pro-Saddam.

One consequence of this hysteria has been to censor Americans on social media as I and others have been pointing out. Clinton, who has a long history of lack of respect for First Amendment rights, has used the bogus claim that her loss was illegitimate to call for government censorship of information critical of her as she labels it “fake news.” She also claims this is not protected by the First Amendment.

Nobody likes to lose an election, but we have never encountered a situation such as this in which the loser questions the legitimacy of the election, endangers our national security in promoting unnecessary conflicts, and attacks First Amendment rights. Of course we have also never encountered much of what we have seen by the winner of the election either, but this provides no justification for Clinton’s actions.

Russian Facebook Ads And Tweets Turning Out To Represent A Minuscule Percent Of Their Traffic

It increasingly looks like a journalist can simply put out a headline with Russia and either Facebook or Twitter in it and create hysteria. Despite all the hype, we learned during the recent Congressional testimony that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton.

It also looks like the biggest success attributed to Russia on Facebook has been to get 5000 to 10,000 people to turn out for a rally–a rally protesting against Donald Trump after the election.

Today’s hysterical headline is about Twitter, but looks far less scary when looking at the details. Apparently there were trolls on Twitter supporting Donald Trump. There is an enormous number of tweets going out every minute on Twitter, and a tweet does nothing if someone is not following the person tweeting. According to this article, the largest of these Russian troll pages had 25,045 followers at its peak, and the others had far fewer. These are far from widely viewed tweets. It also seems a safe bet that if these accounts were tweeting pro-Trump material, they were primarily followed by pro-Trump individuals and it is questionable whether they could actually change votes, especially considering the far larger number of people tweeting in favor of both Trump and Clinton.

The likelihood of them impacting the election appears even less after noting that of the tweets attributed to troll accounts from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, only “9 percent of the tweets were election-related .”

Most likely we are seeing a combination of things going on. There were probably Tweets and Facebook ads designed to disrupt American politics in general without supporting a particular candidate. There were many which had nothing to do with the election, very likely posts from Russian troll farms designed to obtain page hits, sometimes by making controversial comments. There very well could have also been some intentionally posted to try to help Donald Trump–but considering how small a percentage of overall Facebook and Twitter traffic they represented, it is absurd to say they were more important than Hillary Clinton’s war chest of over one billion dollars, and many others helping her (including paid trolls for Clinton). Even former Clinton adviser Mark Penn has written that this is not what cost Clinton the election.

Russia very likely has been misbehaving–as they have for decades, and as the United States government has. According to a paper of election meddling reviewed by Slate:

Using declassified documents, statements by officials, and journalistic accounts, Levin has found evidence of interference by either the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia in 117 elections around the world between 1946 and 2000, or 11.3 percent of the 937 competitive national-level elections held during this period. Eighty-one of those interventions were by the U.S. while 36 were by the USSR/Russia. They happened in every region of the world, though most commonly in Europe and Latin America. The two powers tended to focus on different countries, though Italy was a favorite of both, receiving eight interventions by the U.S. and four by the Soviets.

We should certainly work towards making Facebook and Twitter more transparent so people know when they are reading ads purchased by Russians. We should not be so naive as to think that we can control what appears on line in the internet age. We should also not take this to mean that there was some sort of unique conspiracy to push Clinton over Trump on social media in 2016. As was revealed in Shattered, Clinton came up with the excuse that Russia cost her the election within twenty-four hours of losing to distract from her own mistakes which cost her the election.

While there are legitimate responses to this issue, this should not be used as an excuse to restrict freedom of speech. The dangers from restricting free communication on Facebook and Twitter are far greater than the actual risk of Russia using social media to alter election results. The consequence of this hysteria has been to censor Americans on social media as I and others have been pointing out. This is what we must concentrate on avoiding. We also must be cautious about playing into neocon propaganda, with many of those now making the same noise attacking Russia are the same people who got this country into a war based upon false claims about Iraq and WMD.

Democrats Risk Blowback On Russia Narrative

In follow up of my post yesterday on the McCarthyism we are seeing from many in the Democratic establishment in their attacks on the left, it is worth mentioning some signs of sanity from some Democrats. While it only applies to some, Politico has written that Democrats fear Russia probe blowback:

Democrats are increasingly conflicted about how forcefully to press the issue of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Fearful of alienating voters who appear more concerned about the economy and health care, Democrats campaigning in districts across the country are de-emphasizing Russia in their rhetoric — and some are warning that a persistent focus on the Russia investigation could backfire.

“In the races where I’m working, I think voters think that Russia is important and that the questions need to get answered,” Bill Burton, a veteran Democratic consultant, said at a political convention this past weekend. “But they’re mostly sick of hearing about it, and they want to hear politicians talk about things that are more directly important in their lives.”

…California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s running for governor, was even more direct in a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The Russia investigation, he said, “doesn’t do anything for Democrats at all … It’s a loser.”

The problem for Democrats goes beyond this. While we do not know the final results or everything which Mueller has uncovered, based upon what has been released it increasingly looks like the Democrats have gone far beyond the facts in making this a political issue. While the Russians may have meddled to some degree in the election, the fact is that the Russians have attempted to meddle in our elections for decades–just as we have meddled in their elections and the elections of many other countries.

The arguments from Democrats fall apart when they try to blame Russia for Clinton’s loss. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign both shows many of the mistakes made by Clinton which accounted for her loss, along with how she decided within the first twenty-four hours upon the strategy of blaming others. Russia did not force Clinton to ignore the rust belt states, or do a terrible job of campaigning there when she realized she was in trouble. Russia did not force Clinton to violate the rules in setting up her private server, and then repeatedly lie about it for months. Russia did not force Clinton to violate the ethics agreement she entered into before being confirmed as Secretary of State, and use her career in politics for personal financial gain. Russia did not force Clinton to take extreme pro-war positions and other conservative views which alienated many potential Democratic voters. 

While Donald Trump along with members of his family and campaign have had many suspicious actions involving Russia, there has been no evidence of successful collusion between them to impact the election. I have long believed that Trump’s actions were based more upon possible financial crimes and covering up activities of his family and associates. Last spring week former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in his Congressional testimony: “To my current knowledge, the Russian government did not through any cyber intrusion alter ballots, ballot counts or reporting of election results.” We have not seen anything to alter this.

While Donald Trump, Jr. showed he was not above meeting with Russians to attempt to affect the election, it turned out that Russia had nothing to offer. The closet thing we have to evidence that Russia might have attempted to hack the election showed that they were not successful. The stories of Jared Kushner seeking a back channel to communicate with Russia both suggests that this was over financial dealings, and raises the question as to why he would need to set up a back channel after the election if they had already been colluding with Russia.

There remains questions as to whether the claims from the intelligence community that Russia was responsible for the Wikileaks release of email are any more valid than the claims of Saddam having WMD before the invasion of Iraq. Even if the investigations should show that Russia was responsible for the hacked email, nobody has seriously questioned the accuracy of the information released by Wikileaks. The Wikileaks releases of hacked email hurt because it verified criticism that the DNC had violated its own rules in rigging the nomination for Clinton, and in showing Clinton’s dishonesty. The undemocratic manner in which a major political party picks its nominees is a far more serious threat to democracy than anything actually achieved by Russia.

Blaming Clinton’s loss on Russian propaganda on social media ignores the strong opposition to Clinton from many segments of the political spectrum and the large amount of anti-Clinton material which would be present independent of Russia. People on the left have opposed DLC Democrats like the Clintons since the 1990’s, and have opposed Clinton’s neoconservative interventionism since the Bush years, independent of any Russian influence. Russia certainly cannot be blamed for similar Democratic loses in 2010 and 2016 when they also performed poorly by running as a Republican-lite party. The real problem is that by copying the policies of Republicans, Democrats turn off many potential voters while failing to win over Republicans.

Politico is right that Democrats run the risk that they will not win elections based upon their anti-Russia hysteria because this is not the major concern of voters. Democrats face a greater risk that their initial claims might be shown to be unsubstantiated partisan claims, further damaging their credibility. In October, Hillary Clinton claimed that Donald Trump would be threatening democracy by not accepting the results of the election. Democrats now risk being held to Hillary Clinton’s own standards.

Clinton Plans On Doubling Down On Blaming Others For Her Loss In Upcoming Book

Republicans who hope to keep control of the House have received great news. They will still have Hillary Clinton to kick around. The Hill reports that Clinton is doubling down on her claims that she lost due to James Comey, Russia, and sexism rather than being  a terrible candidate who ran a terrible campaign:

Hillary Clinton’s new memoir will blame her 2016 presidential election loss on Russian interference and former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that he was reopening the investigation into her emails.

Sources familiar with the memoir told the Hill that Clinton made the two scenarios cornerstones of her book, which will be released in September.

“She really believes that’s why she lost,” said a longtime Clinton ally. “She wants the whole story out there from her own perspective. I think a lot of people are going to be really surprised by how much she reveals.”

…While the book will zero in on Russia and Comey — which Clinton has said are the two biggest contributing factors to her loss — it will also examine other factors she blames for a role in her defeat, including sexism and misogyny.

Hillary Clinton’s upcoming book will double down on Russia’s interference and James Comey’s involvement in her stunning election defeat, according to sources familiar with the memoir.

Earlier this week I cited the opinion from FiveThirtyEight that having Clinton on the ballot hurt the Democrats in down ticket races. FiveThirtyEight expressed the view that not having Clinton on the ballot will  help Democrats in 2018. On the other hand, having her on a speaking tour promoting her book and her excuses for losing could be harmful to Democrats running. Clinton’s popularity has fallen even more than Trump’s since the election, and I suspect that Clinton’s blame tour to date has been part of the reason.

Some Democratic leaders are recognizing the problem:

Some Democrats are worried that their party’s goal of rebuilding and rebranding itself will be undermined by Clinton’s book.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) has publicly stated that Clinton should not blame anyone but herself and lack of messaging.

“When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things—Comey, Russia—you blame yourself,” Schumer told the Washington Post. “So what did we do wrong? People didn’t know what we stood for, just that we were against Trump. And still believe that.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden has also criticized Clinton for her campaign.

“I never thought she was a great candidate. I thought I was a great candidate,” he said in May.

“What happened was that this was the first campaign that I can recall where my party did not talk about what it always stood for—and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class,” Biden said in March.

“You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about the guy working on the assembly line making $60,000 a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess,” he said.

Of course pushing Clinton’s candidacy on the country, which ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump, was the last stray in destroying the credibility of the Democratic establishment. As an op-ed in The New York Times notes, the real civil war in the Democratic party is “is between those willing to trust the existing establishment and those who want entirely new leadership.” (While Lee Drutman’s op-ed does make some good points here, he does underestimate how great an ideological gap also exists.)

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign both shows many of the mistakes on Clinton’s fault which accounted for her loss, along with how she decided within the first twenty-four hours upon the strategy of blaming others

Clinton’s excuses are all very weak. In blaming James Comey, Clinton ignores the fact that James Comey would not have been investigating her in the first place if she had not grossly violated the rules regarding email and  hadn’t handled classified information in a careless manner. The investigation further hurt Clinton as Comey’s report demonstrated that she had repeatedly lied in her public statements about the matter. This gave further credence to her reputation of both seeing herself above the  law and of being dishonest. She further hurt herself when she repeatedly lied about what James Comey had reported.  Clinton’s violation of the rules regarding her use of the private server was confirmed to be in violation of the rules in effect in 2009 by the Obama administration State Department Inspector General Report. Fact checkers repeatedly showed that Clinton was lying about the email and Foundation scandals. Clinton’s credibility was also seriously harmed by the manner in which she grossly violated the ethics agreements she entered into before being confirmed as Secretary of State.

Placing the blame on Russia does not hold up either. The evidence released so far has shown that Russia was not able to hack into the voting machines or change a single vote. There remains questions as to whether the claims from the intelligence community that Russia is responsible for the Wikileaks release of email are any more valid than the claims of Saddam having WMD before the invasion of Iraq. Even if we accept the view that Russia was responsible for the hacked email, nobody has seriously questioned the accuracy of the information released by Wikileaks. The Wikileaks releases of hacked email hurt because it verified criticism that the DNC had violated its own rules in rigging the nomination for Clinton, and in showing Clinton’s dishonesty. Again it comes down to Clinton losing due to her own major flaws.

Some of those who blame Russia have moved on to claims that Clinton was hurt by fake news spread from Russia. This ignores the vast amount of criticism of Clinton going back for years–including both factually accurate criticism along with bogus criticism from the right wing. The left has opposed the policies of the Clintons and DLC since the 1990’s. Views of Clinton were already set well before her nomination, and if any fake news did come from Russia, it would have been lost in the vast amount of noise already present on the internet.

While some undoubtedly would not vote for Clinton due to misogyny, these were primarily people who would never vote for any Democrat. Clinton was probably helped more than hurt by her gender among Democratic-leaning voters. A male candidate with Clinton’s repeated failures during her career, along with holding views more conservative than the Democratic base, would probably have only been a third-tier candidate with no chance of winning the nomination. Far too many Democrats overlooked Clinton’s serious flaws because of her gender.

New York Times Corrects False Claim of Seventeen Intelligence Agencies Agreeing That Russia Hacked DNC

Hillary Clinton and her supporters have often claimed that all seventeen intelligence organizations have agreed that Russia is responsible for hacking the DNC email. A correction at The New York Times highlights how this claim of unanimous agreement is false:

A White House Memo article on Monday about President Trump’s deflections and denials about Russia referred incorrectly to the source of an intelligence assessment that said Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.

Robert Parry notes that this claim had already been debunked, with the assessment appearing like politicized intelligence similar to the claims of WMD under George Bush:

The reality of a more narrowly based Russia-gate assessment was admitted in May by President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan in sworn congressional testimony.

Clapper testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on May 8 that the Russia-hacking claim came from a “special intelligence community assessment” (or ICA) produced by selected analysts from the CIA, NSA and FBI, “a coordinated product from three agencies – CIA, NSA, and the FBI – not all 17 components of the intelligence community,” the former DNI said.

Clapper further acknowledged that the analysts who produced the Jan. 6 assessment on alleged Russian hacking were “hand-picked” from the CIA, FBI and NSA.

Yet, as any intelligence expert will tell you, if you “hand-pick” the analysts, you are really hand-picking the conclusion. For instance, if the analysts were known to be hard-liners on Russia or supporters of Hillary Clinton, they could be expected to deliver the one-sided report that they did..

CIA Director William Casey and Deputy Director Robert Gates shepherded the desired findings through the process by putting the assessment under the control of pliable analysts and sidelining those who objected to this politicization of intelligence.

The point of enlisting the broader intelligence community – and incorporating dissents into a final report – is to guard against such “stove-piping” of intelligence that delivers the politically desired result but ultimately distorts reality.

Another painful example of politicized intelligence was President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD that removed State Department and other dissents from the declassified version that was given to the public.

Despite being debunked in the testimony by James Clapper, the claim of seventeen intelligence agencies agreeing continued to be widely repeated. The correction by The New York Times is a step in the right direction. Now we will wait for a retraction of the unsubstantiated claims reported by Russia Maddow on MSNBC.

The release of DNC email on Wikileaks, regardless of source, provided factual information which nobody has disputed about dishonesty on the part of Hillary Clinton, and the DNC violating their rules regarding being impartial in the nomination process.

Earlier this month Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in his Congressional testimony: “To my current knowledge, the Russian government did not through any cyber intrusion alter ballots, ballot counts or reporting of election results.”

Contradictions on Syria

Apparently we have to bomb Syria because they used chemical weapons. I believe the mindset is that under international law, two wrongs can make a right.

Plus under Republican logic, Obama both exercises dictatorial powers and he is weak because he can’t decide to take military action without following the Constitution and going before Congress.

The most absurd reaction was Donald Rumsfeld saying Obama hasn’t made the case for striking Syria. He may be right, but Rumsfeld is in no position to question Obama about taking limited action regarding real WMD after he backed a major war over non-existent WMD.

Quote of the Day

“The Bush Presidential Library is beautiful, and they have a huge section devoted to weapons of mass destruction, but nobody can find it.” –David Letterman