Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 May 2017

How to “investigate” and totally miss the point


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: New: Endnote 2 added 12 hours after publication

You’ve got to hand it to old Vladimir. He may be bent. He may even be evil. But he’s wicked smart.

He managed to use Russia’s vast machinery of deception to throw our election. He helped give us our very first president with absolutely no political or military experience. (Even Dubya had six years as governor of Texas and service in the Texas Air National Guard.) And Vladimir did it using the Internet and social media that we Yanks invented and gave to the world—including Russia!—for free. How’s that for gratitude?

But the result for Russia may have been worth the moral and political transgression. Can you imagine any better or cheaper way to incapacitate your rival without firing a shot?

Of course we’ll never know which cause of Hillary’s loss was more decisive. Was it Putin’s hacking and well-timed disclosure of campaign secrets, combined with his army of trolls and precisely targeted fake news? Or was it James Comey’s “October surprise”: making public a preliminary investigation of Hillary’s then-newly-discovered e-mails, just months after assuring the public that the FBI’s investigation had been closed without indictment?

Some future doctoral student in political science might try to determine which was the primary cause. But the impediments to finding out will only grow with time. What’s up on the Internet can be taken down. Putin’s troll army’s output and his fake news can be erased as quickly as they were transmitted. Much of the evidence may already may be gone.

The Internet, it turns out, is a fine medium for plausible denial by historical revisionists. Nothing on it is really permanent, not even block chains (although they can come close). So fingerprints can easily be erased.

Putin may already have erased his. Even without willful deletion, the trail of evidence is growing cold. Meanwhile, our clueless Congress plays into Putin’s hands by posturing and delaying, and Trump slows things down further by firing Comey.

But that’s still not half the brilliance of Putin’s strategy. To see how brilliant it is, you have to focus on three completely distinct questions related to “Russiagate.”

The first is “how did Putin do it?” Precisely how did he, his troll army, and the vast deception machinery of his FSB (successor to the old Soviet KGB) propagandize and delude the American electorate directly?

Isn’t that by far the most important question? If we don’t know how he did it, we can’t stop him from doing it again. And again. And again. We might as well give up our democracy and ask Vladimir Putin to pick our leaders.

The second question is related: “how do we stop him?” How do we defend ourselves against the hacking and targeted cyber-deception that we naïvely never suspected and that appears to have given us Trump as president? How do we preserve our democracy and help our democratic allies preserve theirs?

The third question is the one on everyone’s mind now. How much, if at all, did Trump and his team help, by advancing either the Russian deception (which helped elect Trump) or some other Russian interest?

But isn’t this last question putting the cart before the horse? Don’t you have to know what Putin actually did before you can decide whether Trump helped him do it? Agreement alone may be enough to establish a legal conspiracy, but is it enough to establish moral or political guilt? And how do you know whether Trump actually agreed, when his every utterance or Tweet is terminally imprecise and subject to multiple interpretations?

Here’s where Putin’s tactics were and are absolutely brilliant. As the evidence made public so far shows, Putin and his Ambassador Kislyak sought out Trump and members of his team. They had meetings, and some of them were secret. They made or had made payments to some of Trump’s team. They offered work and jobs.

Did a man as smart as Putin really think he could use Trump as a “Manchurian Candidate” to do his bidding? There’s a whole institute in Moscow dedicated to the study of the US and Canada. Think the Russians don’t know about checks and balances? the power of Congress? our huge independent federal bureacracy and powerful courts? the political power and semi-independence of our military and the Pentagon?

One can never be sure, of course. But what Putin and Kislyak probably wanted most was not a lackey, let alone one as erratic and unpredictable as Trump. What they wanted most was something as common to Russia’s politics as kissing babies is to ours: “kompromat.” They wanted to compromise Trump and his team, i.e., to make them look bad to Americans, in order to increase our already debilitating dissension and division.

And that they most certainly did. There’s enough evidence of conscious or unconscious cooperation with the Russians, or even collusion, to waken the FBI’s massive investigatory apparatus and to have Democrats clamoring for Trump’s head.

Now Putin is a recognized master of deception. To become one, you have to be a good judge of character. No doubt Putin carefully assessed Trump’s erratic, inconsistent and narcissistic character. No doubt he came to the conclusion that, when challenged on his relations with Russia, Trump would call the whole thing a “hoax,” be personally offended by any investigation, and use his Tweets and the power of his office to stop any investigation or slow it down, as by firing Comey.

Maybe Putin came to another conclusion, too. Knowing how divided our nation is politically, he might have concluded that our pols would focus on investigating Trump and forget all about what Putin and his trolls and spooks had done. We would go after the man of the hour and forget all about the main question: how Russia and its deception mill sought to throw our election and probably succeeded.

If so, Putin’s strategy has worked better than even he had a right to expect. As if on cue, our pols fell right into line. The left is clamoring for Trump’s head. The right is trying mindlessly to protect him—even though they would just as gladly have had his head themselves ten months ago. No one is worrying, at least in public, about what Putin and Russia did and how to keep it from happening again.

So Vladimir Putin seems to have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of international relations. He may have helped elect his preferred candidate as his rival’s supreme leader, and he may have completely covered his tracks, concealing not only how he did it, but that he did it at all.

Unless we Yanks wise up, we will have no defense to his massive hacking and deception apparatus, whether in our 2018 midterm elections or in our next presidential election in 2020. We will be governed, at least in part, by Russia’s FSB at Vladimir Putin’s command, without even knowing when or how.

This is what happens when you are so incensed at your fellow Americans, based on nothing more than abstract ideology, that you forget that they are your countrymen, and so you neglect to protect your homeland and your way of life. This is what happens when good people turn on each other for little reason. This is how democracy itself can decay, wither and die.

They say the best defense is a good offense. But that’s not true when your enemy has his fist inside your chest, clamped on your aorta. Sanctions won’t stop the deception; they will only motivate more lies and deception.

We need effective defenses that stop Russia from using the Internet and social media that we invented against us. And we need them yesterday. To get them, we first need to find out more precisely what Russia did and how it did it.

That’s what our investigations should be about. Whether Trump is implicated can wait. He might have been merely careless, clueless, negligent and inattentive to detail, as he has been about almost everything that has crossed his desk as president. If willfully complicit, he can be impeached for treason later.

But if we let Putin get away with the greatest non-violent coup in human history, it will certainly happen again, if not to Germany this year, then again to us, as soon as next year’s midterm elections. And our mindless ideological division will have assisted our own defeat, allowing Putin to use a strategy older than Caesar: divide and conquer. Investigations aimed solely at Trump and his team just play into Putin’s hands.

Endnote 1: A former FBI agent interviewed on the PBS News Hour insists that the FBI is already jumping on what Putin did, how he did it, and how to stop it. The agents won’t rest, she insists, until they get answers and the means to protect American democracy. But in virtually the same breath [timer at 30:48 to 31:54], she admits that the American public won’t ever know anything about the means Putin used or the countermeasures our spooks adopt because both will constitute classified counterintelligence.

With all due respect to a dedicated and apparently concerned professional, I have to say that classified measures alone will never solve the problem. From what we know now, it appears that what Putin did was itself largely public, at least until concealed or erased. He used a troll army and fake news to change voters’ minds, individually or in groups. If he didn’t do it individually this time, the technology is available for him to use next time.

What Putin did or can do is something new under the Sun. The Internet and AI now make possible retail delivery of tailored propaganda, tailored to each voter’s individual “hot buttons.”

Perhaps the FBI can use classified cyber-warfare techniques to prevent hacking of private, politically sensitive material. Perhaps it can shut down known sources of deception on the Internet. But doing so would be like trying to convert a sieve into a bowl by patching it with pieces of tape. Even China, with a reported 30,000 Internet censors, can’t stop the flow of information, and we Yanks will never have anything like 30,000 Internet censors. Our First Amendment doesn’t permit censorship.

Not only that. As our authorities close in, Putin’s trolls can make their propaganda more subtle, their fake news less obviously false, but still effective. Then how do we distinguish their propaganda from legitimate political discourse and variant points of view? Do we ban all information coming out of Russia?

A moment’s thought suffices to show that our countermeasures against propaganda and fake news can never be wholly secret, although such specifics as sources, personnel and technical means might be. Countermeasures will be useless unless the targets of deception—our ordinary voters—know what is going on, believe our authorities when warned, and wise up. Nothing else will do. Someone—our authorities or designated private fact-checkers—must let our people know when news is fake and coming out of Russia.

Because any effective defense must be public and credible, the political and informational obstacles are legion. Yet we must vault them to save our democracy. The extreme difficulty of the project demands that most of it (besides sources, actors and technical manner and means) be public, and that our pols set aside their differences long enough to protect our democracy, our free elections and their credibility among our people. Anything less will let clever lies prevail over truth, every time, because the only way to ban lies from the Internet reliably is to shut it down. Even President Trump knows that.

Endnote 2: I haven’t provided links to reporting on Putin’s troll army because I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with months- or years-old stories in the New York Times (1 and 2) and the declassified summary of our intelligence agencies’ conclusions reported in the Washington Post. But readers should know that a troll army is likely just the first, experimental step toward institutionalizing massive, deliberate deception of the American electorate as a routine tool of Russian foreign policy.

How did we find out about the trolls at all? Reporters seems to have stumbled on them by accident. They found individual trolls-for-hire willing to talk. From their stories, reporters were able to piece together the vast scale and audacity of the enterprise.

In other words, we found out by easy human intelligence, by picking the low-hanging fruit that mere news reporters could gather. But think a minute. The trolls were hardly seasoned FSB operatives, nurtured in silence and trained in deception. They were ordinary hackers—some not even Russian—put together in an ad-hoc organization. And there were far too many of them to kill for talking.

So what happens when Putin, having proved the concept with expendable peons, brings the whole operation inside the Lubyanka? What happens when seasoned, trained intelligence operatives take over the enterprise? Won’t any who talk then know they risk death? And won’t Putin then invest in the equipment and software needed to automate the fake news project and its retail delivery to individuals (a process that AI now makes possible)?

When (not if) that happens, human intelligence will virtually dry up. Signals intelligence will become exponentially harder to get because the professional FSB operation, unlike the trolls, will use every known technique (and may invent some new ones) to disguise the propaganda’s origins and delete it as soon as it has done its job.

Russia’s intelligence agencies are among the best in the world. Their push to elect Trump was probably an experimental, “extracurricular” project. Now that it has succeeded beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations, Putin will institutionalize it, refine it, expand it, and bury it in secrecy. It will only get smarter, wilier, more subtle, and harder to spot.

Do you begin to see how fighting this menace is not going to be easy?

So maybe we ought to start serious investigation now, while there are still some traces of Version 1.0 scattered around the Web. Maybe we should stop our internecine warfare and start taking seriously the greatest threat to our way of life since the Soviet 50-megaton H-bomb—a threat all the more sinister for being non-violent and therefore more likely to be used routinely.

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