We are through the looking glass now

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Apologies to Triad City Beat Publisher Brian Clarey for swiping one of his observations: We are truly through the looking glass now.

A couple statements of principle are in order. All power should be regarded with skepticism, and it should be considered a given that ulterior motives lie behind every official pronouncement. That said, citizens in a democracy are obligated to seek information from reputable journalistic outlets, discern the truth and take a stand. Likewise, honorable journalists are obliged to wrestle with murky information and make a good-faith effort to present it coherently. For either journalists or citizens to throw up their hands and conclude that the truth is unknowable is a copout; despots thrive in an environment where truth is considered relative.

So what to make of the Obama administration’s abrupt, pre-New Year’s Eve expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and its multi-agency verification of meddling in the US presidential election by Russian intelligence agencies? And just to take this to another level of ontological strangeness, what to make of the fact that today’s progressives — the political heirs of the peaceniks who argued for de-escalation of the nuclear arms race — are the most concerned about Russian interference in our elections? How is it that the new Republican president-elect and some conservatives, supposedly descendants of the last century’s hardline Cold Warriors, are most likely to dismiss allegations of Russian meddling? How did that switch take place?

There’s too much circumstantial evidence to dismiss the administration’s case against Russia. Added to Vladimir Putin’s reported dislike of Hillary Clinton, the Russian president had a clear favorite in candidate Donald Trump, who has said he would consider lifting sanctions against Moscow and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while also saying that his commitment to defending the Baltic states against attack would be conditioned on whether “they fulfill their [financial] obligations to us.” Adding to Putin’s clear motive, there’s the obvious result that the breach of emails and drip of embarrassing disclosures targeted one party — the one whose nominee was Clinton.

The particulars of malicious cyber activity by Russian intelligence — given the sexy operational code name “Grizzly Steppe” by US officials — is detailed in a joint analysis report released on Dec. 29 by the FBI and Homeland Security National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center. According to the report, two different Russian intelligence actors, identified as Advanced Persistent Threat, or APT29, and APT28 “participated in the intrusion into a US political party” (read: Democratic National Committee). In the spring of 2016, the report says, APT28 used a spear-phishing email to trick “recipients into changing their passwords through a fake webmail domain hosted on APT28 operational infrastructure. Using the harvested credentials, APT28 was able to gain access and steal content, likely leading to the exfiltration of information from multiple senior party members. The US government assesses that information was leaked to the press and publicly disclosed.”

That all sounds credible enough. And yet there’s a disconnect.

Administration officials, speaking on background on Dec. 29, announced sanctions against nine entities and individuals, including two Russian intelligence services, three Russian companies that have provided cyber services to Russian intelligence — Special Technology Center St. Petersburg, Zorsecurity and the Autonomous Noncommercial Organization — along with two “notorious cyber criminals.” One unidentified senior administration official said the purpose of the sanctions was to make clear that “we will not tolerate the abuse of our systems, including our election systems, by foreign actors.”

On the other hand, the administration has not made any case that 35 Russian diplomats accused of acting as “intelligence agents” — it’s fairly routine for intelligence agencies to spy on each other under the cloak of diplomatic mission — had anything to do with manipulating the election. As to whether two Russian recreation facilities in Maryland and New York were just generally being used as “intelligence compounds” or whether they were specifically utilized to disrupt the election, the trust us factor comes into play: An unidentified administration official responded that the question “obviously kind of gets pretty precise on intelligence equities, so I don’t think we can speak to that.”

To further complicate the chain of events, the administration has said that its actions are also a response to ongoing harassment of US diplomats in Moscow. Explaining the conflation, one unidentified official said Obama directed his administration to “look at these actions as interconnected,” describing it as sharing “the same hostile posture and the same flagrant violation of basic norms of international behavior.”

These official sanctions and revelations come in advance of a more comprehensive report on Russian interference in the US election, so the timing at least interesting.

It’s tempting to see a grand conspiracy of intelligence spooks manufacturing the episode to manipulate US public opinion in support for a new Cold War. But it’s probably more likely the case that the Obama administration made a flat-footed attempt to box the incoming Trump administration into a diplomatic spat with Russia. But Putin and Trump were both too smart to fall for it.