United States Of Paranoia: Why The Specter Of Russian Meddling Won’t Go Away

In this, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration, a woman types on her laptop, in Miami. Details from the Department of Justice indictment of Russian hackers on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, show that many people are ... In this, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration, a woman types on her laptop, in Miami. Details from the Department of Justice indictment of Russian hackers on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, show that many people are still not taking routine precautions to safeguard their email accounts, and hackers are exploiting that. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) MORE LESS
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As experts try to determine the depth of foreign espionage operations during the 2016 race, everything is starting to look like a cyberattack—and that’s by design.

For months on Twitter, in digital news and on cable TV, self-appointed pundits have been jumping at the shadows of the Russian hacking attacks on several components of the 2016 election. Experts say that paranoia is not merely a devastatingly effective side effect, but often the entire point of an intelligence operation: It causes the public to fear the erosion of democracy and paralyzes investigators who could repair problems like America’s elderly and unsophisticated voting machines, since every new revelation seems to reveal further cracks in the system.

Bloomberg has reported that 39 states’ election systems were subject to hacking attacks, including the previously confirmed theft of information from voter rolls in Illinois. Department of Homeland Security officials have said that 21 states were targeted, but the agency refuses to investigate. Given those reports, paranoia feels almost prudent.

The cyberattacks have damaged confidence in American democracy and shifted focus to finger-pointing at a time when repairing voting infrastructure could not be more urgent, said computer scientist J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan.

“NSA put those pieces together in April 2017 [according to an agency report leaked by The Intercept],” Halderman tells TPM. “There are still components of this that, within the intelligence community, are only now being able to be understood. That’s alarming. We need the election system to give us evidence that the election has been won before it’s certified.”

Lack of trust can destroy the courage to do anything except read conspiracy theories on the internet and despair, Halderman said. “The doubt at some point becomes the story, because it becomes an indication that the system isn’t doing its job.”

Toni Gidwani, formerly the leader of analyst teams at the Defense Intelligence Agency and now director of research operations at ThreatConnect, said the attacks during the 2016 U.S. elections are consistent with the modus operandi of Russian intelligence services as they operate throughout Europe. Despair is often their goal, she said.

“It’s a valid objective to just inject doubt into the integrity of the system,” Gidwani told TPM. “Just by showing that these machines are vulnerable even if you don’t change a single vote, may create doubt that the system is valid.”

Worsened public confidence in government, she said, is a consistent objective in intelligence operations, especially from Russia. “It’s a much lower bar to achieve than concretely affecting the outcome [of the vote].”

It would be shocking, espionage expert Mark Galeotti told TPM, if Russian hacking teams weren’t scanning U.S. election systems for vulnerabilities.

“Spies’ jobs are to hoover up all the information they can,” said Galeotti, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations with a specialization in Russian security, and author of the upcoming “Vory: The Story of the Russian Mafia” from Yale University Press. “Let’s not pretend that the NSA isn’t trying to get into any Russian system it can, or any German, French or British system for that matter. It’s the nature of intelligence.”

In fact, even the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other party operatives wasn’t completely beyond the pale–it was their distribution that crossed a red line, he argued.

“Russian cyberwarfare that we’ve seen so far has not really been cyberwarfare,” Galeotti said. “It’s phishing a few email addresses. None of this is really mission-critical stuff.”

In the disinformation campaign waged by Russia during the 2016 election, Galeotti sees the hand of both the GRU–likely the sponsor of the much discussed Fancy Bear hacking team–and its competitive sister agency, the FSB, which conducted operations through a less-discussed group called Cozy Bear. The GRU trained a disciplined internal team of hackers, he explained, while the FSB, more prone to risk-taking, acquired talented freelancers with threats, bribes, or some combination of the two, among them the recently arrested team behind the Yahoo hack.

“As I understand it, it wasn’t the GRU that said, ‘Let’s leak this,’ it was the FSB,” Galeotti said, referring to the stolen emails. The more cautious GRU acquired the emails, but “it was the FSB that pitched the idea of using it for a political operation, and there’s no question that it had sanction from the top,” he told TPM.

The resulting chaos means that much–too much–is now read as evidence of foreign intervention and subversion, even day-to-day information collection operations. Many experts in the field believe the problem is not that foreign powers are putting their puppets into office through stealing elections, but that election systems are low-hanging information fruit.

“I think the Russians have stumbled – probably accidentally, and not because they’re that much cleverer – onto the new kind of warfare, which is not kinetic,” said Galeotti.

“We are in this half-war-half-peace situation, which is very unlike the Cold War,” he continued. “Are we at war with the Russians, a non-shooting, non-kinetic political war? The Russians clearly think so, but the intelligence community has not been given permission to respond in kind.”

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  1. "…but the intelligence community has not been given permission to respond in kind.”

    And that is the most insidious, insane thing I’ll probably read all day. They say democracy dies in darkness. It also dies from inaction when real threats arise.

    Those Congressional committees need to get answers as to why this administration doesn’t see fit to do something to secure our upcoming elections, why it hasn’t been green-lighted, and find a way to hold them accountable.

    We deserve so much better than this.

  2. It has been 17 years since the stolen election of 2000, and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have addressed the problem. We need national voting standards with verifiable and recountable ballots for every election.

    The reality is that no American can have any trust or confidence in official vote tallies.

    We deserved so much better than that.

  3. And the lesson Republicans learned from stealing the 2000 election was that it was possible – and more importantly, that they can get away with it.

    I’m not sure the Democratic Party actually learned anything from it.

  4. Republicans are not going to investigate or prosecute other Republicans until there’s a clear electoral benefit for doing so.

    Most Republican voters are also Trump voters, and polls show they remain so. Therefore, I’m not expecting any true Republican turncoats. We’ll hear a bit of grumbling at most and then they’ll go right back to playing reverse Robin Hood.

  5. That’s a no-brainer. I can’t understand any state having a voting system with no paper trail whatsoever. That makes no sense. But it has to go beyond that. A paper trail based on a hacked system doesn’t do anyone any good.

    One thing I recall were the experiments done by people tasked to break into the counters that take the ballots. I think it was through a U of M or MIT study or something. (I’ll look it up later). They were able to change the vote somehow electronically. One doesn’t expect that kind of thing to happen at the polling stations. One expects that kind of thing to happen either before or after the votes are cast in order to rig a machine (and thereby rig the vote count). For that, one needs to be circumspect about who oversees those machines, who has access to them, and how they’re secured. I worry about shit like that. Every election I read about missing machines now, missing ballots found stolen in some dump site or the trunk of a car, or machines that didn’t initially work but were reconfigured. That’s when shit probably happens. But because I’m a luddite, I’m sure there are many other ways some enterprising political saboteur could engage in shaninigans if they were so motivated.

    Has this kind of shit always happened when we had the old fashioned levers to cast our votes in days past? I never heard of voting problems due to technical problems when I was a kid, or even a young adult, like I do today.

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