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There are multiple investigations into whether a foreign power interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. They began with allegations of Russian meddling, yet have taken a new turn with the revelation that the Obama administration was monitoring the communications of the Trump team, possibly for political reasons.
Former national security adviser Susan Rice, responding to a question about whether she had sought to unmask the names of members of the Trump campaign or the Trump transition team, told MSNBC she had not done so “for political purposes.” Rice claimed later in the interview that any unmasking that she ordered was done for national security reasons.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees are now calling on Rice to testify on whether the gathered intelligence was used improperly.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on Twitter that Rice “needs to testify under oath.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that there is still no conclusive evidence showing the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia, saying, “I don’t think we can say anything definitively at this point.”
The investigations into Russian interference pull from a legitimate concern that a foreign power may have interfered with the U.S. presidential elections. This was initially based on suspicions that WikiLeaks, an information-leaking website, had released emails that may have been stolen from Hillary Clinton’s aides by Russian hackers.
It carried an additional component, however, that is now beginning to unravel—the idea that the Trump campaign may have had a hand in the leaks.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC News on March 6, that in his investigations into Russian interference in the elections, conducted under the Obama administration, “There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
Obama’s acting CIA chief Michael Morell also stepped back on his initial hardline that the Trump team may have colluded with Russia, and said at a March 16 event, according to NBC News, “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke but there is no fire, at all.
“There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating whether Russia interfered in the election, are starting to quell expectations. BuzzFeed News said it spoke with more than six individuals involved in the investigation, both Republicans and Democrats, and noted that “there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called ‘wildly inflated’ expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation.”
An official told Buzzfeed, “I don’t think the conclusions are going to meet people’s expectations.”
Emotions on Overdrive
The 2016 elections were hard on most Americans, to say the least, but they were especially difficult for Democrats, who were told up to Election Day that Trump stood no chance against Clinton—only to watch this fade away on election night. And they were told again that the electoral college could flip its vote and Clinton would still have a shot, only to again be disappointed.
There is a huge disparity between the amount of evidence that is cited in news stories and the charges—they’re overcharging, if there is any evidence at all., , author, ‘Gray Lady Down’
Many major news outlets, meanwhile, have hunkered down on the idea that the Trump presidency is not legitimate, and the Russia probe has become their last bastion against Trump.
This has led to a style of reporting that has blown many findings out of proportion, and that has failed to put information into its accurate context. At the same time, many of the ongoing controversies are based not on new evidence, but instead on new comments about old evidence.
“There is a huge disparity between the amount of evidence that is cited in news stories and the charges—they’re overcharging, if there is any evidence at all,” said William McGowan, author of the books “Coloring the News” and “Gray Lady Down” and a former editor at Washington Monthly who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other national news organizations.
McGowan said that while he’s not a fan of Trump’s antagonistic style, he has found the coverage and commentary on Trump to be “strikingly biased, and much more successful at expressing fear and loathing than in encouraging an understanding of the man and his movement.”
He noted that in their coverage, many news outlets take the road of misquoting Trump, then using the misquotes to denounce him. As an example, McGowan cited a video in which Trump allegedly—as The New York Times put it in their headline—”calls on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.”
The press conference video is widely cited by major news outlets as evidence that Trump was tied to WikiLeaks’ releasing of stolen emails from the Clinton campaign.
Taken in context, however, Trump’s statement was very different from how it has been framed. At the time of the press conference on July 27, 2016, WikiLeaks had already started releasing the stolen emails, and news outlets were already trying to accuse Trump of being tied to the leaks. Trump condemned Russia’s actions, saying, “Russia has no respect for our country,” and said that if a foreign government was behind the leaks, it was a “total sign of disrespect for our country.”
Reporters continued to press Trump about the leaks, however, and continued to accuse him of being involved—without evidence. Trump then responded, “What do I have to get involved with Putin for?”, and then accused the reporters of bias and double standards, asking them why they weren’t similarly holding Clinton accountable for her missing emails. He then stated, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
News outlets then began widely circulating clips of Trump’s ending statement to allege he called on Russia to hack Clinton.
McGowan said, “What you have is a shred of a statement or utterance, and the media takes a huge leap from that.”
According to Ronald J. Rychlak, a lawyer and staunch critic of Russia, people tend to draw incorrect conclusions when they start looking at issues from an existing assumption. Rychlak co-authored the book “Disinformation” with Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official who ever defected to the West.
In legal cases, Rychlak said, there are checks and balances on burden of proof and on cross examination. With accusations spread in the news, “reporters get to set their own standards.”
“Some evidence is inconclusive,” he said, noting that if you approach an investigation while already assuming that one party is guilty, then “your starting assumption is going to determine your ultimate conclusion.”
There are at least three investigations into the Trump–Russia connection by the FBI.
In addition, Congress has five standing committees and one sub-committee investigating Russian interference in the election as well as contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials.
Rep. Schiff said during a March 20 testimony to the House Select Intelligence Committee that at least four people involved in the Trump campaign are being investigated: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone.
Page was allegedly named a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, although Trump’s campaign staffers deny this. He was accused by Schiff of doing business in Russia—specifically with Russian oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft. As with most major companies in Russia, the oil industry is largely controlled by Russian oligarchs, and company CEOs typically have relations with the Russian government.
Page, an oil industry consultant, is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a New York investment fund and consulting firm that specializes in the oil and gas industries in Central Asia and Russia.
Flynn is arguably the most controversial figure in the investigations. He allegedly wants to testify to the House and Senate committees to explain his case, but has also requested immunity.
While his request looks bad—suggesting he broke the law somewhere along the line—it likely ties to legal issues that are already known.
Flynn is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama from July 24, 2012, until Aug. 7, 2014. He later served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and started as Trump’s national security adviser on Jan. 20.
Flynn served as adviser for just 24 days, before he was removed from the position on Feb. 13. Flynn said he resigned, and Trump said he was fired.
Flynn was accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence, claiming he did not discuss Russian sanctions during a call he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislya before Trump took office. It was revealed in intercepted transcripts from the Obama administration that Flynn did discuss sanctions.
In his resignation letter, Flynn apologized and said it was not intentional. He said in his resignation letter that “in the course of my duties as the incoming national security adviser, I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors.” He said the calls were to ensure a smooth transition for the Trump presidency and that “because of the fast pace of events,” he had unintentionally provided Pence with “incomplete information.”
Schiff also accused Flynn of receiving $33,750 from Russian television network RT, which receives part of its funding from the Russian government, for a speech he made in Moscow in 2015. The Trump administration said Flynn did not disclose his payments from RT.
In March, Flynn registered as a foreign agent lobbying for Turkey. His firm, Flynn Intel Group, was paid $530,000 by Netherlands-based firm Inovo BV, which is owned by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Most of this was already known. Online news portal The Intercept reported in Nov. 2016 that Flynn Intel Group registered as a lobbying entity in September 2016, and in that same month, Robert Kelley, the company’s general counsel, registered as a lobbyist for Inovo BV.
Flynn may be in hot water over both of these issues—mainly on the grounds that he failed to disclose his RT payment to the Trump team and that he did not register himself as a foreign-agent lobbyist in the Turkey deal.
As for Manafort, he and Stone both worked for the Trump campaign—Manafort as campaign manager and Stone as an adviser. Both are professional lobbyists with the Washington-based lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.
In August 2015 Trump fired Stone, while Manafort resigned in August 2016. Stone claimed he quit, but the Trump campaign said he was fired because, according to CNN, “We have a tremendously successful campaign and Roger wanted to use the campaign for his own personal publicity.”
Schiff has accused Manafort of long being “on the payroll of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.”
According to The Associated Press, Manafort worked with a Russian billionaire to “greatly benefit the Putin government,” which took the form of a $10 million annual contract with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, chairman of Basic Element Co.
Put into context, however, Manafort’s deal with Deripaska started more than 10 years ago in 2006 and ended by 2009 at the latest, according to AP. It notes that by 2016, the relationship between Manafort and Deripaska had gone sour, and during the 2016 presidential campaign, “Deripaska’s representatives openly accused Manafort of fraud” and were trying to recover money from him.
Manafort is also accused of working with the Russian government through Ukraine. This accusation concerns his having worked with Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who was pro-Russia.
Manafort’s lobbying firm, Prime Policy Group, lobbies U.S. Congress on behalf of foreign governments. It was formed in a 2010 merger between Timmons & Co. and BKSH & Associates, and its members have many political connections—both Republican and Democrat. Charles Black Jr. was a senior adviser to Ronald Reagan in his 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns, and later to George H.W. Bush. Peter Kelly, also in the firm, was an adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton.
The case against Stone was also outlined by Schiff on March 20. He claimed that Stone communicated with Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, which would later publish emails of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and that Stone also communicated with the hacker behind the leaks, Guccifer 2.0, who has been inconclusively accused of working for Russian intelligence.
Stone did communicate with Guccifer 2.0 over Twitter—but it was close to a year after he was fired from the Trump campaign and at a time when the leaks were well underway.
In August 2016, Twitter had reinstated Guccifer 2.0’s account after suspending it for leaking private information on Democrats when the scandal over Clinton’s missing emails was running hot. Stone told Politico on March 27 his message was just to send him a “high-five saying, ‘Glad you’re reinstated,’ because I’m against censorship.”
Stone made his full Twitter discussion with Guccifer 2.0 public on March 10, showing he sent three short messages. The first two were in August 2016, and said he was glad his account was reinstated, then asked him to retweet an article on how the election could be rigged against Trump. His third message in September 2016 was in response to a story Guccifer sent to him via Twitter direct message, to which Stone replied, “Pretty standard.”
Stone claimed he communicated with Assange on Aug. 8, 2016, again close to a year after he left the Trump campaign. According to FactCheck.org, “Stone later clarified that he never spoke directly with Assange, but that the two have a mutual journalist friend,” and that the journalist told Stone that Assange was going to release emails on Hillary Clinton in October.
Schiff also alleged that Stone predicted Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta would fall victim to a cyberattack and have his emails published, before it happened. Schiff’s statement was based on a tweet Stone published on Aug. 21 that said, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary”
He sent the tweet after WikiLeaks had already begun publishing documents on the Clinton campaign, close to a year after he was fired by Trump.
Stone later clarified his tweet in an interview with Breitbart News, saying it was in response to political attacks about Manafort’s business deals with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
He said the tweet was meant to predict that Podesta’s own business deals with Russia would be exposed. This was related to information leaked in the Panama Papers, which unveiled, according to The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the “rogue industry” that hides money for politicians and criminals.
The Clinton Campaign
Stone’s reference to Podesta was also pointed to by Trump, who alleged other connections between Russia and Clinton’s team.
Trump tweeted on March 27, “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech … money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company.”
According to the Observer, the Panama Papers showed The Podesta Group, co-founded by Podesta and his brother, company chairman Tony Podesta, has lobbied Washington on behalf of Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank. Tony Podesta is a registered lobbyist for Sberbank and was a top campaign bundler and contributor for Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The Observer states Tony Podesta worked for Sberbank to “help lift some of the pain of sanctions placed on Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, which has caused real pain to the country’s hard-hit financial sector.”
Fox News reported that in 2011, Podesta joined the board of Massachusetts-based energy company Joule Energy, and two months later, a Russian company invested close to $35 million into it. The Russian company was Rusnano, a joint-stock company owned by the Russian government.
Podesta claims he disclosed his 75,000 stock shares in the company and transferred them in January 2014, before he became counselor to Obama that same month.
In another case, Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 by Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital, owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, for a speech in 2010, according to Hillary Clinton’s financial disclosures.
According to PolitiFact, some critics of the Clintons suggest the speaking fee “might have been an attempt by Renaissance Capital to curry favor with the State Department,” since Renaissance Capital was involved in a deal to obtain Uranium One, an international mining company headquartered in Canada but with operations in the United States, that supplied close to 11 percent of U.S. uranium in 2014.
Around the time of Bill Clinton’s speech, the State Department—under Hillary Clinton as secretary of state—had to sign off on Renaissance Capital’s bid to gain a controlling stake in Uranium One. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that as the bids were approved from 2009 to 2013, “a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation” that totaled $2.35 million.”
Falsified Cyber Reports
During the presidential transition in December 2016, former president Barack Obama ordered an investigation into the possibility that Russia helped Trump win the election. This produced two reports, which Obama rushed to the public before Trump was sworn into office on Jan. 20.
The first report, from Dec. 29, 2016, from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), began with a disclaimer that it “does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.”
The report dedicates less than three pages to the allegations that two hacker groups breached the DNC’s networks, and breaks up these pages with large infographics showing how basic cyberattacks work. It then shows a list of nicknames given to alleged Russian hacker groups by the cybersecurity community, and then dedicates the remaining pages to tips on how companies can guard against cyberattacks.
The 13-page report alleges that Guccifer 2.0 is actually two hacker groups, and at least one breached “a political party.” The report fails, however, to show any conclusive evidence to support this claim.
It also turned out that much of the work in the FBI report came from investigations of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which recently revised and retracted some of its initial conclusions that Russia was behind the cyberattacks.
Part of the Russia connection was from a CrowdStrike claim that it found evidence the Russian government hacked a Ukrainian artillery app, which shut down Ukraine’s howitzers in its war against pro-Russia separatists. This proved to be false, however. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said the hacking never happened, according to Voice of America, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies disavowed the CrowdStrike report, noting that contrary to claims, CrowdStrike never contacted them.
Malicious actors can easily position their breach to be attributed to Russia, and that even hackers with the most basic skills can do this.
CrowdStrike was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate who hacked its accounts. After one day of analysis, it concluded the attacks were from “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear,” nicknames cybersecurity researchers have given to alleged Russia hacker groups.
The problem with CrowdStrike’s findings is they were based solely on the tools the hackers used, the traits of the targets, and similar information.
Guccifer 2.0, the hacker behind the leaked emails, issued a statement on Jan. 12 stating the accusations of him being tied to Russian intelligence are “unfounded” and noted that “any IT professional can see that a malware sample mentioned in the Joint Analysis Report was taken from the web and was commonly available. A lot of hackers use it.”
“It’s obvious that the intelligence agencies are deliberately falsifying evidence,” he stated.
Many cybersecurity experts have pointed out similar issues, noting none of the information in the reports is conclusive, since any hacker can spoof such attacks by simply using the same tools and methodology of a known hacker group.
A report from the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) says, “Malicious actors can easily position their breach to be attributed to Russia,” and that even hackers with the most basic skills can do this.
It adds, “It would be easy to baselessly declare that all of the attacks were launched by Russia based on the malware employed.”
To make things still more complicated, the method that CrowdStrike used to identify the alleged Russian hackers looks at the same information that the CIA can allegedly spoof. Under the CIA’s UMBRAGE group, revealed by WikiLeaks on March 7. The CIA maintains a digital library of attacks and techniques from various hacker groups, so that it can use these methods to launch attacks while framing known hacker groups.
WikiLeaks noted in a press release that the CIA’s UMBRAGE files included attack profiles of Russian hacker groups, which could be used to leave falsified “fingerprints” for cyber forensics investigators.
No Evidence of Collusion
The next report was released on Jan. 6 through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which collected analysis from the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency (NSA).
It alleged that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” The keywords here are “influence campaign.”
The evidence presented by the 25-page report consists almost entirely of news articles from Russian news outlet RT. Its says the Russian government favored a Trump victory, and the state-funded RT reported favorably on Trump and negatively on Clinton.
The report’s core claim to foreign interference is on the grounds that RT news articles received traction in U.S. news outlets and social media networks.
Of course, similar analyses could be applied to any foreign official who openly supported or decried a U.S. presidential candidate, and whose comments received broad media coverage. Most foreign leaders, including in Canada and Europe, took an opposite stance from Russia and openly supported Clinton and decried Trump.
The report also made broad allegations based on classified evidence that was not made public. The nature of the classified information was later released by BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, and was shown to have come from a 35-page dossier collected by a former British MI6 agent who now runs a private security business.
When the “highly classified assessment,” as the government report called it, was made public by BuzzFeed, even BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote, “There is serious reason to doubt the allegations.”
The narrative has since unraveled, as was revealed by James Clapper, who led the investigations as director of national intelligence under Obama, during a March 5 segment of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Clapper said, “We did not include any evidence in our report (and I say, ‘our,’ that’s NSA, FBI, and CIA, with my office, the director of National Intelligence) that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. We had no evidence of such collusion.”