Western media and Democratic Party politicians have made a major campaign accusing Russia of “meddling” in the U.S. election, colluding with and helping Donald Trump win the presidency. The charges began as “allegations” but now are routinely asserted as facts. The Washington Post recently ran a long article claiming all the above plus adding that the operation was directed by Russian President Putin himself, implying not enough has been done to “punish” Russia. The July-August 2017 edition of Mother Jones magazine features an article titled, “The Russian Connection: Collusion? Maybe. Active Enablers? Definitely. Trump Knew the Truth, but he Remained on the Side of the Enemy.”
Is this campaign based on facts or political opportunism? Does it help or hurt the progressive cause of peace with justice? Following are major problems with the “anti-Russia” theme, starting with the lack of clear evidence.
1. Evidence from Crowdstrike is dubious
Accusations that Russia stole and released the Democratic National Committee emails are based on the findings of the private company Crowdstrike. The DNC did not allow the FBI to scan the computers but relied on a hired private company which claims to have found telltale Russian alphabet characters in the computer memory. However, Crowdstrike is known to be politically biased, connected to the Clintons, and to make false accusations such as this one documented by Voice of America. Recently the Wikileaks “Vault7” findings revealed that the CIA has developed software which purposely leaves foreign language characters in memory, casting further doubt on the Crowdstrike evidence.
2. The Steele Dossier looks fictitious
The accusations of Trump-Russia collusion are significantly based on the so-called “Steele Dossier.” This is the 35-page compilation of “intelligence reports” produced by a former MI6 officer, Robert Steele. The research and reports by Steele were contracted by anti-Trump Republicans in the primary race, then by the Hillary Clinton campaign in the presidential race. There is no supporting evidence or verification of the claims; the reports essentially state that a Kremlin source says such-and-such. It has since been revealed that Steele was not in direct contact but collected the information via Russians in the U.K. who in turn received it from Kremlin insiders.
The reports were viewed skeptically by media, politicians and the intelligence community through the summer and fall of 2016. But then, just prior to the election, the dossier was leaked to the public with sensational stories of “golden showers” by prostitutes urinating at Trump’s request to “defile” the bed where the Obamas previously slept. Is the Steele Dossier accurate or was it a PR dirty trick designed to damage Trump? The latter seems at least, if not more, likely. This Newsweek article, “Thirteen Things That Don't Add up in the Russia-Trump Intelligence Dossier,” lists some of the reasons to be skeptical.
3. The “assessment” from intel agencies gives no evidence and seems politically biased
On Jan. 6, 2017, the office of the Director of National Intelligence released a 14-page document titled, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” The report said Putin ordered a campaign including cyber activity along with “overt efforts” to influence the election through official media (RT) and social media. Half of the report (7 pages) is devoted to describing the effectiveness and growth of Russian sponsored media known as “RT.” The report gives no evidence, acknowledging that it “does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods.” Should this report be accepted uncritically? Not if you consider past performance.
The CIA has a long history of deception and disinformation. “Intelligence” is sometimes directed to support political goals. One clear example is the false claims about Iraq that led to the U.S. invasion in 2003. In addition, the intelligence leadership is known to lie under oath. For example, DNI Director James Clapper lied in his testimony before congress regarding the extent of monitoring and recording private communications of U.S. citizens. The truth was later revealed by Edward Snowden. In short, there is no good reason to uncritically accept the statements and assertions of the U.S. intelligence community. There is every reason to be skeptical and require credible and verifiable evidence.
This is compounded by the conflict between Trump and the intelligence agencies that may be seeking retribution against him. Even Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer warned Trump about the dangers of bucking the CIA and other agencies, “They have seven ways to Sunday to get back at you.” What better way than shining a bright light on the Steele Dossier and giving credence to the third-hand accusations? It has recently been acknowledged by the New York Times that the assessment was made by four, not 17, intelligence agencies. DNI Director Clapper has admitted the assessment was by a hand-picked group of analysts. Finally, it is significant that the NSA would only grant “moderate confidence” to the accusation that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” By their own definition on page 13, moderate confidence means that the information is “plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.”
4. The counter-evidence seems stronger and more factual
Veteran intelligence professionals, including a former technical director of the NSA, say the DNC email release was caused by a leak, not a “hack.” The distinction is important: a hack is done over the internet; a leak is done transferring files onto a memory stick with little or no record. VIPS believes the emails were taken by an insider who transferred the files onto a thumb drive. If the files had been transferred over the internet, the National Security Agency would have a record of that since virtually every packet is stored. In addition, the publisher of the DNC and Podesta emails, Wikileaks, said they did not receive the emails from Russia.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has offered a reward for the discovery of the murderer of Seth Rich, the young DNC Director of Voter Expansion who was mysteriously murdered on July 22, 2016. When asked if Seth Rich was the source of the DNC emails, he does not reply directly, but it is implied. In addition, the former U.K. Ambassador Craig Murray has suggested that he was involved in a later (Podesta) transfer of the files from Washington D.C. to Wikileaks. Meanwhile, there appears to be an effort to discredit and denigrate research or investigation into the Seth Rich theory. If DNC insiders such as Seth Rich transferred the emails to Wikileaks, the anti-Russia campaign collapses.
Since Trump’s November victory, there have been accusations of “Russian interference” in European elections. But in each case, subsequent investigation shows the opposite. In Germany, France and the U.K., security services found no evidence in contrast with the reports. The French security chief dismissed the claims of the Macron campaign saying the hack “was so generic and simple that it could have been practically anyone.”
5. The purported “crimes” have been wildly inflated
The leaking of DNC and Podesta emails has been inflated into an “attack on U.S. democracy” and as an “act of war.” Not to be outdone in the hyperbole department, the Washington Post article calls this “the crime of the century.” It’s quite astounding; even if Russia was guilty of hacking the DNC servers and promoting an anti-Clinton campaign on social media — which is debatable — the notion that this was an “act of war” is preposterous. These events were secondary problems for the Clinton campaign. The FBI closing and then re-opening the criminal investigation of Clinton’s use of her private computers for public work was a bigger factor. There are many real problems with the democratic process in the United States and talking about them, whether on RT or elsewhere, is good, not bad. Even former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter questions whether the U.S. is a democracy saying, “Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence.”
6. The anti-Russia hysteria has reduced resistance to reactionary changes in domestic policy
There is an immediate need to build maximum opposition to Trump policies including the loss of net neutrality, increase in military spending, reductions in environmental protection, education and health care budgets, etc. The anti-Russia and “hate Trump” campaigns have reduced the credibility of liberals and progressives with conservatives, making it harder to build resistance to changes which hurt the working class and poor.
7. The DNC and Podesta leaks were not bad, they were good
Far from being an “attack on democracy,” the leaks of DNC and Podesta emails were positive. They exposed that the DNC itself was preventing the will of Democratic Party members in choosing their candidate. The releases exposed how the DNC leadership conspired and acted to boost Clinton and prevent a successful challenge by Bernie Sanders. If there was an “attack on democracy” it was by the DNC leadership itself not the public release of authentic emails.
8. Social media criticizing Clinton was not bad, much of the criticism was accurate
The intelligence agency assessment blames Russia for undermining “public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” denigrating Secretary Clinton and harming “her electability and potential presidency.” They suggest Russia was responsible for anti-Clinton online messages, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. This is silly. It was predictable that Clinton would generate a lot of opposition during the presidential campaign. She is a magnet for right and left-wing criticism. She is strongly disliked by many progressives for good and real reasons. From her aggressive and warlike foreign policy to the horrible role of the Clinton Foundation in Haiti, there are many deep and profound things to criticize. Social media was alive with tweets, pages, posts and campaigns against Clinton. It is self-deception to think this was initiated or controlled in any substantial way by Moscow. The criticism and opposition to Clinton was sincere and home grown. While some criticism may have been undeserved, much of the criticism of Clinton was accurate and well founded.
9. The anti-Russia hysteria distracts from an objective evaluation of why the Democratic Party lost
Instead of doing an honest and objective assessment of the election failure, the Democratic Party has invested enormous time and resources in promoting the narrative of Russian “meddling” and collusion with Trump. If they want to regain popularity, they need to review their leadership which has changed very little in over 15 years. They need to re-assess unpopular policies and their prioritization of Wall Street. If the DNC had run a clean primary race, Sanders probably would have prevailed over Clinton in the primary race and gone on to beat Trump for president. The Democratic Party leadership has nobody to blame but themselves for their defeat.
10. The anti-Russia hysteria reduces resistance to neoconservative forces pushing for more war
Neoconservatives and the military industrial complex are campaigning for another war in the Middle East. The immediate flashpoint is Syria where the Syrian government and allies are making slow but steady progress defeating tens of thousands of foreign-funded extremists. In response, the U.S. and allies are escalating intervention and aggression trying to prolong the conflict and/or grab territory to block a Syrian victory. The situation is potentially disastrous with the neocons threatening war on Iran and even Russia. The democratic and liberal hysteria around Russia has confused huge numbers of people, who now think Russia is the "enemy." The anti-Russia hysteria is leading liberals to ally with the CIA and war hawks instead of confronting them as the danger of war keeps rising.
Democrats and liberals in the U.S. are making a huge mistake uncritically accepting and promoting the anti-Russia demonization. The accusations of Russian “meddling” are either exaggerated or false. There is an urgent need to resist Trump’s assault on positive domestic policies and oppose the slide towards a new war in the Middle East. If this is not stopped, there is a real risk of global and possibly nuclear war.
Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco East Bay.