Letter from Washington — From the December 2016 issue

The New Red Scare

Reviving the art of threat inflation

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“Welcome to the world of strategic analysis,” Ivan Selin used to tell his team during the Sixties, “where we program weapons that don’t work to meet threats that don’t exist.” Selin, who would spend the following decades as a powerful behind-the-scenes player in the Washington mandarinate, was then the director of the Strategic Forces Division in the Pentagon’s Office of Systems Analysis. “I was a twenty-eight-year-old wiseass when I started saying that,” he told me, reminiscing about those days. “I thought the issues we were dealing with were so serious, they could use a little levity.”

The Team of Warmongers, 1959, a photomontage by Aleksandr Zhitomirsky. The text on the jerseys reads “Admiral Burke,” “General Twining,” “McElroy,” “General White,” and “General Norstad.” The text on the referee’s sleeve reads “Wall Street.” A retrospective of the Soviet propaganda artist’s work is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. The accompanying catalogue was published in October by the Art Institute and Yale University Press. All artwork © Vladimir Zhitomirsky. Courtesy the Ne boltai! Collection and the Art Institute of Chicago

The Team of Warmongers, 1959, a photomontage by Aleksandr Zhitomirsky. The text on the jerseys reads “Admiral Burke,” “General Twining,” “McElroy,” “General White,” and “General Norstad.” The text on the referee’s sleeve reads “Wall Street.” A retrospective of the Soviet propaganda artist’s work is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. The accompanying catalogue was published in October by the Art Institute and Yale University Press. All artwork © Vladimir Zhitomirsky. Courtesy the Ne boltai! Collection and the Art Institute of Chicago

His analysts, a group of formidable young technocrats, were known as the Whiz Kids. Their iconoclastic reports on military budgets and programs, conveyed directly to the secretary of defense, regularly earned the ire of the Pentagon bureaucracy. Among them was Pierre Sprey, who later helped to develop the F-16 and A-10 warplanes. He emphatically confirmed his old boss’s observation about chimerical threats. “It was true for all the big-ticket weapons programs,” he told me recently. “But although we pissed off the generals and admirals, we couldn’t stop their threat-inflating, and their nonworking weapons continued to be produced in huge quantities. Of course,” he added with a laugh, “the art of creating threats has advanced tremendously since that primitive era.”

Sprey was referring to the current belief that the Russians had hacked into the communications of the Democratic National Committee, election-related computer systems in Arizona and Illinois, and the private emails of influential individuals, notably Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta — and then malignly leaked the contents onto the internet. This, according to legions of anonymous officials quoted without challenge across the media, was clearly an initiative authorized at the highest level in Moscow. To the Washington Post, the hacks and leaks were unquestionably part of a “broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions.”

In early October, this assessment was endorsed by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security. Though it expressed confidence that the Russian government had engineered the D.N.C. hacks, their curiously equivocal joint statement appeared less certain as to Moscow’s role in the all-important leaks, saying only that they were “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” As for the most serious intrusion into the democratic process — the election-system hacks — the intelligence agencies took a pass. Although many of those breaches had come from “servers operated by a Russian company,” the statement read, the United States was “not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.”

The company in question is owned by Vladimir Fomenko, a twenty-six-year-old entrepreneur based in Siberia. In a series of indignant emails, Fomenko informed me that he merely rents out space on his servers, which are scattered throughout several countries, and that hackers have on occasion used his facilities for criminal activities “without our knowledge.” Although he has “information that undoubtedly will help the investigation,” Fomenko complained that nobody from the U.S. government had contacted him. He was upset that the FBI had “found it necessary to make a loud statement through the media” when he would have happily assisted them. Furthermore, these particular “criminals” had stiffed him $290 in rental fees.

As it happened, a self-identified solo hacker from Romania named Guccifer 2.0 had made public claim to the D.N.C. breaches early on, but this was generally written off as either wholly false or Russian disinformation. During the first presidential debate, on September 26, Hillary Clinton blithely asserted that Vladimir Putin had “let loose cyberattackers to hack into government files, to hack into personal files, hack into the Democratic National Committee. And we recently have learned that, you know, that this is one of their preferred methods of trying to wreak havoc and collect information.”

They Argue That America Is a Democracy..., 1980, photocollage

They Argue That America Is a Democracy…, 1980, photocollage

By “wreak havoc,” Clinton presumably had in mind such embarrassing revelations as the suggestion by a senior D.N.C. official that the party play the religious card against Bernie Sanders in key Southern races, or her chummy confabulations with Wall Street banks, or her personal knowledge that our Saudi allies have been “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups.” It made sense, therefore, to create a distraction by loudly asserting a sinister Russian connection — a tactic that has proved eminently successful.

Donald Trump’s rebuttal (“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the D.N.C. . . . It could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds, okay?”) earned him only derision. But a closer examination of what few facts are known about the hack suggests that Trump may have been onto something.

CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that first claimed to have traced an official Russian connection — garnering plenty of free publicity in the process — asserted that two Russian intelligence agencies, the FSB and the GRU, had been working through separate well-known hacker groups, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear. The firm contended that neither agency knew that the other was rummaging around in the D.N.C. files. Furthermore, one of the hacked and leaked documents had been modified “by a user named Felix Dzerzhinsky, a code name referring to the founder of the Soviet Secret Police.” (Dzerzhinsky founded the Cheka, the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, in 1917.) Here was proof, according to another report on the hack, that this was a Russian intelligence operation.

“OK,” wrote Jeffrey Carr, the CEO of cybersecurity firm Taia Global, in a derisive blog post on the case. “Raise your hand if you think that a GRU or FSB officer would add Iron Felix’s name to the metadata of a stolen document before he released it to the world while pretending to be a Romanian hacker.” As Carr, a rare skeptic regarding the official line on the hacks, explained to me, “They’re basically saying that the Russian intelligence services are completely inept. That one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, that they have no concern about using a free Russian email account or a Russian server that has already been known to be affiliated with cybercrime. This makes them sound like the Keystone Cops. Then, in the same breath, they’ll say how sophisticated Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities are.”

In reality, Carr continued, “It’s almost impossible to confirm attribution in cyberspace.” For example, a tool developed by the Chinese to attack Google in 2009 was later reused by the so-called Equation Group against officials of the Afghan government. So the Afghans, had they investigated, might have assumed they were being hacked by the Chinese. Thanks to a leak by Edward Snowden, however, it now appears that the Equation Group was in fact the NSA. “It doesn’t take much to leave a trail of bread crumbs to whichever government you want to blame for an attack,” Carr pointed out.

Bill Binney, the former technical director of the NSA, shares Carr’s skepticism about the Russian attribution. “Saying it does not make it true,” he told me. “They have to provide proof. . . . So let’s see the evidence.”

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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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