DNC Leaks Lead to Dueling Conspiracy Theories

2016-08-15-dnc-conspiracy

In the wake of last month’s revelations of favoritism towards Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders within the Democratic National Committee, which led to the resignation of former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, paranoia has been percolating.

On August 12, the Washington Post featured two articles about conspiracy theories, one by Post “global opinions” columnist Josh Rogin and the other by Jesse Walker, books editor of Reason magazine and author of “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.”

According to Rogin, “Trump campaign surrogates are fueling a conspiracy theory that a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer was connected to the hacking of the DNC, a theory being pushed by WikiLeaks and the Russian state-controlled press. There’s a big problem, however, with the theory: it doesn’t make any sense when compared to all the available evidence.”

As Rogin admits, “Trump allies, Assange, and the Russian government are somewhat unlikely cohorts,” and though he concedes that they “may not be coordinating directly” it appears he may not grasp the extent to which his own speculative discussion of their alleged common aims seems in itself to veer towards conspiracy theory.

As Walker points out in his piece for the Post, “the biggest Trump conspiracy stories are the ones that call the candidate a tentacle of the Kremlin.” He continues:

Half a year ago, this idea was largely limited to the fringes, where it was flogged by folks like Cliff Kincaid, a conservative gadfly who posed such queries as “Is Trump a sleeper agent for Moscow?” The idea started percolating into the mainstream media over the summer. It picked up steam after WikiLeaks’ release of the Democratic National Committee’s emails, a data dump many blamed on Russian hackers.

Eventually it made its way to the Clinton campaign, which now has a page on its website devoted to the topic, framed in just-asking-questions style: “Why does Trump surround himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin?” “Why do Trump’s foreign policy ideas read like a Putin wish list?” “Do Trump’s still-secret tax returns show ties to Russian oligarchs?” The whole thing feels like a throwback to the Cold War, though in those days such intimations were usually reserved for candidates on the left.

Rogin, indeed, seems to be grasping at straws. He writes that there is a “huge amount of forensic evidence” to link the DNC leaks to Russian hackers, but the source that he links to as proof is a Vice story that clearly states “There’s no way to know for sure that the Russian government and its intelligence agencies are really behind the hack on the DNC and the bizarre claims by Guccifer 2.0.”

Despite the shakiness of his assertions, however, Rogin is not alone. The leaks have been widely linked to purportedly Russian government hacking groups APT 28 and APT 29, also known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. Newsweek, for example, has described the hackers that breached the DNC’s servers as “universally believed to be associated with the Kremlin,” although that description is demonstrably false. As DefenseOne reported late last month, the Russia link appears to be based on a “clue” intentionally left by the hackers — the name of Soviet intelligence official “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky:

Over the past week, U.S. intelligence community officials have said that they have “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails from the DNC. That’s an unusually bold statement for the IC to make about a data breach that’s currently moving the news cycle. By contrast, the intelligence community still hasn’t made a formal declaration of attribution about the (Office of Personnel Management) hack. Months after the intrusion was revealed, (Director of National Intelligence James) Clapper acknowledged only that China was the “leading suspect.”

(Security expert Christopher) Porter believes that part of the reason that the IC and multiple cyber security researchers were able to implicate Russia is that Russia was showing off. Consider that on June 15, one day after Crowdstrike fingered APT 28 and APT 29, a figure named Guccifer 2.0 claimed to have done the hack, alone. But Twitter users quickly found metadata in Guccifer 2.0’s files that undermined that claim. The docs contained a tag reading “Феликс Эдмундович,” a reference to to the founder of the Soviet Secret Police.

But security expert Jeff Carr thought the smoke off this smoking-gun was a bit too thick. In his minority report, he asks: what kind of spy ring tags their stolen docs before releasing them under a cover?

“Raise your hand if you think that a GRU or FSB officer would add Iron Felix’s name to the metadata of a stolen document before he released it to the world while pretending to be a Romanian hacker. Someone clearly had a wicked sense of humor,” he wrote.

In a blog post, as well as in an interview with Politifact for the article quoted below, Carr elaborated on his thinking:

He said many of these technical indicators pointing to Russia are traits that have been publicly outed as Russian previously, so it doesn’t make sense that Russian intelligence agencies would use them again for covert activity. He also posed the question how “a country known for the world’s most sophisticated software engineers” would be so easily caught.

“It makes much more sense to me that the Russian government had nothing to do with this, but that Russian-speaking hackers did it on their own for fun or profit or both,” Carr said.

Disinformation appears to potentially be flowing from all sides in this election: the Americans, Russians, Republicans, Democrats — and possibly from Wikileaks? Indeed, Rogin’s hostility towards Assange is perhaps warranted, if DNC staffer Seth Rich’s shooting death last month in Northwest Washington D.C. was in fact unrelated to his work and he wasn’t a Wikileaks’ source, as Assange did seem to suggest otherwise in an interview that prompted Rogin’s article. But, as noted above, as well as in the Post the same day Rogin’s article appeared, Rogin is himself essentially pushing nothing less than a conspiracy theory — the very thing he is ridiculing others for doing.

“Those who question, criticize or are perceived to impede Hillary Clinton’s smooth, entitled path to the White House are vilified as stooges, sympathizers and/or agents of Russia: Trump, WikiLeaks, Sanders, The Intercept, Jill Stein,” Glenn Greenwald jokingly wrote a few days before Rogin’s article appeared. “Other than loyal Clinton supporters, is there anyone left who is not covertly controlled by or in service to The Ruskies?”

The Russians have long been masters of dezinformatsiya, and it is certainly possible that, for whatever reason, they are attempting to influence the U.S. election. The wide variety of contradictory conspiracy theories circulating, however, clearly means that at least one theory or another is incorrect. Which that is, however, and whether its proponents have been tricked by their own propaganda or an adversary’s, is far less apparent.

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