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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.
"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.
You can see awkwardness reflected in the headlines that flew around the Internet Thursday. Some news agencies seemed split on whether to unequivocally declare that Russian hacking took place, or whether to hedge bets and put it all on the government to make that declaration, using "Obama says" formulations.
The New York Times was more aggressive, writing flatly, "Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking." It backed up its story with a link to a joint FBI/Homeland Security report that details how Russian civilian and military intelligence services (termed "RIS" in the report) twice breached the defenses of "a U.S. political party," presumably the Democrats.
This report is long on jargon but short on specifics. More than half of it is just a list of suggestions for preventive measures.
At one point we learn that the code name the U.S. intelligence community has given to Russian cyber shenanigans is GRIZZLY STEPPE, a sexy enough detail.
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.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham noted the "small price" Russia paid for its "brazen attack." The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, said Thursday that taken alone, the Obama response is "insufficient" as a response to "attacks on the United States by a foreign power."
The "small price" is an eyebrow-raiser. Also, like the WMD story, there's an element of salesmanship the government is using to push the hacking narrative that should make reporters nervous. Take this line in Obama's statement about mistreatment of American diplomats in Moscow:
"Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year."
This appears to refer to an incident this summer in which an American diplomat was beaten outside the diplomatic compound in Moscow. That followed a 2013 case in which a U.S. diplomat named Ryan Fogle was arrested in similar fashion.
Fogle was unequivocally described as a CIA agent in many Russian reports. Photos of Fogle's shpionsky rekvisit, or spy kit – including wigs and a city map that were allegedly on his person – became the source of many jokes in the Russian press and social media. Similar to this hacking story here in the states, ordinary Russians seemed split on what to believe.
If the Russians messed with an election, that's enough on its own to warrant a massive response – miles worse than heavy-handed responses to ordinary spying episodes. Obama mentioning these humdrum tradecraft skirmishes feels like he's throwing something in to bolster an otherwise thin case.
Adding to the problem is that in the last months of the campaign, and also in the time since the election, we've seen an epidemic of factually loose, clearly politically motivated reporting about Russia. Democrat-leaning pundits have been unnervingly quick to use phrases like "Russia hacked the election."
This has led to widespread confusion among news audiences over whether the Russians hacked the DNC emails (a story that has at least been backed by some evidence, even if it hasn't always been great evidence), or whether Russians hacked vote tallies in critical states (a far more outlandish tale backed by no credible evidence).
As noted in The Intercept and other outlets, an Economist/YouGov poll conducted this month shows that 50 percent of all Clinton voters believe the Russians hacked vote tallies.
This number is nearly as disturbing as the 62 percent of Trump voters who believe the preposterous, un-sourced Trump/Alex Jones contention that "millions" of undocumented immigrants voted in the election.
Then there was the episode in which the Washington Post ran that breathless story about Russians aiding the spread of "fake news." That irresponsible story turned out to have been largely based on one highly dubious source called "PropOrNot" that identified 200 different American alternative media organizations as "useful idiots" of the Russian state.
The Post eventually distanced itself from the story, saying it "does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot's findings." This was a very strange thing to say in a statement that isn't an outright retraction. The idea that it's OK to publish an allegation when you yourself are not confident in what your source is saying is a major departure from what was previously thought to be the norm in a paper like the Post.
There have been other excesses. An interview with Julian Assange by an Italian newspaper has been bastardized in Western re-writes, with papers like The Guardian crediting Assange with "praise" of Trump and seemingly flattering comments about Russia that are not supported by the actual text. (The Guardian has now "amended" a number of the passages in the report in question).
And reports by some Democrat-friendly reporters – like Kurt Eichenwald, who has birthed some real head-scratchers this year, including what he admitted was a baseless claim that Trump spent time in an institution in 1990 – have attempted to argue that Trump surrogates may have been liaising with the Russians because they either visited Russia or appeared on the RT network. Similar reporting about Russian scheming has been based entirely on unnamed security sources.
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?
It could also be something in between. Perhaps the FSB didn't commission the hack, but merely enabled it somehow. Or maybe the Russians did hack the DNC, but the WikiLeaks material actually came from someone else? There is even a published report to that effect, with a former British ambassador as a source, not that it's any more believable than anything else here.
We just don't know, which is the problem.
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.
I have no problem believing that Vladimir Putin tried to influence the American election. He's gangster-spook-scum of the lowest order and capable of anything. And Donald Trump, too, was swine enough during the campaign to publicly hope the Russians would disclose Hillary Clinton's emails. So a lot of this is very believable.
But we've been burned before in stories like this, to disastrous effect. Which makes it surprising we're not trying harder to avoid getting fooled again.