Fortunately, there's a simple explanation, which Holman Jenkins alludes to on the "conservative" Op-Ed page of the WSJ this morning: Trump: A Brawler for Democracy--A weak and unlikely and untutored president beats back a concerted campaign of delegitimization. I'm going through this exercise because, obviously, the WSJ has a big readership and is still influential in "conservative" circles. I take it, therefore, that what Jenkins presents is actually influential among conventional, establishment GOP types. And it's still being advanced, even after the Mueller Meltdown.
There's another important reason for spending my time on this. If you persevere to the end you'll see the importance of Bill Barr's focus on the Intelligence Community Assessment--written by John Brennan's "handpicked" analysts. The ICA remains the absolute linchpin of the Russian "meddling" narrative. Barr knows he needs to get to the bottom of that.
So, as usual, Jenkins presents his oft repeated view, utterly daft and unsupported, presenting it as simple fact:
Mr. Trump did launch his campaign as an infomercial to promote his personal brand. He didn’t expect to be president. ... Mr. Trump, expecting he would soon return to private life, kept trying to parlay his newly stratospheric celebrity into a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign.
However, Jenkins does give backhanded kudos to Trump:
And one thing you can say about President Trump: This most unlikely and in some ways weakest of presidents has brawled his way to victory over the most concerted delegitimization campaign any president has ever faced.
But then at the end he lets us in on--or, rather, hints at--the truth of what happened: how the Russians meddled, manipulated the hapless Jim Comey, and changed the course of history--although he requires you to follow a link to the New Yorker to get the real lowdown:
In a rare moment of perspicacity, Mr. Schiff allowed to the New Yorker magazine that the Kremlin’s most consequential impact on the 2016 race may have been the role that still-hidden Russian intelligence played in sparking the shambolic interventions of former FBI Director James Comey.
Mr. Schiff is right about this. Mr. Comey himself indicated that the information is of such sensitivity that it will likely remain hidden “decades from now.” So here’s one reason to support Mr. Trump’s re-election no matter how much nose-holding it requires: It may be the only way to reach the truth of 2016.
Gosh, what's he talking about? Is he on to something that's too sensitive to even describe in any detail in the WSJ? Why should I have to go to a long screed in the New Yorker and scroll through it for what seems forever to figure this out?
First you need to know that the article in question was written by Jame Mayer in September, 2018: How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump--A meticulous analysis of online activity during the 2016 campaign makes a powerful case that targeted cyberattacks by hackers and trolls were decisive. It's a lengthy review of a book by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania: Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know.
Here's Mayer getting to the core of it all, the cyber meddling that launched Comey's tail chasing:
Ordinarily, when the F.B.I. ends an investigation with no charges, it says nothing. In very high-profile cases, it sometimes issues a “declination” statement. But, even though Comey wasn’t the head of the Justice Department—he was only the F.B.I. director—he had unilaterally designated himself the spokesman for the entire investigation, and had called a live press conference without asking the permission of his boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
As Jamieson worked on her manuscript, she noticed that Comey repeatedly hinted that his decision to preëmpt his boss was prompted, in part, by classified information, which, if leaked, would undermine the over-all integrity of the Clinton probe. In public, he mysteriously declined to be more specific about this intelligence, but claimed that it had compounded concerns already stirred by an impromptu private visit between Lynch and Bill Clinton, on June 27th, at an Arizona airport.
Six months after the election, the Washington Post broke a story that solved the mystery. At some point in 2016, the F.B.I. had received unverified Russian intelligence describing purported e-mails from Lynch to a member of the Clinton team, in which she promised that she’d go easy on Clinton. An unnamed source told the Post that the intelligence had been viewed as “junk.” Nonetheless, Comey has reportedly told aides that he let the disinformation shape his decision to sideline Lynch. Fearing, in part, that conservatives would create a furor if the alleged e-mails became public, he began to feel that Lynch “could not credibly participate in announcing a declination.” A subsequent report, by the Justice Department’s inspector general, described Comey’s behavior as “extraordinary and insubordinate,” and found his justifications unpersuasive.
Nick Merrill, a former Clinton-campaign spokesman, describes Comey’s actions as “mind-blowing.” He said of the intelligence impugning Lynch, “It was a Russian forgery. But Comey based major decisions in the Justice Department on Russian disinformation because of the optics of it! The Russians targeted the F.B.I., hoping they’d act on it, and then he went ahead and did so.”
In the fake Russian intelligence, one of the Clinton-campaign officials accused of conspiring with Lynch was Amanda Renteria. She was shocked to learn of the allegations, and told me that, although she is friendly with a woman named Loretta Lynch—a political figure in California—she does not know the Loretta Lynch who was the Attorney General. Renteria said, “To me, it says that, in the new world of politics, even if something isn’t real, it can still move things. You aren’t living in the world of reality anymore.”
Comey declined to comment for this article, citing the classified nature of the intelligence in question. As with the other incidents described in Jamieson’s book, it is hard to assess precisely how much of a difference his damaging statements about Clinton made at the voting booth. But it certainly didn’t help her candidacy when, just ten days before the election, Comey—reprising his self-appointed spokesperson role—announced that the F.B.I. was reopening the investigation because more Clinton e-mails had been found. Seven days later, he made a third announcement, clearing her again. Adam Schiff, the Democratic representative who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told me that, if you take Comey at his word that the fake intelligence drove his decision to publicly censor Clinton in the first place—there are skeptics who suspect that Comey’s grandstanding moralism was a bigger factor—then “it probably was the most measurable” and “the most significant way in which the Russians may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
Think about all that, what you're being asked to believe. A forged email--and the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, had no way of verifying it! Why, that means that the United States is absolutely defenseless in the face of Russian "cyber meddling". What forged emails will they send next? We're at their mercy--they'll have us chasing our tails until we drop in our tracks! And all by sending a few forged emails. Wow--pure genius!
And then there's this. You're supposed to forget what actually happened and accept that Comey simply showed up one day at the Senate to give his non-prosecution decision. You're supposed to forget that this was widely announced and anticipated, and that Lynch--not to mention Obama--could easily have told Comey, Whoa, no you don't!
What amazes me is the supposedly conservative WSJ publishing references to this nonsense. But they're not alone. I tried to find a few critiques of Jamieson's book, and came up with virtually nothing but fan reviews. I did finally find this critical review, by an author who's lefty and a professed fan of Jamieson, but who is deeply unpersuaded: Cyberwar: #RussiaGate Is US. And when you get into it, it turns out that Cyberwar is based on pretty much the usual assumptions. They've been largely debunked, and yet by implication they're being recycled in the pages of the WSJ as well as liberal media generally.
Here are excerpts that get to the heart of what's so problematic about Cyberwar. You'll see that these include issues that we've already discussed, but it's useful to see them from a slightly different perspective. Yes, it's all been largely debunked, but this is what's still driving the narrative throughout the MSM, including "conservative" publications like the WSJ, so, give it a read:
To be clear, I approached Cyberwar with an open mind. I am a big fan of the book’s author, distinguished US media scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson (KHJ), longtime badass in the world of political communications scholarship, and current Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Jamieson’s got street cred. However, after a close read and re-read of KHJ’s new book, including all the footnotes, Cyberwar left me unconvinced by its “more or less” central conclusion – “Russia trolled and hacked the 2016 US election, sorta!” In fact, I’d suggest that Cyberwar is a deeply problematic book, a fascinating scholarly study in “manufacturing consent” – the term Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky borrowed from Walter Lippman to title their 1988 book of the same name – describing how US elites “massage” US news channels like the New York Times, “filtering” into public view the “news” stories most beneficial to their strategic goals, while downplaying or censoring other worthy “news” stories of significance.
To fully understand my critique of Cyberwar, start with Jamieson’s credulous acceptance of “facts” provided by the US “intelligence community” (my new favorite Orwellian trope) re: the Russian government’s “interference” to advance her Cyberwar case. More on that in a moment. In the meantime, here is KHJ’s central Cyberwar claim, summarized in a single long sentence, slightly paraphrased for brevity, from her book’s conclusion:
“In the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, Russian trolls and hackers carried out a strategically systematic and ultimately successful communications campaign to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and support Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump through sufficiently widespread messaging that focused on issues compatible with Trump’s strategic needs, addressing constituencies he had to mobilize and demobilize, by employing persuasive, visually evocative and well-targeted content that was amplified in swing states through sharing, liking, and commenting.” (p. 203).
It’s a mouthful, I know, and when you read it over a few times, removing both Clinton and Trump’s names, you quickly realize that this is what ANY strategic political campaign using digital tools –Cyberspace’s unique power and reach – would set out to do to try and win any election, anywhere. Russian president Vladimir Putin himself concedes that Russia wages “campaigns of political influence” wherever and whenever they can, just as the US and other powerful countries do and have done for decades, using as many communications tools as they can leverage.
“My case that the uses of Russian-hacked (emphasis added) Democratic materials influenced voters is ... is scaffolded on evidence that the hacked content not only altered the media and debate agendas but also increased the negative press about Clinton. And it is bolstered by the possibility that Russian access and anticipated use of illegally gotten or fabricated Democratic content shaped a key decision by FBI director Comey.” (210)
Now, here is where we get to the Intelligence Community Assessment. That's what the author is talking about, although he doesn't name it. It's central to the whole Russia meddling narrative, it's central to Jamieson's claims in Cyberwar, and, as we saw right up front via Holman Jenkins and the WSJ, it's what continues to prop up everything that Adam Schiff says. So you see the importance of Barr's focus on the ICA:
Cyberwar continually flirts with a central question (which has become a story routinely told by US “news” media outlets) – “Was Russian troll farming some sort of Kremlin-staged strategic cyber-op?” – without ever really answering it. The result is a book-length begging of this very important question, and here we come to the primary problem with Cyberwar– and it’s a whopper. Jamieson build her case for the Russian “tanking” of HRC’s candidacy on two central assumptions, both unproven.
Assumption #1: Jamieson implicitly asserts in Cyberwar that the Russians “hacked” into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer servers (as well as other hacks) and obtained digital copies of thousands of what became publicly damning emails from members of the DNC leadership team – Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta, HRC herself, and others – and then (by extension) tried to leverage the contents of these stolen documents for months in US social media spaces (and, by extension, influenced the shaping of US news narratives about HRC.) Interestingly, KHJ sneaks in “Russia hacked” and “Russian-stolen Democratic content” language into the last third of her book, without directly addressing this BIG rhetorical move or providing any proof that the Russians did so. Instead, she appears to implicitly draw on “evidence” for Russian hacking provided by the US “intelligence community” – former FBI director turned Trump special prosecutor Bob Mueller, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, and former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden chief among them. (Mueller, Clapper, Hayden – three US government officials who have all been less than honest with the American people, and I’m being generous.)
The counternarrative to the “Russia hacked into the DNC computers” story? Information was “leaked” from inside the DNC, not hacked from the outside. How might we know? Former NSA cryptographer Bill Binney, former CIA official Ray McGovern, and many other members of the 2003-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) argue that, based on their review of computer bit rate information, the stolen DNC content traveled at bandwidth rates too high to have been an external “hack,” but rather an internal “leak.” The reality? We’ll never know for sure, because the DNC refused to hand over their compromised computer servers to the FBI, instead contracting with Crowd Strike, a private US cybersecurity firm, to ascertain affirmative Russian hacking involvement (#Surprise!). For interested readers, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney discusses his “leak versus hack” conclusions on this recent episode of Brass Check TV between 1:27 – 1:37 here.
Assumption #2: In Cyberwar, Jamieson implies that WikiLeaks closely collaborated with the Russian government, or at the very least (it’s a bit hard to tell from her lack of analysis here), Putin used WikiLeaks as its public relations machine to destroy HRC’s reputation and elevate DJT as a presidential candidate. In other words, from his Ecuadorian embassy prison, Assange was in close cahoots with Putin, Cyberwar implies, or at the very least, Assange served as a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin. Here again, KHJ offers no proof, other than continually flagging the usual suspects, Russian troll farmers and hackers, as well as other sources such as the popular RT (formerly Russia Today) news channel for alleged disinformation shenanigans, such as broadcasting an exclusive in-depth interview between independent British journalist John Pilger and WikiLeaks’ co-founder Julian Assange on November 6, 2016, two days before the election.
If we are ever to have a stake driven through the heart of this harmful narrative, Bill Barr is on the right path. At the center of it is the ICA assessment, and that is what must be addressed. Barr knows this and set out to do it from the very start.