Questioning the evidence that Russia meddled in the US presidential election

I finished reading the 25 page unclassified report entitled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US elections,” which was released by US intelligence agencies to prove that Russia meddled in the US presidential election of 2016.

Frankly, most of the report is just assertions without proof, and the proof that is provided is mostly circumstantial and probably a misreading of the evidence. I wanted to see the proof that Russia gave the DNC emails to Wikileaks, but this report presents no additional proof aside from assertions by the US intelligence agencies. Furthermore there is no proof in the report that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian agent and that Russia leaked material to DCLeaks.


As I discussed in a previous post, the DNC emails published by Wikileaks probably came from DNC insiders who had legal access than from Russia. Craig Murray says that he went to Washington to pick up the DNC emails from a DNC insider for Wikileaks and Julian Assange states that Wikileaks did not receive the emails from Russia. Assange has a long record of making factually accurate statements, whereas the US intelligence agencies have a sordid history of being politically influenced in its reading of evidence (such as WMDs in Iraq) and deliberately deceiving the public (such as lying to the public about the illegal bulk collection of data from US citizens by the NSA).

I don’t doubt that the NSA has some evidence that Russian intelligence agencies were hacking US institutions to provide intelligence to the Russian government, just like the NSA hacks Russian institutions for the same purpose. However, hacking to gather intelligence is very different than giving that information to WikiLeaks and DCLeaks.

The US intelligence agencies claim in the report that, “We assess with high confidence that the GRU [Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate] relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.” This claim is backed up by no evidence in the report, except for the fact that the Russian-backed television RT has done a number of sympathetic interviews with Julian Assange and appears to have close contacts with WikiLeaks:

The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks. RT’s editor-in-chief visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract with RT, according to Russian and Western media. Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.” RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage and provides him a platform to denounce the United States.

By the kind of metric that the US intelligence agencies are using, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now must also be an agent of Russian propaganda as well, since she also frequently does sympathetic interviews with Assange, has frequently met with him in London, and has helped organized public speaking events for Assange. The Democracy Now website lists 46 different shows since 2010 where Assange is either interviewed by Democracy Now or clips of an interview with Assange are played. The fact that “RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage” is hardly surprising when considering that it presents a leftist perspective and most leftist media in the US and around the world have given Assange sympathetic coverage. It can hardly be taken as evidence that Russia gave the DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

While the report provides almost no evidence of hacking or leaks aside from assertions, most of the report is dedicated to proving that Russia waged an information war to influence the US elections, through its media coverage in RT (formerly Russia Today) and trolling on the internet. However, even that evidence is questionable.

For example, here is all the evidence that the report provides to prove that Russia used trolls on social media to influence the US presidential election:

  • The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.
  • A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.

Notice that no names are provided so it is very difficult to lookup the people involved and investigate the claims in the report. What reason would US intelligence agencies have for withholding the name of the “likely financier” of the Internet Research Agency or the name of the “journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency”? There is no reason to not list the names, except if trying to make it hard for journalists and concerned citizens to independently verify these claims.

Googling the Internet Research Agency, I see that Adrian Chen at the New York TimesLawrence Alexander at Global Voices, and Andrei Soshnikov at Moi Region have all investigated the social media trolls at the Internet Research Agency, but I can’t find any articles by these journalists suggesting that the Internet Research Agency is trolling for Trump. If the report had provided the name of this “leading expert,” it would be possible to interview this journalist and ask what evidence he/she has.

The report provides no samples of the trolling by the Internet Research Agency and no names of its trolls who posted on social media in support of Trump, so the US public and independent journalists cannot examine the evidence. Frankly, social media trolling generally doesn’t have much of an effect, unless it is done on a large scale. I would expect to see evidence such as “we found 2000 posts on Facebook on accounts which have a total of 30,000 subscribers” or “we found 10,000 posts from trolls associated with the Internet Research Agency in the comments of 300 articles about the US election.” Instead, all we get is a “likely financier” who is a “close Putin ally” and a claim from an unnamed journalist that the Internet Research Agency “started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.”

The report dedicated 7 pages to RT, trying to prove that it a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda which promotes the Kremlin’s agenda. The evidence in the report that RT’s media coverage was designed to swing the US election in Trump’s favor is so questionable, that it is shocking the mainstream media have treated the report seriously. The report claims:

RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative and focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism.

The report then provides the following evidence to corroborate this claim:

  • In August, Kremlin-linked political analysts suggested avenging negative Western reports on Putin by airing segments devoted to Secretary Clinton’s alleged health problems.
  • On 6 August, RT published an English-language video called “Julian Assange Special: Do WikiLeaks Have the E-mail That’ll Put Clinton in Prison?” and an exclusive interview with Assange entitled “Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money.” RT’s most popular video on Secretary Clinton, “How 100% of the Clintons’ ‘Charity’ Went to…Themselves,” had more than 9 million views on social media platforms. RT’s most popular English language video about the President-elect, called “Trump Will Not Be Permitted To Win,” featured Assange and had 2.2 million views.

This so-called “evidence” of Russian media seeking to swing the US election is laughable to anyone who closely followed the election coverage in the left-wing media. RT America was hardly any more critical of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries than other left-wing American media, such as Democracy Now, Young Turks, TruthDig, TruthOut, The Intercept, Secular Talk, Sane Progressive, etc. Analysts at the CIA, FBI and NSA probably don’t follow much American leftist media, so they might have convinced themselves that the criticism of Hillary Clinton on RT was exceptional and was part of plot hatched out of the Kremlin, but the RT coverage I watched during the election was not that dissimilar from other American left-wing media.

I often watch the RT shows on YouTube which are hosted by Thom Hartmann, Chris Hedges, Ed Shultz, Lee Camp, plus an occasional interview by Larry King. There was plenty of criticism aired on RT about Hillary Clinton during the election, but that criticism was widely echoed by many leftist journalists and pundits who were outraged by the rightist policy positions of Clinton, evidence of corruption in the Clinton Foundation and the manipulation of the primary election by the Democratic establishment led by Clinton.

It isn’t necessary to look to a plot hatched in the Kremlin to understand why many RT hosts constantly criticized Clinton during the election. Thom Hartmann is an old friend of Bernie Sanders and for many years Hartmann did a weekly segment with Sanders called “Brunch with Bernie” to answer callers’ questions on air. Likewise, Ed Shultz had been covering Sanders for years and he was reportedly fired by MSNBC because he openly backed Sanders over Clinton on his show and would not not toe MSNBC’s corporate line in favor of Clinton. After RT picked up Shultz it is hardly surprising that he would criticize Clinton on air, considering that Shultz is a union supporter who is deeply opposed to the free trade policies promoted by Clinton

If RT coverage was designed to swing the election to Trump, then Russia is doing a very remarkably poor job of producing propaganda in favor of Trump. During the entire course of the election, I can’t recall ever watching a single show on RT that praised Trump or gave him sympathetic coverage of an issue.

In the critical months before the general election, Thom Hartmann pounded Trump relentlessly on RT, with shows such as “Yep, Trump Supporters Definitely Deplorable” (9/13), “32 More Republicans Say No to Trump” (10/10), “Politics Panel: Is Trump Creating An Authoritarian Movement?” (10/11), “The Trump Stock Market Crash“,  “Even Wall Street Fears A Pres. Trump“, “Trump The Artful (Tax) Dodger” and “Rumble: Crotch Grabbing Trump & Paul Ryan Plot to Gut Gov’t“.

Hartmann was hardly alone in bashing Trump on RT. The comedian Lee Camp did a show on 9/23 entitled “Why Is The Mainstream Media HELPING Donald Trump??,” where he replayed all the times he had lampooned and denigrated Trump in the past. He called Trump “a lizard-brained, lizard-skinned, beady-eyed half wit” and “a Far Side cartoon with face burn”. He concluded the show with this memorable critique of the mainstream media and its coverage of Trump:

Maybe giving Trump billions of dollars of free air time as CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC and CBS have all done, literally billions of dollars showing his speeches and his interviews, and then having meaningless yelling matches afterwards is exactly what has created Trump. Maybe if these corporate networks didn’t want Trump to be doing so well, they would stop covering him in a feckless, empty, vapid way, and instead call him the fascist maniac that he is and then move on to important news.

Although RT’s hosts were unsparing in their criticism of Trump and the coverage was generally more favorable for Clinton, that doesn’t mean that they were willing to stop covering Clinton’s flaws before the general election. Typical of this attitude is Ed Shultz’s interview of Bernie Sanders on 10/5:

Intro by Shultz: Sanders made a passionate case for Clinton, reeling off the list of issues which drew younger voters to his campaign. I was in Des Moines, Iowa this morning and caught up with Senator Sanders.

Shultz: What effect do you think you can have on your voters. It was so close here in Iowa.

Sanders: Well I just hope, Ed, that people take a hard look at the issues impacting their lives and the middle class. And I think that if they do that, then the choice is going to be very clear. On every issue– raising the minimum wage, pay equity for women, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, opposition to the TPP, and running a campaign not based on bigotry. I mean that we cannot elect a president whose cornerstone, the cornerstone of his campaign, is based on bigotry.

Shultz: We’ve had some people in here tell us that they’re going to vote for Hillary cause you’ve asked them to.

Sanders: I don’t want people to vote any way. I want them to vote their conscience, but I think that this is an enormously important election. I think that Donald Trump would be a disaster for this country, and I think again if you look at the issues that impact ordinary people, whether it’s raising the minimum wage, whether it I pay equity, whether it is rebuilding our infrastructure, whether it is expanding health care, whether it is making public colleges and universities tuition free. Those are important issues, and there is no question in my mind that Clinton is far and away the superior candidate.
And then, on the other hand, what we have to say is, “do we want to elect a president like Trump, whose cornerstone of his campaign is on bigotry, on dividing us up, a candidate who attacks and humiliates women every day? I don’t think that is kind of candidate we want to elect as president.

Shultz: Is this hard for you senator?

Sanders: Look, I’ve got 7 grandchildren and I’ve got 4 kids. I do not want them growing up under a Trump presidency, so for me it is not hard. If the question is whether I would rather be running for president. Yah, I would have, but I lost, so I’m going to do my best to make sure that Hillary is elected president.

Shultz: Any thoughts on the emails that came out that talk about Clinton pay-to-play with the Clinton Foundation?

Sanders: No, not right now.

It is telling that RT chose to post this interview on YouTube, since only the most significant clips of Shultz’s show are posted on YouTube to attract new viewers to the regular TV show. RT picked out this interview, which is hardly the material which would be featured if the goal is to elect Donald Trump. It also captures the general tone of the RT coverage right before the general election, that Clinton is corrupt, but she is far better than the alternative on the issues.

It is highly unlikely that RT would have hired Chris Hedges to start hosting a new show in the middle of the campaign season, if the goal was to elect Donald Trump. Hedges writes articles for Truthdig, such as “Donald Trump: The Dress Rehearsal for Fascism” (10/16), where he posits that Trump represents a type of fascism, which “is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny.”

RT could have hardly chosen worse hosts to be purveyors of Russian propaganda. Several of its hosts have shown remarkable independence and an unwillingness to be controlled. Chris Hedges was forced out of the New York Times, because he refused to condone his paper’s support of the War in Iraq. Ed Shultz was forced out of MSNBC, because he refused to go along with the company’s support of Clinton. When Abby Martin hosted a show at RT, she publicly criticized RT for defending Russia’s actions when it invaded the Crimea. Not only did RT not fire Martin (which is very different from what happened to Hedges and Shultz in American media companies when they didn’t follow orders), but she stayed on for another year at RT before moving to Telesur and she continues to publicly defends RT to this day.

I am hardly the only person to come to the conclusion that the US intelligence agencies’ characterization of the RT election coverage is hogwash. After reviewing the negative statements made about Trump on various RT shows, Danielle Ryan at the Nation concludes, “The disparagement of RT as a Vladimir Putin–controlled engine for pro-Trump propaganda boils down to anger over the fact that the American journalists who work for RT have the audacity to shine a light on unflattering aspects of the American political system.”

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