The New York Times reports as fact that Russia hacked the 2016 US presidential election despite failing to present any evidence to support this claim.
By Jeremy R. Hammond
Source: Foreign Policy Journal
In late 2002 and early 2003, those of us who were warning that the US government was lying, that there was no evidence that Iraq still possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), much less active WMD manufacturing programs, were frequently dismissed as “conspiracy theorists”.
Of course, in reality, it was the US mainstream media that was propagating the government’s unfounded conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein had such weapons and, further, had a cooperative relationship with Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization held responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The New York Times served the government in its campaign of deception by spearheading the media’s dissemination of the lies out to the public, thus manufacturing Americans’ consent for this illegal war of aggression.
Spreading government propaganda is a function the Times never ceases to serve well — the lesson from its own reporting during the run-up to the Iraq war, and from the mainstream media’s reporting in general, having been dutifully disregarded.
One of the latest government conspiracy theories the Times is helping to propagate, by serving effectively as the political establishment’s very own public relations firm, is the claim that the government of Russia was responsible for hacking into computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and email accounts of John Podesta, who was then chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In a report published September 1, 2017, the Times elaborated on this conspiracy theory under the headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider Than Previously Known, Draw Little Scrutiny”.
In it, the Times reports as fact that Russia was responsible not only for hacking the DNC and Podesta’s email account, but also for hacking directly into the US election system itself. All that’s old news, however, so the Times‘ new spin is that Russia’s efforts to hack state electoral systems were much more extensive than previously thought.
However, the Times presents not one shred of evidence to support the underlying claim that Russia hacked these systems, much less that this alleged hacking was much more widespread than previously reported.
To the scrutinous reader who is familiar with the propaganda techniques mainstream media use in order to manufacture consent for various government policies, the total lack of evidence is apparent. In fact, the Times actually acknowledges that there is no evidence to support the claim it is making in the headline. Yet, through obfuscation, use of deceptive language, and various other techniques, the Times leads the general reader to believe that its headline is true.
An examination of the article is useful to see just how the Times manages to lead readers to the conclusion the Russia hacking is a demonstrated fact when, in reality, it remains just another conspiracy theory originating from the government that the Times is all too happy to help propagate.
The Alleged Russian Hacking of US Electoral Systems
The first thing to note about this New York Times piece is its title. The headline makes two claims: 1) it’s a fact that Russia tried to hack the US election, and this fact has been known publicly for some time; and 2) the Times has new information showing not only that US election systems were hacked and that Russia was responsible, but also that Russia’s hacking efforts even more widespread than previously known.
The story begins with the case of Durham county, North Carolina, where, we learn, various irregularities occurred at polling stations on election day last November (bold emphasis added throughout):
Dozens were told they were ineligible to vote and were turned away at the polls, even when they displayed current registration cards. Others were sent from one polling place to another, only to be rejected. Scores of voters were incorrectly told they had cast ballots days earlier. In one precinct, voting halted for two hours.
Susan Greenhalgh, a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring group, was alarmed. Most of the complaints came from Durham, a blue-leaning county in a swing state [North Carolina]. The problems involved electronic poll books — tablets and laptops, loaded with check-in software, that have increasingly replaced the thick binders of paper used to verify voters’ identities and registration status. She knew that the company that provided Durham’s software, VR Systems, had been penetrated by Russian hackers months before.
“It felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” Ms. Greenhalgh said about the voting troubles in Durham.
Note that the Times does not say that Ms. Greenhalgh “believed” or “had heard” that Russian hackers were responsible for earlier hacking VR Systems, but that she “knew” this was so. With this verb choice, the Times is asserting that this claim is a proven fact.
The purpose of this assertion is to establish credibility in the mind of the reader that its headline is true, that the evidence shows that Russian hacking efforts were more widespread than previously known. If it is a fact that Russia hacked US election systems, then it is not hard to believe that its hacking was more extensive than previously thought.
But what evidence does the Times present to support its assertion that this earlier Russian hacking of VR Systems occurred?
Well, to answer that question, let’s first look at how Ms. Greenhalgh “knew” that Russians had hacked VR Systems. Much further into the article, more than halfway through, the Times tells us:
As the problems mounted, The Charlotte Observer reported that Durham’s e-poll book vendor was Florida-based VR Systems, which Ms. Greenhalgh knew from a CNN report had been hacked earlier by Russians. “Chills went through my spine,” she recalled.
So there were irregularities at the Durham county polling stations, and Durham county used VR Systems for its polling system, which Ms. Greenhalgh “knew” Russians had hacked because she’d heard it on CNN.
Mid-article, however, the Times also quotes Ms. Greenhalgh acknowledging, with respect to the specific case of Durham county, “We still don’t know if Russian hackers did this.”
If we don’t know whether Russian hacking was responsible for the supposed irregularities in Durham county’s polling station, why is the Times using it as an example to support the claim made in its headline that this hacking was more extensive than previously thought? If there are cases where there is evidence, why not feature one of those, instead?
The answer is that no such evidence exists; the Times has no evidence to support that claim in its headline. In fact, it acknowledges this in several other places in the article. What the Times is trying to do is to build the case that we can safely assume that what happened in Durham county was a consequence of Russian hacking. After all, if Russia hacked VR Systems, that certainly could explain those election-day irregularities, right?
But how solid is the Times‘ premise that Russia hacked VR Systems in the first place?
The Times doesn’t attempt to support this premise solely with hearsay about something CNN reported. It exerts slightly greater effort to convince the reader. Nine paragraphs into the article, we read:
Beyond VR Systems, hackers breached at least two other providers of critical election services well ahead of the 2016 voting, said current and former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies.
Note here that the Times is once again acknowledging that it doesn’t actually have any evidence to support the claim that Russia hacked other companies in addition to VR Systems, which it is using to support the claim made in its headline that the Russian hacking was more widespread than previously thought. The Times is simply parroting government officials who’ve made this claim.
The Times‘ case crumbles even further the deeper one reads into the article. With respect to the Durham county irregularities, the Times next notes:
There are plenty of other reasons for such breakdowns — local officials blamed human error and software malfunctions — and no clear-cut evidence of digital sabotage has emerged, much less a Russian role in it. Despite the disruptions, a record number of votes were cast in Durham, following a pattern there of overwhelming support for Democratic presidential candidates, this time Hillary Clinton.
But months later, for Ms. Greenhalgh, other election security experts and some state officials, questions still linger about what happened that day in Durham as well as other counties in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Arizona.
So keep in mind as we proceed that the Times is here once again acknowledging that no evidence exists to support the suspicion that the Durham county irregularities were due to Russian hacking. Yet it attempts to lead readers to that conclusion by suggesting that Russians did hack states’ electoral systems:
After a presidential campaign scarred by Russian meddling, local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers, according to interviews with nearly two dozen national security and state officials and election technology specialists.
Note that here the Times is attributing the claim that Russia hacked into states’ electoral systems to various sources. In its next paragraph, however, the Times does away with attribution and transforms this claiminto an ostensibly verified fact:
The assaults on the vast back-end election apparatus — voter-registration operations, state and local election databases, e-poll books and other equipment — have received far less attention than other aspects of the Russian interference, such as the hacking of Democratic emails and spreading of false or damaging information about Mrs. Clinton. Yet the hacking of electoral systems was more extensive than previously disclosed, The New York Times found.
Here we see that the Times is back to asserting as fact that the Russian hacking was more extensive than previously reported, even though it has admittedly not yet provided even a single piece of supporting evidence! How can it do that? Well, transparently, what is important to the Times is that its readers believe that its headline is true, not to actually demonstrate it. Whether it is actually true does not matter; it is just the belief that the Times is aiming to instill.
This is the nature of propaganda.
Turning to the premise, note that the Times is here claiming as fact that, one, US electoral systems were extensively hacked, and, two, Russia was responsible.
Intelligence officials in January reassured Americans that there was no indication that Russian hackers had altered the vote count on Election Day, the bottom-line outcome. But the assurances stopped there.
Government officials said that they intentionally did not address the security of the back-end election systems, whose disruption could prevent voters from even casting ballots.
That’s partly because states control elections; they have fewer resources than the federal government but have long been loath to allow even cursory federal intrusions into the voting process.
That, along with legal constraints on intelligence agencies’ involvement in domestic issues, has hobbled any broad examination of Russian efforts to compromise American election systems. Those attempts include combing through voter databases, scanning for vulnerabilities or seeking to alter data, which have been identified in multiple states. Current congressional inquiries and the special counsel’s Russia investigation have not focused on the matter.
Note here how the Times is explaining that the federal government has not really focused much on investigating US election systems irregularities even while continuing to assert as fact that there were Russian efforts to compromise those systems! Further:
“We don’t know if any of the problems were an accident, or the random problems you get with computer systems, or whether it was a local hacker, or actual malfeasance by a sovereign nation-state,” said Michael Daniel, who served as the cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama White House. “If you really want to know what happened, you’d have to do a lot of forensics, a lot of research and investigation, and you may not find out even then.”
In interviews, academic and private election security experts acknowledged the challenges of such diagnostics but argued that the effort is necessary. They warned about what could come, perhaps as soon as next year’s midterm elections, if the existing mix of outdated voting equipment, haphazard election-verification procedures and array of outside vendors is not improved to build an effective defense against Russian or other hackers.
So, again, the Times is acknowledging that the kind of forensic investigation that would be required to determine whether US election systems were hacked have not actually been conducted. How, therefore, can the Times report as fact not only that such hacking occurred, but that Russia was responsible?
It gets worse. The Times at this point in the article has already acknowledged that there could be perfectly benign explanations for what happened in Durham county. As we continue reading, we learn that the those supposedly alarming irregularities the Times opened the article with were not actually all that irregular (and hence not all that alarming). To the contrary:
Still, some of the incidents reported in North Carolina occur in every election, said Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on election administration.
“Election officials and advocates and reporters who were watching most closely came away saying this was an amazingly quiet election,” he said, playing down the notion of tampering.
The Times next quotes Ms. Greenhalgh’s admission that there’s no evidence hackers got into Durham county’s system (much less that Russia was responsible).
Keep in mind that the claim the government and media have been making is that Russia interfered in the US election to throw the vote to Donald Trump. Yet, in the case of Durham county, the result was that, as the Times informs, “Hillary Clinton won 78 percent of the 156,000 votes”. This is a strange outcome if we are to assume that Russia hacked the system to tamper with the election!
But the Times is not unskilled in the art of propaganda, so it has an explanation ready for us: Russia tried to hack the system there, but was just unsuccessful! It continues:
Details of the breach did not emerge until June, in a classified National Security Agency [NSA] report leaked to The Intercept, a national security news site. That report found that hackers from Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., had penetrated the company’s computer systems as early as August 2016, then sent “spear-phishing” emails from a fake VR Systems account to 122 state and local election jurisdictions. The emails sought to trick election officials into downloading malicious software to take over their computers.
The N.S.A. analysis did not say whether the hackers had sabotaged voter data. “It is unknown,” the agency concluded, whether Russian phishing “successfully compromised the intended victims, and what potential data could have been accessed.”
VR Systems’ chief operating officer, Ben Martin, said he did not believe Russian hackers were successful. He acknowledged that the vendor was a “juicy target,” given that its systems are used in battleground states including North Carolina, Florida and Virginia. But he said that the company blocked access from its systems to local databases, and employs security protocols to bar intruders and digital triggers that sound alerts if its software is manipulated.
Take note again of the Times choice of verb: the NSA report “found” that hackers working for Russian intelligence had penetrated VR Systems’ computer systems. Through this choice of verb, the Times is communicating that it is a verified fact that Russia hacked VR Systems. But is it? To answer that, let’s turn to the Times‘ source.
The Intercept reported on this alleged hack much earlier, on June 5, 2017. Unlike the Times, however, The Intercept provided the following important caveat:
While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying “raw” intelligence on which the analysis is based. A U.S. intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.
To reiterate, the supposed evidence that exists proving that Russia hacked VR Systems is classified and still unknown to either the public or the media, including The Intercept and New York Times.
As The Intercept notes, the NSA report “states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document.”
But upon what actual evidence is that unequivocal statement based?
The Intercept, like the Times, proceeds to accept this unequivocal summary statement as fact despite its acknowledged lack of access to the evidence supposedly supporting this claim:
The NSA has now learned, however, that Russian government hackers, part of a team with a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections,” focused on parts of the system directly connected to the voter registration process, including a private sector manufacturer of devices that maintain and verify the voter rolls.
Here The Intercept is being as disingenuous with its readers as the Times. Note again the deceptive verb choice. The NSA had not actually “learned” that Russia tried to hack US electoral systems; it had rather assessed that this was so. As the manufactured “intelligence” about Iraq’s WMDs should have taught us, those are far from the same thing.
Conveniently, The Intercept provides a graphic image from the NSA report illustrating the point:
The key element of this chart to note is in the left column, where it identifies the “Operators” responsible sending Phishing emails — emails designed to trick the recipient into giving away login credentials for whatever system the hackers were trying to get into. Note that, according to the NSA, these “Operators” were “Probably within” the GRU.
So, does the NSA know that the Russian government was responsible for these Phishing emails?
The NSA is claiming this is so. But the supposed evidence it is basing this claim upon has not been shown to even exist.
Now, perhaps the NSA has solid reasoning to arrive at this conclusion. Perhaps it has solid, though not definitive, evidence to back this up.
But the New York Times ought to be properly informing its readers that the Russian hacking of VR Systems is an allegation. It ought to be including the caveat with this information that this is according to the government, but that it has not yet been proven. Moreover, the Times ought to be informing its readers that the evidence supposedly supporting this conclusion has not been made public, and, further, that nobody at the Times has been able to verify it even exists.
But continuing in its propaganda effort, the Times reminds us that, “In an assessment of Russian cyberattacks released in January, intelligence agencies said Kremlin spy services had been collecting information on election processes, technology and equipment in the United States since early 2014.”
But that was just another example of the government making a claim for which no evidence has actually been provided. Each of these claims simply builds upon those that preceded it. In the next manifestation, the New York Times‘ claim that Russia’s supposed hacking was even more extensive than previously known will likewise be presented as fact, and the acknowledgments about the lack of supporting evidence will be omitted, just as the Times omitted that important caveat from The Intercept.
Of course, to write and publish this kind of story requires extreme cognitive dissonance on the part of journalists and editors at the Times. This psychological phenomenon of holding two fundamentally contradictory beliefs at the same time is palpable throughout the piece. Once more, even while reporting its headlined claim as fact, the Times acknowledges that it has no evidence to support it:
Beginning in 2015, the American officials said, Russian hackers focused instead on other internet-accessible targets: computers at the Democratic National Committee, state and local voter databases, election websites, e-poll book vendors and other back-end election services.
Apart from the Russian influence campaign intended to undermine Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic officials, the impact of the quieter Russian hacking efforts at the state and county level has not been widely studied. Federal officials have been so tight-lipped that not even many election officials in the 21 states the hackers assaulted know whether their systems were compromised, in part because they have not been granted security clearances to examine the classified evidence.
Of course, nobody at the New York Times has seen that evidence, either, to be able to verify that it even exists.
The Times closes by noting that, unlike Ms. Greenhalgh, Durham county officials “have rejected any notion that an intruder sought to alter the election outcome.” Nevertheless, the county has turned over computers to the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in order for the matter to be investigated.
Of course, the Times‘ purpose with this piece, rather than being to properly inform the public, is to lead readers into the belief that, regardless of whether it happened in Durham county, there were extensive efforts by the government of Russia to hack into state electoral systems.
Never mind that the Times presents not one shred of actual evidence to support either of the two claims it makes in its headline.
We can again recall how the media, including the New York Times, piled lie upon lie in order to manufacture consent for the US’s war of aggression against Iraq.
Here, again, the political establishment has an agenda. Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of seeking improved relations with Russia, a deescalation of tensions, and greater cooperation with Moscow. The so-called “Deep State” was upset by Hillary Clinton’s loss. In order for the national security state to retain the authoritarian powers it has assumed supposedly in order to keep Americans safe, it needs to convince Americans that they need protecting. Russia has been selected to serve as a useful “enemy” to that end.
Framing Russia as an enemy of the United States also serves the interests of the military/security complex and the goal of maintaining and expanding US hegemony across the globe. This narrative has been used, for example, to prevent Trump from deescalating in Syria and increasing cooperation with Russia there. Trump had indicated that he would shift US policy away from the Obama administration’s goal of seeking regime change in Syria and only focus on combating the so-called “Islamic State” (a.k.a., ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). The national security state has maneuvered rather to ensure that relations between the US and Russia remain tense and that US policy remains effectively to prolong the violence.
Whatever the motives for the propaganda campaign, we can observe that this propaganda campaign is occurring. Members of the establishment media have not only failed to learn the relevant lesson from their reporting about Iraqi WMD, but refusing to do so almost seems a job prerequisite.
News consumers should not make the same mistake.
Scrutinize. Question. Think.
If we want the mainstream media to change its behavior and actually do its job of properly informing the public, then news consumers need to change their behavior. Ever news consumers knows the old adage that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper. Nevertheless, all too habitually, that is precisely what they do — just as the journalists and editors they are relying on for information all too habitually accept claims from government officials as fact.
It is supposed to be the job of news media to analyze information, assess the veracity of sources, question government claims, and reveal the truth. Yet the establishment media not only fail to do so, but actively serve to propagate conspiracy theories originating from the government, and thus to manufacture consent for various government policies and the private agendas of the politically and financially powerful.
In light of how the mainstream media serve this function, it is critical for the consumers to develop the analytic skills necessary to determine the truth for themselves and be able to identify state propaganda when they see it.
Hopefully, this exercise has provided some useful insights into how to do just that.