Sunday, January 15, 2017

A retired diplomat’s take on the scourge of hacking

WILLIAM P. KIEHL | Columnist 3 hrs ago (1),; see also.

Kiehl image from article

On the cusp of a new administration and in the most bizarre and unprecedented of political seasons, we citizens are now confronted by a series of questionable and troubling reports that seem to have been dredged up from some remote corner of the Cold War.

People on both sides of the political picket line are rightfully concerned but largely for different reasons. Given the state of our disunity as a nation, should we be surprised?

As someone who spent much of my Foreign Service career living and working in the former Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe, I am perhaps immune from such surprises.

Let’s unpack some of these reports and put them into some context and perspective. Russian “hacking” misses the point.

Every nation with the cyber capacity to do so tries to break into other countries’ computer networks to glean information to their advantage at a minimum and to sow discord, confuse and disrupt programs and the wider society, if possible.

We do it, our allies do it and our enemies do it. It is an integral part of the modern tradecraft of every intelligence agency.

Long before computers, influence operations and propaganda attempted to confuse the “target” with “fake news.” The Russians have been doing similar things in Europe for years. None of this is really so new.

OK, we get that. So why is it that these Russian efforts are somehow different?

The cynic may conclude that it’s all politics and colored by one’s political outlook. To the Donald Trump supporter it is another attempt — like Jill Stein’s claims of voter fraud and Democratic attacks on the Electoral College — to de-legitimize Trump’s victory. To the diehard Democrat, it is more irrefutable proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin “fixed” the U.S. election.

My question is this: Why should one be so upset about Hillary Clinton adviser John Podesta’s somewhat nasty emails but not be so upset about the Chinese People’s Liberation Army theft of 22 million personnel files, including 4 million of the most highly secret background investigations on U.S. government employees, contractors and even their families?

For years, the real scandal has been the lack of any coordinated cybersecurity over our most important government, corporate and societal information. Attacks on American computer systems have been going on consistently by nation states, foreign intelligence services, criminal organizations and others with malicious intent for years, and the United States has done little or nothing in response.

Now, days before the change of administrations, a furor suddenly breaks out. Reports by elements of the American intelligence juggernaut have accused Russia of a sophisticated influence operation to help Trump achieve victory by leaking damaging information from Democratic National Committee email servers.

There have been some troubling aspects to this revelation in my view, including that the reports have been leaked to major media in advance —hardly a professional intelligence approach. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied last week that the leaks came from the American intelligence community.

Classified reports, declassified reports, reports based on unverified information, reports signed by some but not other intelligence agencies, reports under the imprimatur of Clapper, who only two years ago apparently provided false information under oath to a congressional committee. All this does not inspire confidence.

Pushing aside the smoke and fog from the hall of mirrors, we can be fairly sure Russia conducted a modest influence operation to damage Hillary Clinton, no friend of Putin to be sure, as Putin believes that Hillary used similar tactics in the 2011 Russian election to damage him.

Certainly there should be a thorough and exhaustive investigation of Russian actions in the 2016 campaign. But I hope that we look more holistically at cyberwarfare because it is a far greater problem than a single country’s failed attempts to influence an election.

Putin’s influence operations — a form of propaganda and in the Russian intelligence manual, an “active measure” — sounds perhaps more awesome than it is. The plan may have had some small, essentially insignificant effect on the opinions of everyday Americans. In my view, it certainly did not turn the tide.

Ironically, in the days following the Podesta emails released by WikiLeaks, Clinton gained slightly in the polls. There is nothing like claiming a foreign power is against you to improve one’s standing with the voters.

While Putin’s gambit was largely a failure in that it had no real effect on the election, the nearly hysterical reaction to Russian “hacking” by the American mass media and Washington pundits has achieved Putin’s ultimate aim — to disrupt, to sow discord and doubt over the American electoral process. We really are sometimes our own worst enemy!

William P. Kiehl is a retired Foreign Service officer who served 35 years with the U.S. Information Agency and U.S. Department of State in Europe, Asia and Washington. He was also a Diplomat in Residence at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. He resides in Lancaster County.

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