In an extraordinary development Thursday, the Obama administration announced a series of sanctions against Russia. Thirty-five Russian nationals will be expelled from the country. President Obama issued a terse statement seeming to blame Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails.(emphasis mine)
"These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government," he wrote.
Russia at first pledged, darkly, to retaliate, then backed off. The Russian press today is even reporting that Vladimir Putin is inviting "the children of American diplomats" to "visit the Christmas tree in the Kremlin," as characteristically loathsome/menacing/sarcastic a Putin response as you'll find.
This dramatic story puts the news media in a jackpot. Absent independent verification, reporters will have to rely upon the secret assessments of intelligence agencies to cover the story at all.
Many reporters I know are quietly freaking out about having to go through that again. We all remember the WMD fiasco.
"It's déjà vu all over again" is how one friend put it.
But we don't learn much at all about what led our government to determine a) that these hacks were directed by the Russian government, or b) they were undertaken with the aim of influencing the election, and in particular to help elect Donald Trump.
The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.
If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now.
Now we have this sanctions story, which presents a new conundrum. It appears that a large segment of the press is biting hard on the core allegations of electoral interference emanating from the Obama administration.
Did the Russians do it? Very possibly, in which case it should be reported to the max. But the press right now is flying blind. Plowing ahead with credulous accounts is problematic because so many different feasible scenarios are in play.
On one end of the spectrum, America could have just been the victim of a virtual coup d'etat engineered by a combination of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which would be among the most serious things to ever happen to our democracy.
But this could also just be a cynical ass-covering campaign, by a Democratic Party that has seemed keen to deflect attention from its own electoral failures.
The outgoing Democrats could just be using an over-interpreted intelligence "assessment" to delegitimize the incoming Trump administration and force Trump into an embarrassing political situation: Does he ease up on Russia and look like a patsy, or escalate even further with a nuclear-armed power?
We ought to have learned from the Judith Miller episode. Not only do governments lie, they won't hesitate to burn news agencies. In a desperate moment, they'll use any sucker they can find to get a point across.
It's not just me and Mr. Taibbi who sees the evidence presented as thing, both reporters on the technical side of the national security beat, and William Binney the creator of the NSA's data dragnet is profoundly unimpressed with the report:
The continuing (for lack of a better term) red baiting by elements of the Democratic Party who failed but want to keep their "Phony Baloney Jobs" is rather deafening.
I expected to see the IP’s or other signatures of APT’s 28/29 [the entities which the U.S. claims hacked the Democratic emails] and where they were located and how/when the data got transferred to them from DNC/HRC [i.e. Hillary Rodham Clinton]/etc. They seem to have been following APT 28/29 since at least 2015, so, where are they?
Further, once we see the data being transferred to them, when and how did they transfer that data to Wikileaks? This would be evidence of trying to influence our election by getting the truth of our corrupt system out.
And, as Edward Snowden said, once they have the IP’s and/or other signatures of 28/29 and DNC/HRC/etc., NSA would use Xkeyscore to help trace data passing across the network and show where it went. [Background.]
In addition, since Wikileaks is (and has been) a cast iron target for NSA/GCHQ/etc for a number of years there
should be no excuse for them missing data going to any one associated with Wikileaks.
Too many words means they don’t have clear evidence of how the data got to Wikileaks.
Obama finally took actions, expelling a few diplomats and shutting down two Russian facilities used largely by vacationing embassy staffer's children, and in a tit for tat, Putin responded by inviting diplomatic children to (Orthodox) Christmas and New Years parties at the Kremlin.
Wait, that's not a tit-for-tat retaliation:
On a day when everyone expected him to go low, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the high road, bowing out of a growing diplomatic showdown with the administration of President Obama in a gambit to woo his successor, Donald Trump.Obama just got trolled something fierce.
In a rare, and calculated, break from the diplomatic tradition of reciprocal punishment, Putin opted to do nothing after the United States said it would expel 35 Russian diplomats and close a pair of Russian-owned properties in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Putin said he would wait to see how U.S.-Russian relations develop under the new Trump administration before planning “any further steps” on the issue.
Until Putin’s surprise decision Friday, all signs pointed toward the familiar, hard-nosed Kremlin response of years past. In 2012, when Russia was slapped with U.S. sanctions over the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Putin shot back by signing a ban on all foreign adoptions of Russian children, just days after Christmas, sparking outrage.
But this time, with the Kremlin bidding farewell to Obama and betting that a friendly Trump administration will bring fresh opportunities to escape sanctions and make a grab for greater power status, Putin waxed magnanimous.
“We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats,” Putin said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.”
Instead of sending the U.S. diplomats home, Putin invited their kids over for “the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin.”