“Jim Comey thinks he was handed a shit sandwich”

Upon this rock Comey’s reputation stands—or it did until this past July.

That sentence appears deep inside a long Tim Weiner article suggesting, as I did on November 9, that Democrats might be better off if Jim Comey stayed on as FBI Director under Donald Trump.

Before Weiner gets there, he lays out the tradition of FBI Directors standing up to Presidential power (!), leading up to a truly epic rendition of the Comey hospital stairs myth, in which Comey ran up some hospital steps in March 2004, with seconds to spare, to save the Constitution.

The number of people who knew about Stellar Wind was vanishingly small at the start, but by early 2004 it was growing. Comey was read into the program’s secret protocols. He became convinced that Stellar Wind was unworkable—and, worse, unconstitutional. (As the Supreme Court would later rule in a pivotal case, a state of war does not make a president king.) In turn, Comey converted Mueller. They agreed that the FBI could not continue to go along with the program. The scope of the searches had to be constrained to protect Americans’ rights.

Bush disagreed, of course. So did his White House lawyers. The NSA was a military agency, and therefore, they said, Congress’s authorization of military force gave the president the right to electronically eavesdrop on anyone, anywhere in America—free from the constraints of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against warrantless searches and seizures.

Comey and Mueller were caught between the president’s command and the law of the land. Neither man had seen evidence that the surveillance program had saved a life, stopped an imminent attack, or unveiled an Al Qaeda member in the United States. They also thought it foolhardy that Bush was flouting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which had been created after Watergate to oversee national-security wiretapping.

[snip]

The FBI agents who were guarding Ashcroft’s room alerted Comey and Mueller that a showdown was imminent. The two men raced to the intensive-care unit in their black cars, sirens blaring. Comey, who is six foot eight, leaped up the stairs two steps at a time and got there first. Ashcroft was fading in and fading out. “I immediately began speaking to him,” Comey later testified, “to see if he could focus on what was happening. And it wasn’t clear to me that he could. He seemed pretty bad off.”

Having presented how Acting Attorney General Comey saved the Constitution by refusing to reauthorize Stellar Wind, Weiner skips some details, most notably about how Comey then turned around and strong-armed FISA into authorizing most parts of the program, including the metadata dragnet that Comey had refused to approve on his own, arguing that DOJ couldn’t go to Congress as the Constitution required.

Weiner’s myth has no room in a long form article to explain that Comey needed to shred the Constitution’s separation of powers to save the Constitution, it seems. After all, if he presented those details, the claim that Comey’s reputation still stood unblemished on a noble rock back in July would look silly.

Having, nevertheless, argued that Comey has consistently stood up to presidential powers on a scale never before seen, Weiner then tries to spin Comey’s July decision to violate the norms of DOJ just a case of standing up to power gone bad. Weiner provides almost no explanation of what a big deal it was to make derogatory comments about Hillary even while he cleared her, to be followed by several sworn hearings before Congress in which he provided even more details.

Indeed, in a key paragraph, Weiner’s hagiography gets muddled, with statements Comey made in July conflated with actions he then felt obliged to take in October, without much discussion of how one led to the other.

Clearly Comey’s remark about Clinton being “extremely careless” was a blunder—carelessness is a sin of omission, not a federal crime—but the awful truth is that he thought he had no choice, or at least no good choice. When he sent the October 28 letter, Comey broke a long-standing Justice Department rule against meddling in presidential politics on the eve of an election. But if, as seems likely, Comey believed with everyone else that Clinton was on track to become the next commander in chief, he may have felt compelled by a custom of equally potent provenance. For decades the FBI has checked and confronted the power of the president. This tradition runs from our own time of political torment back through Bill Clinton’s presidency all the way to the days of J. Edgar Hoover.

Having thus obscured how unprecedented the first decision was, Weiner then goes on to — I kid you not! — permit a Comey associate to claim that he (!!!!) and not Hillary Clinton got dealt a shit sandwich.

In November, I put a question to Comey through the FBI’s chain of command: Why did he feel obliged to tell Congress about the cache of unopened emails at the end of October, before his agents had a warrant to look at them? Comey declined to respond directly, but an FBI official familiar with his thinking explained the gist of the dilemma: The director stood at the fork of two bad roads. Route one: Comey sends the letter to Capitol Hill. A congressman hell-bent on harming Hillary Clinton leaks it. The evidence reveals no crime. Clinton is defeated. Route two: Comey doesn’t send the letter. The existence of the emails leaks. Comey is doomed. Another official who works closely with the director put the conundrum in a pithy phrase: “Jim Comey thinks he was handed a shit sandwich.”

Even the most Comey-friendly narrative of his actions this year has, up to this point, argued that Comey’s choices in October were limited because of stupid, even unforgivable things, he did in July. But not here. Here, some entity that shall not be named handed poor Jim Comey a shit sandwich.

Weiner’s piece ends with the promise that, this unfortunate incident behind him, Jim Comey will still get up for the next six plus years to protect our country and our Constitution.

For the next seven years, if he serves through the end of his statutory term, Comey will rise before dawn, read through overnight reports about threats to the United States, ride a black car to the White House, and brief the president, if the president will listen. He will report to congressional committees on life-and-death issues of national security. The FBI is fighting battles across the nation and the world, surrounded by real and imagined enemies everywhere you look, and in places you can’t see. There are terrorists and cyberwarriors. There are crooks and thieves. There are two houses of Congress. And then there’s the White House. Our new president has a history of bending the law nearly to the breaking point. Trump might not like the cut of Jim Comey’s jib. But the FBI director must stand up and say no to a president when the Constitution requires it. It’s the law, and it’s a tradition. We could do worse than having Comey in charge.

Look. As I noted at the beginning, I have made a version of this argument. I have argued that whoever Donald Trump would appoint to be FBI Director would be far worse than Comey, and Comey — not because he has great respect for the Constitution but because he’s self-righteous and knows how to work the press — might stand up to the first or second Trump abuse of power. I don’t expect many Democrats (the ones who rushed through Comey’s appointment with very little scrutiny) to agree, but I have made that argument.

But spare me the misleading hagiography in making that case, please? If we would be better off if Comey stayed on, it would be as much because of Comey’s flaws (and more importantly Trump’s knack for finding the worst nominee for any given position) than any great deeds of the past.

The NYT’s Legitimate Email Detail

The NYT has a long story describing the hack of the Democrats in the most favorable light to the party, one that blames “socialist” Bernie Sanders for the months-long delay before the DNC tech person responded to FBI warnings about being hacked, one that makes no mention of the widely reported detail that Democrats were happy to have an excuse to fire Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Given that it puts things in a light so favorable to the Democrats, I wanted to look more closely at this passage, which has gotten a lot of attention.

Hundreds of similar phishing emails were being sent to American political targets, including an identical email sent on March 19 to Mr. Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign. Given how many emails Mr. Podesta received through this personal email account, several aides also had access to it, and one of them noticed the warning email, sending it to a computer technician to make sure it was legitimate before anyone clicked on the “change password” button.

“This is a legitimate email,” Charles Delavan, a Clinton campaign aide, replied to another of Mr. Podesta’s aides, who had noticed the alert. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

With another click, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his Gmail account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a phishing attack, as the campaign was getting dozens of them. He said he had meant to type that it was an “illegitimate” email, an error that he said has plagued him ever since.

It points to a detail that has always struck me about the stories about the hack of John Podesta. They note — as I did — that we can look at the email reportedly used to hack Podesta. Here’s the entirety of what Delavan sent to a woman named Sara Latham, who forwarded it to a woman named Milia Fisher:

This is a legitimate email. John needs to change his password immediately, and ensure that two-factor authentication is turned on his account.

He can go to this link: https://myaccount.google.com/security to do both. It is absolutely imperative that this is done ASAP.

If you or he has any questions, please reach out to me at [phone].

It may be that he mistyped legitimate for illegitimate. But he also said that Podesta should change his email password and added two-factor authentication. Perhaps the mistake was in forwarding the email with the link, rather than just responding by saying Podesta was being phished.

The part that has always puzzled me about this email — and the likely reason why he’s now telling a story that doesn’t entirely make sense — is that he also did the safe thing. He provided the real GMail address at which staffers could have changed the password and added 2FA. Had those staffers used that link, they could have avoided a whole lot of trouble and made any subsequent hack less likely.

I even, at one point, doubted whether this really could have been the email used to hack Podesta, because it shouldn’t have worked, given that he took the right steps (though the timing of the emails does correlate with the dates of what got released).

What is more likely to have happened is that one of the women used the bad URL to change the password (which would have appeared all shiny in the original), rather than the correct URL that Delavan provided. That is, it may be that Delavan is covering for one of the women.

Update; I realized after posting how the typo thing might make sense, and changed that part, but there’s still the point that he did the right thing here.

Update: Slate interviewed Delavan, who said the NYT got the phrasing wrong. The story still doesn’t seem to make sense entirely.

Why Is CIA Avoiding the Conclusion that Putin Hacked Hillary to Retaliate for Its Covert Actions?

The most logical explanation for the parade of leaks since Friday about why Russia hacked the Democrats is that the CIA has been avoiding admitting — perhaps even considering — the conclusion that Russia hacked Hillary in retaliation for the covert actions the CIA itself has taken against Russian interests.

Based on WaPo’s big story Friday, I guessed that there was more disagreement about Russia’s hack than its sources — who seemed to be close to Senate Democrats — let on. I was right. Whereas on Friday WaPo reported that it was the consensus view that Russia hacked Hillary to get Trump elected, on Saturday the same journalists reported that CIA and FBI were giving dramatically different briefings to Intelligence Committees.

The question the Republicans and Democrats in attendance wanted answered was whether the bureau concurred with the conclusions the CIA had just shared with senators that Russia “quite” clearly intended to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and clinch the White House.

For the Democrats in the room, the FBI’s response was frustrating — even shocking.

During a similar Senate Intelligence Committee briefing held the previous week, the CIA’s statements, as reflected in the letter the lawmakers now held in their hands, were “direct and bald and unqualified” about Russia’s intentions to help Trump, according to one of the officials who attended the House briefing.

[snip]

“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards — can we prove this in court,” one of the officials said. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”

The FBI is not sold on the idea that Russia had a particular aim in its meddling. “There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,” said one U.S. official.

Subsequent leaks have continued to make it clear there’s a dispute both about what motive Russia had to target Hillary (to destabilize the US? to get Trump elected?) and how much evidence there is (the FBI thinks it is circumstantial, the CIA thinks it a  smoking gun). In addition, there have been unanswered questions about why CIA only briefed that Russia affirmatively supported Hillary this week, when reportedly they have had the evidence that conclusion is based on for months.

Remarkably, only secondary commenters (including me, in point 13 here) have suggested the most obvious explanation: The likelihood that Russia targeted the former Secretary of State for a series of covert actions, all impacting key Russian interests, that at least started while she was Secretary of State. Those are:

  • Misleadingly getting the UN to sanction the Libya intervention based off the claim that it was about protecting civilians as opposed to regime change
  • Generating protests targeting Putin in response to 2011 parliamentary elections
  • Sponsoring “moderate rebels” to defeat Bashar al-Assad
  • Removing Viktor Yanukovych to install a pro-NATO government

Importantly, the first three of these happened on Hillary’s watch, with her active involvement. And Putin blamed Hillary, personally, for the protests in 2011.

Never mind the relative merit of these covert operations. Never mind that Putin has not, yet, released any evidence to support his claim that Hillary (or CIA) supported the 2011 protests targeting him personally; there is no doubt he believes it. During the primary Hillary as much as confirmed that when her diplomats negotiated the UN voted in 2011, they had regime change in mind the whole time. The US has acknowledged its covert operations against Assad in Congressional testimony. And hackers released a call from Victoria Nuland acting like she was in charge of deciding what post-Yanukovych Ukraine would look like.

In other words, whatever the merits and evidence behind these four events, there is no doubt Putin sees them as a threat to Russian interests and blames the US for all of them, with merit in at least some of the cases.

And yet, this most obvious motive has not been leaked to the press, creating the impression that it has never been considered by the people who carried out these covert actions.

To admit this possible motive publicly, of course, would require admitting that the US still tampers in other governments, including some that are elected (even if in elections of dubious fairness). It would also require admitting that our own government got targeted as a response to these covert interventions, which would make concerns about how novel this intervention was a lot less convincing.

Finally, if this motive were the real reason Putin tampered in our election, it might explain why Obama has been reluctant to respond. Perhaps the US believes that Putin has evidence that might prove — or at least create a convincing case that — that the US did intervene to try to weaken him in 2011. And again, the US has already stated on the record they’ve got a covert operation to topple Assad.

Update: I’ll add that DC Leaks, which has always been conflated with Guccifer 2 (which released only Democratic files) and the DNC and Podesta leaks to Wikileaks, started by releasing documents with very clear ties to Ukraine, including a great many targeted at George Soros. If DC Leaks is considered part of the same operation, it is all the more unbelievable that CIA has not considered this explanation.

Update: At an October 18 event, Michael Hayden said (after 20:30) Putin did this because he believes that we do this to him all the time, citing the Rose Revolution, 2011 protests, and Maidan, but not mentioning Libya and Syria. Hayden did claim that the US doesn’t actually do those things (again, not mentioning Libya and Syria), but earlier he said he had done similar things to the actual hack while Director of NSA.

The ObamaCare Not Comey Effect

Just after the election I did two posts considering the relative impact of the Jim Comey letter announcing FBI was reviewing the Anthony Weiner derived emails and the announcement of a huge ObamaCare premium spike.

I still think we don’t have enough data about the relative effect of the two events.

But a number of people are pointing to this post from Sam Wang, which ends,

In the above graph of the Comey effect, each point shows the median margin for polls that were in the field on that day. As you can see, the immediate effect of Comey’s letter was a swing toward Trump of 4 percentage points, about half of which stuck. This was enough to swing Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. It seems likely that Comey’s letter was a critical factor in the election outcome.

Nowhere in the post does Wang note what date Comey sent his letter, though. It was October 28.

Unless Wang’s chart is totally mislabeled (Update: In an “explanation” added to his post, Wang effectively says his graph is off by three — though not four — days due to the way he presents multi-day polls; he has, at least, now told his readers when the actual letter came out) but what it shows seems to be consistent with what I showed in this post, which shows a Hillary dip and a Trump spike moving in concert on before October 28), then his chart show doesn’t support a Comey effect at all — it shows the opposite. The differential started narrowing after October 24. By October 28, when the letter was released, the differential had plateaued before it turned up again.

As it turns out, the ObamaCare spike was announced on October 24 (and reported heavily starting October 25).

That’s precisely when we see the differential moving.

If we’re assuming an immediate response in polls in response to an event, then the ObamaCare premium spike would be a far better explanation than the Comey letter, which took place later.

Frankly, I suspect both had an impact, and further suspect there may have been something else driving the differential late turn to Trump in the Rust Belt. And I suspect we still don’t have the data to explain what made a bunch of Rust Belt voters move to Trump right before the election.

The Not-Majority Leader Promises Bipartisan Investigations in Russian Cyberhackery

Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Jack Reed released a statement this morning, stating (in part),

While protecting classified material, we have an obligation to inform the public about the recent cyberattacks that have cut to the heart of our free society. Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of Congress, to examine these recent thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks.

If you don’t look too closely, it appears to be a mature promise that the Senate will work in nonpartisan fashion to defend the nation.

But let’s look closely, shall we?

First, note who is on the statement: the rising Minority Leader, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and … some other guy. Lindsey Graham here is just filling in for the guy who should be on the statement if this were really bipartisan, Mitch McConnell. Furthermore, while it’s great the leaders of the SASC agree on this front, they only have partial jurisdiction over NSA, and none over FBI or CIA, the agencies having a public spat over this. Richard Burr, whose committee does have jurisdiction over the CIA and over counterintelligence (and who often avoids doing any oversight by invoking classification), is also conspicuously absent.

In other words, it’s not so much a statement of bipartisanship, as an effort to pressure those who should be on the statement to join in.

It’s also not a statement with enough GOP signers — three is the new magic number, absent Trump convincing Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp to give up their seat for a cabinet post, in which case it will be four — to be able to sway votes in the Senate.

The statement suggests Congress has been working hard to protect cybersecurity. They must be doing so in secret, because the main thing they’ve done recently is pass a law immunizing corporations for sharing information.

Ah well. It’s a start. Schumer is very effective at making bold statements, and if that puts some heat on Mitch McConnell, so be it.

The Evidence to Prove the Russian Hack

In this post, I’m going to lay out the evidence needed to fully explain the Russian hack. I think it will help to explain some of the timing around the story that the CIA believes Russia hacked the DNC to help win Trump win the election, as well as what is new in Friday’s story. I will do rolling updates on this and eventually turn it into a set of pages on Russia’s hacking.

As I see it, intelligence on all the following are necessary to substantiate some of the claims about Russia tampering in this year’s election.

  1. FSB-related hackers hacked the DNC
  2. GRU-related hackers hacked the DNC
  3. Russian state actors hacked John Podesta’s emails
  4. Russian state actors hacked related targets, including Colin Powell and some Republican sites
  5. Russian state actors hacked the RNC
  6. Russian state actors released information from DNC and DCCC via Guccifer 2
  7. Russian state actors released information via DC Leaks
  8. Russian state actors or someone acting on its behest passed information to Wikileaks
  9. The motive explaining why Wikileaks released the DNC and Podesta emails
  10. Russian state actors probed voter registration databases
  11. Russian state actors used bots and fake stories to make information more damaging and magnify its effects
  12. The level at which all Russian state actors’ actions were directed and approved
  13. The motive behind the actions of Russian state actors
  14. The degree to which Russia’s efforts were successful and/or primary in leading to Hillary’s defeat

I explain all of these in more detail below. For what it’s worth, I think there was strong publicly available information to prove 3, 4, 7, 11. I think there is weaker though still substantial information to support 2. It has always been the case that the evidence is weakest at point 6 and 8.

At a minimum, to blame Russia for tampering with the election, you need high degree of confidence that GRU hacked the DNC (item 2), and shared those documents via some means with Wikileaks (item 8). What is new about Friday’s story is that, after months of not knowing how the hacked documents got from Russian hackers to Wikileaks, CIA now appears to know that people close to the Russian government transferred the documents (item 8). In addition, CIA now appears confident that all this happened to help Trump win the presidency (item 13).

1) FSB-related hackers hacked the DNC

The original report from Crowdstrike on the DNC hack actually said two separate Russian-linked entities hacked the DNC: one tied to the FSB, which it calls “Cozy Bear” or APT 29, and one tied to GRU, which it calls “Fancy Bear” or APT 28. Crowdstrike says Cozy Bear was also responsible for hacks of unclassified networks at the White House, State Department, and US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I’m not going to assess the strength of the FSB evidence here. As I’ll lay out, the necessary hack to attribute to the Russians is the GRU one, because that’s the one believed to be the source of the DNC and Podesta emails. The FSB one is important to keep in mind, as it suggests part of the Russian government may have been hacking US sites solely for intelligence collection, something our own intelligence agencies believe is firmly within acceptable norms of spying. In the months leading up to the 2012 election, for example, CIA and NSA hacked the messaging accounts of a bunch of Enrique Peña Nieto associates, pretty nearly the equivalent of the Podesta hack, though we don’t know what they did with that intelligence. The other reason to keep the FSB hack in mind is because, to the extent FSB hacked other sites, they also may be deemed part of normal spying.

2) GRU-related hackers hacked the DNC

As noted, Crowdstrike reported that GRU also hacked the DNC. As it explains, GRU does this by sending someone something that looks like an email password update, but which instead is a fake site designed to get someone to hand over their password. The reason this claim is strong is because people at the DNC say this happened to them.

Note that there are people who raise questions of whether this method is legitimately tied to GRU and/or that the method couldn’t be stolen and replicated. I will deal with those questions at length elsewhere. But for the purposes of this post, I will accept that this method is a clear sign of GRU involvement. There are also reports that deal with GRU hacking that note high confidence GRU hacked other entities, but less direct evidence they hacked the DNC.

Finally, there is the real possibility that other people hacked the DNC, in addition to FSB and GRU. That possibility is heightened because a DNC staffer was hacked via what may have been another method, and because DNC emails show a lot of password changes off services for which DNC staffers had had their accounts exposed in other hacks.

All of which is a way of saying, there is some confidence that DNC got hacked at least twice, with those two revealed efforts being done by hackers with ties to the Russian state.

3) Russian state actors (GRU) hacked John Podesta’s emails

Again, assuming that the fake Gmail phish is GRU’s handiwork, there is probably the best evidence that GRU hacked John Podesta and therefore that Russia, via some means, supplied Wikileaks, because we have a copy of the actual email used to hack him. The Smoking Gun has an accessible story describing how all this works. So in the case of Podesta, we know he got a malicious phish email, we know that someone clicked the link in the email, and we know that emails from precisely that time period were among the documents shared with Wikileaks. We just have no idea how they got there.

4) Russian state actors hacked related targets, including some other Democratic staffers, Colin Powell and some Republican sites

That same Gmail phish was used with victims — including at a minimum William Rinehart and Colin Powell — that got exposed in a site called DC Leaks. We can have the same high degree of confidence that GRU conducted this hack as we do with Podesta. As I note below, that’s more interesting for what it tells us about motive than anything else.

5) Russian state actors hacked the RNC

The allegation that Russia also hacked the RNC, but didn’t leak those documents — which the CIA seems to rely on in part to argue that Russia must have wanted to elect Trump — has been floating around for some time. I’ll return to what we know of this. RNC spox Sean Spicer is denying it, though so did Hillary’s people at one point deny that they had been hacked.

There are several points about this. First, hackers presumed to be GRU did hack and release emails from Colin Powell and an Republican-related server. The Powell emails (including some that weren’t picked up in the press), in particular, were detrimental to both candidates. The Republican ones were, like a great deal of the Democratic ones, utterly meaningless from a news standpoint.

So I don’t find this argument persuasive in its current form. But the details on it are still sketchy precisely because we don’t know about that hack.

6) Russian state actors released information from DNC and DCCC via Guccifer 2

Some entity going by the name Guccifer 2 started a website in the wake of the announcement that the DNC got hacked. The site is a crucial part of this assessment, both because it released DNC and DCCC documents directly (though sometimes misattributing what it was releasing) and because Guccifer 2 stated clearly that he had shared the DNC documents with Wikileaks. The claim has always been that Guccifer 2 was just a front for Russia — a way for them to adopt plausible deniability about the DNC hack.

That may be the case (and obvious falsehoods in Guccifer’s statements make it clear deception was part of the point), but there was always less conclusive (and sometimes downright contradictory) evidence to support this argument (this post summarizes what it claims are good arguments that Guccifer 2 was a front for Russia; on the most part I disagree and hope to return to it in the future). Moreover, this step has been one that past reporting said the FBI couldn’t confirm. Then there are other oddities about Guccifer’s behavior, such as his “appearance” at a security conference in London, or the way his own production seemed to fizzle as Wikileaks started releasing the Podesta emails. Those details of Guccifer’s behavior are, in my opinion, worth probing for a sense of how all this was orchestrated.

Yesterday’s story seems to suggest that the spooks have finally figured out this step, though we don’t have any idea what it entails.

7) Russian state actors released information via DC Leaks

Well before many people realized that DC Leaks existed, I suspected that it was a Russian operation. That’s because two of its main targets — SACEUR Philip Breedlove and George Soros — are targets Russia would obviously hit to retaliate for what it treats as a US-backed coup in Ukraine.

DC Leaks is also where the publicly released (and boring) GOP emails got released.

Perhaps most importantly, that’s where the Colin Powell emails got released (this post covers some of those stories). That’s significant because Powell’s emails were derogatory towards both candidates (though he ultimately endorsed Hillary).

It’s interesting for its haphazard targeting (if someone wants to pay me $$ I would do an assessment of all that’s there, because some just don’t make any clear sense from a Russian perspective, and some of the people most actively discussing the Russian hacks have clearly not even read all of it), but also because a number of the victims have been affirmatively tied to the GRU phishing methods.

So DC Leaks is where you get obvious Russian targets and Russian methods all packaged together. But of the documents it released, the Powell emails were the most interesting for electoral purposes, and they didn’t target Hillary as asymmetrically as the Wikileaks released documents did.

8) Russian state actors or someone acting on its behest passed information to Wikileaks

The basis for arguing that all these hacks were meant to affect the election is that they were released via Wikileaks. That is what was supposed to be new, beyond just spying (though we have almost certainly hacked documents and leaked them, most probably in the Syria Leaks case, but I suspect also in some others).

And as noted, how Wikileaks got two separate sets of emails has always been the big question. With the DNC emails, Guccifer 2 clearly said he had given them to WL, but the Guccifer 2 ties to Russia was relatively weak. And with the Podesta emails, I’m not aware of any known interim step between the GRU hack and Wikileaks.

A late July report said the FBI was still trying to determine how Russia got the emails to Wikileaks or even if they were the same emails.

The FBI is still investigating the DNC hack. The bureau is trying to determine whether the emails obtained by the Russians are the same ones that appeared on the website of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks on Friday, setting off a firestorm that roiled the party in the lead-up to the convention.

The FBI is also examining whether APT 28 or an affiliated group passed those emails to WikiLeaks, law enforcement sources said.

An even earlier report suggested that the IC wasn’t certain the files had been passed electronically.

And the joint DHS/ODNI statement largely attributed its confidence that Russia was involved in the the leaking (lumping Guccifer 2, DC Leaks, and Wikileaks all together) not because it had high confidence in that per se (a term of art saying, effectively, “we have seen the evidence”), but instead because leaking such files is consistent with what Russia has done elsewhere.

The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.

Importantly, that statement came out on October 7, so well after the September briefing at which CIA claimed to have further proof of all this.

Now, Julian Assange has repeatedly denied that Russia was his source. Craig Murray asserted, after having meeting with Assange, that the source is not the Russian state or a proxy. Wikileaks’ tweet in the wake of yesterday’s announcement — concluding that an inquiry directed at Russia in this election cycle is targeted at Wikileaks — suggests some doubt. Also, immediately after the election, Sergei Markov, in a statement deemed to be consistent with Putin’s views, suggested that “maybe we helped a bit with WikiLeaks,” even while denying Russia carried out the hacks.

That’s what’s new in yesterday’s story. It stated that “individuals with connections to the Russian government” handed the documents to Wikileaks.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

[snip]

[I]ntelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin “directing” the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said. Those actors, according to the official, were “one step” removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees. Moscow has in the past used middlemen to participate in sensitive intelligence operations so it has plausible deniability.

I suspect we’ll hear more leaked about these individuals in the coming days; obviously, the IC says it doesn’t have evidence of the Russian government ordering these people to share the documents with Wikileaks.

Nevertheless, the IC now has what it didn’t have in July: a clear idea of who gave Wikileaks the emails.

9) The motive explaining why Wikileaks released the DNC and Podesta emails

There has been a lot of focus on why Wikileaks did what it did, which notably includes timing the DNC documents to hit for maximum impact before the Democratic Convention and timing the Podesta emails to be a steady release leading up to the election.

I don’t rule out Russian involvement with all of that, but it is entirely unnecessary in this case. Wikileaks has long proven an ability to hype its releases as much as possible. More importantly, Assange has reason to have a personal gripe against Hillary, going back to State’s response to the cable release in 2010 and the subsequent prosecution of Chelsea Manning.

In other words, absent really good evidence to the contrary, I assume that Russia’s interests and Wikileaks’ coincided perfectly for this operation.

10) Russian state actors probed voter registration databases

Back in October, a slew of stories reported that “Russians” had breached voter related databases in a number of states. The evidence actually showed that hackers using a IP tied to Russia had done these hacks. Even if the hackers were Russian (about which there was no evidence in the first reports), there was also no evidence the hackers were tied to the Russian state. Furthermore, as I understand it, these hacks used a variety of methods, some or all of which aren’t known to be GRU related. A September DHS bulletin suggested these hacks were committed by cybercriminals (in the past, identity thieves have gone after voter registration lists). And the October 7 DHS/ODNI statement affirmatively said the government was not attributing the probes to the Russians.

Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.

In late November, an anonymous White House statement said there was no increased malicious hacking aimed at the electoral process, though remains agnostic about whether Russia ever planned on such a thing.

The Federal government did not observe any increased level of malicious cyber activity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on election day. As we have noted before, we remained confident in the overall integrity of electoral infrastructure, a confidence that was borne out on election day. As a result, we believe our elections were free and fair from a cybersecurity perspective.

That said, since we do not know if the Russians had planned any malicious cyber activity for election day, we don’t know if they were deterred from further activity by the various warnings the U.S. government conveyed.

Absent further evidence, this suggests that reports about Russian trying to tamper with the actual election infrastructure were at most suspicions and possibly just a result of shoddy reporting conflating Russian IP with Russian people with Russian state.

11) Russian state actors used bots and fake stories to make information more damaging and magnify its effects

Russia has used bots and fake stories in the past to distort or magnify compromising information. There is definitely evidence some pro-Trump bots were based out of Russia. RT and Sputnik ran with inflammatory stories. Samantha Bee famously did an interview with some Russians who were spreading fake news. But there were also people spreading fake news from elsewhere, including Macedonia and Surburban LA. A somewhat spooky guy even sent out fake news in an attempt to discredit Wikileaks.

As I have argued, the real culprit in this economy of clickbait driven outrage is closer to home, in the algorithms that Silicon Valley companies use that are exploited by a whole range of people. So while Russian directed efforts may have magnified inflammatory stories, that was not a necessary part of any intervention in the election, because it was happening elsewhere.

12) The level at which all Russian state actors’ actions were directed and approved

The DHS/ODNI statement said clearly that “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” But the WaPo story suggests they still don’t have proof of Russia directing even the go-between who gave WL the cables, much less the go-between directing how Wikileaks released these documents.

Mind you, this would be among the most sensitive information, if the NSA did have proof, because it would be collection targeted at Putin and his top advisors.

13) The motive behind the actions of Russian state actors

The motive behind all of this has varied. The joint DHS/ODNI statement said it was “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.” It didn’t provide a model for what that meant though.

Interim reporting — including the White House’s anonymous post-election statement — had suggested that spooks believed Russia was doing it to discredit American democracy.

The Kremlin probably expected that publicity surrounding the disclosures that followed the Russian Government-directed compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations, would raise questions about the integrity of the election process that could have undermined the legitimacy of the President-elect.

At one level, that made a lot of sense — the biggest reason to release the DNC and Podesta emails, it seems to me, was to confirm the beliefs a lot of people already had about how power works. I think one of the biggest mistakes of journalists who have political backgrounds was to avoid discussing how the sausage of politics gets made, because this material looks worse if you’ve never worked in a system where power is about winning support. All that said, there’s nothing in the emails (especially given the constant release of FOIAed emails) that uniquely exposed American democracy as corrupt.

All of which is to say that this explanation never made any sense to me; it was mostly advanced by people who live far away from people who already distrust US election systems, who ignored polls showing there was already a lot of distrust.

Which brings us to the other thing that is new in the WaPo story: the assertion that CIA now believes this was all intended to elect Trump, not just make us distrust elections.

The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

[snip]

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

For what it’s worth, there’s still some ambiguity in this. Did Putin really want Trump? Or did he want Hillary to be beat up and weak for an expected victory? Did he, like Assange, want to retaliate for specific things he perceived Hillary to have done, in both Libya, Syria, and Ukraine? That’s unclear.

14) The degree to which Russia’s efforts were successful and/or primary in leading to Hillary’s defeat

Finally, there’s the question that may explain Obama’s reticence about this issue, particularly in the anonymous post-election statement from the White House, which stated that the “election results … accurately reflect the will of the American people.” It’s not clear that Putin’s intervention, whatever it was, had anywhere near the effect as (for example) Jim Comey’s letters and Bret Baier’s false report that Hillary would be indicted shortly. There are a lot of other factors (including Hillary’s decision to ignore Jake Sullivan’s lonely advice to pay some attention to the Rust Belt).

And, as I’ve noted repeatedly, it is no way the case that Vladimir Putin had to teach Donald Trump about kompromat, the leaking of compromising information for political gain. Close Trump associates, including Roger Stone (who, by the way, may have had conversations with Julian Assange), have been rat-fucking US elections since the time Putin was in law school.

But because of the way this has rolled out (and particularly given the cabinet picks Trump has already made), it will remain a focus going forward, perhaps to the detriment of other issues that need attention.

Unpacking the New CIA Leak: Don’t Ignore the Aluminum Tube Footnote

This post will unpack the leak from the CIA published in the WaPo tonight.

Before I start with the substance of the story, consider this background. First, if Trump comes into office on the current trajectory, the US will let Russia help Bashar al-Assad stay in power, thwarting a 4-year effort on the part of the Saudis to remove him from power. It will also restructure the hierarchy of horrible human rights abusing allies the US has, with the Saudis losing out to other human rights abusers, potentially up to and including that other petrostate, Russia. It will also install a ton of people with ties to the US oil industry in the cabinet, meaning the US will effectively subsidize oil production in this country, which will have the perhaps inadvertent result of ensuring the US remains oil-independent even though the market can’t justify fracking right now.

The CIA is institutionally quite close with the Saudis right now, and has been in charge of their covert war against Assad.

This story came 24 days after the White House released an anonymous statement asserting, among other things, “the Federal government did not observe any increased level of malicious cyber activity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on election day,” suggesting that the Russians may have been deterred.

This story was leaked within hours of the time the White House announced it was calling for an all-intelligence community review of the Russia intelligence, offered without much detail. Indeed, this story was leaked and published as an update to that story.

Which is to say, the CIA and/or people in Congress (this story seems primarily to come from Democratic Senators) leaked this, apparently in response to President Obama’s not terribly urgent call to have all intelligence agencies weigh in on the subject of Russian influence, after weeks of Democrats pressuring him to release more information. It was designed to both make the White House-ordered review more urgent and influence the outcome.

So here’s what that story says.

In September, the spooks briefed “congressional leaders” (which for a variety of reasons I wildarseguess is either a Gang of Four briefing including Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid or a briefing to SSCI plus McConnell, Reid, Jack Reed, and John McCain). Apparently, the substance of the briefing was that Russia’s intent in hacking Democratic entities was not to increase distrust of institutions, but instead to elect Trump.

The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The difference between this story and other public assessments is that it seems to identify the people — who sound like people with ties to the Russian government but not necessarily part of it — who funneled documents from Russia’s GRU to Wikileaks.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

[snip]

[I]ntelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin “directing” the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said. Those actors, according to the official, were “one step” removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees.

This is the part that has always been missing in the past: how the documents got from GRU, which hacked the DNC and John Podesta, to Wikileaks, which released them. It appears that CIA now thinks they know the answer: some people one step removed from the Russian government, funneling the documents from GRU hackers (presumably) to Wikileaks to be leaked, with the intent of electing Trump.

Not everyone buys this story. Mitch McConnell doesn’t buy the intelligence.

In September, during a secret briefing for congressional leaders, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) voiced doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, according to officials present.

That’s one doubt raised about CIA’s claim — though like you all, I assume Mitch McConnell shouldn’t be trusted on this front.

But McConnell wasn’t the only one. One source for this story — which sounds like someone like Harry Reid or Dianne Feinstein — claimed that this CIA judgment is the “consensus” view of all the intelligence agencies, a term of art.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

Except that in a briefing this week (which may have been what impressed John McCain and Lindsey Graham to do their own investigation), that’s not what this represented.

The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered. [my emphasis]

That’s a conflict. Some senior US official (often code for senior member of Congress) says this is the consensus view. Another senior US official (or maybe the very same one) says there are “minor disagreements.”

Remember: we went to war against Iraq, which turned out to have no WMD, in part because no one read the “minor disagreements” from a few agencies about some aluminum tubes. A number of Senators who didn’t read that footnote closely (and at least one that did) are involved in this story. What we’re being told is there are some aluminum tube type disagreements.

Let’s hear about those disagreements this time, shall we?

Here’s the big takeaway. The language “a formal US assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies” is, like “a consensus view,” a term of art. It’s an opportunity for agencies which may have differing theories of what happened here to submit their footnotes.

That may be what Obama called for today: the formal assessment from all agencies (though admittedly, the White House purposely left the scope and intent of it vague).

Whatever that review is intended to be, what happened as soon as Obama announced it is that the CIA and/or Democratic Senators started leaking their conclusion. That’s what this story is.

Update: One other really critical detail. When the White House announced the Obama review today, Wikileaks made what was a bizarre statement. Linking to a CNN story on the Obama ordered review that erred on the side of blaming Russia for everything, it said, “CNN: Obama orders report into WikiLeaks timed for release just prior to Trump presidency.” Even though none of the statements on the review focused on what this story does — that is, on the way that the DNC and Podesta emails got to Wikileaks — Wikileaks nevertheless interpreted it as an inquiry targeted at it.

Update: And now David Sanger (whose story on the Obama-ordered review was particularly bad) and Scott Shane reveal the RNC also got hacked, and it is the differential leaking that leads the spooks to believe the Russians wanted Trump to win.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public.

This may be a fair assessment. But you would have to account for two things before making it. First, you’d need to know the timing and hacker behind the RNC hack. That’s because two entities are believed to have hacked the DNC: an FSB appearing hacking group, and a GRU one. The FSB is not believed to have leaked. GRU is believed to have. So if the FSB hacked the RNC but didn’t leak it, it would be completely consistent with what FSB did with DNC.

NYT now says the RNC hack was by GRU in the spring, so it is a fair question why the DNC things got leaked but RNC did not.

Also, Sanger and Shane say “largely documents” from Dems were leaked. That’s false. There were two streams of non-Wikileaks releases, Guccifer, which did leak all-Dem stuff, and DC Leaks, which leaked stuff that might be better qualified as Ukrainian related. The most publicized of documents from the latter were from Colin Powell, which didn’t help Trump at all.

Update: It’s clear that Harry Reid (who of course is retiring and so can leak speech and debate protected classified information without worrying he’ll be shut off in the future) is one key driver of this story. Last night he was saying, “”I was right. Comey was wrong. I hope he can look in the mirror and see what he did to this country.” This morning he is on the TV saying he believes Comey had information on this before the election.

Update, 12/10: This follow-up from WaPo is instructive, as it compares what CIA briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence with what FBI briefed the House Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence. While the focus is on different Republican and Democratic understandings of both, the story also makes it clear that FBI definitely doesn’t back what WaPo’s sources from yesterday said was a consensus view.

The Game of Telephone about the Election Hacking Review

This morning, the White House announced that Obama has ordered a review of election-related hacking, to be completed before Donald Trump takes over. I want to capture the varying descriptions of what the review will entail.

Politico: The review will look at the hacks blamed on the Russians this year and malicious cyber activity (publicly understood to be China in 2008 and someone else in 2012) going back to 2008

The review will put the spate of hacks — which officials have blamed on Russia — “in a greater context” by framing them against the “malicious cyber activity” that may have occurred around the edges of the 2008 and 2012 president elections, said White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz at a briefing.

“This will be a review that is broad and deep at the same time,” he added.

[snip]

In 2008, the campaigns for both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama were bombarded by suspected Chinese hackers, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The digital intruders were reportedly after internal policy papers and the emails of top advisers.

And in 2012, Gawker reported that hackers had broken into Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s personal Hotmail account after correctly answering his backup security question: “What is your favorite pet?”

“We will be looking at all foreign actors and any attempt to interfere with the elections,” Schultz said.

WaPo: The review will be a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election

President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

[snip]

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had already been probing what they see as a broad covert Russian operation to sow distrust in the presidential election process. It was their briefings of senior lawmakers that led a number of them to press for more information to be made public.

[snip]

Though Russia has long conducted cyberspying on U.S. agencies, companies and organizations, this presidential campaign marks the first time Russia has attempted through cyber means to interfere in, if not actively influence, the outcome of an election, the officials said.

CNN: The review will look at “hacking by the Russians aimed at influencing US elections going back to 2008” (CNN notes that the IC “never said there was strong evidence that [hacks of voter registration systems were] tied to the Russian government”)

President Barack Obama has ordered a full review into hacking by the Russians aimed at influencing US elections going back to 2008, the White House said Friday.

“The President has directed the Intelligence Community to conduct a full review of what happened during the 2016 election process. It is to capture lessons learned from that and to report to a range of stakeholders,” White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser Lisa Monaco said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters Friday. “This is consistent with the work that we did over the summer to engage Congress on the threats that we were seeing.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz added later that the review would encompass malicious cyber activity related to US elections going back to 2008. [my emphasis]

Wikileaks (relying on the CNN story): The review will look at Wikileaks

CNN: Obama orders report into WikiLeaks timed for release just prior to Trump presidency

NYT: The review will look at all Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, including publishing email contents and probing the “vote-counting system” (presumably a reference to voter lists that have nothing to do with vote counting)

President Obama has ordered American intelligence agencies to produce a full report on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, his homeland security adviser said on Friday. He also directed them to develop a list of “lessons learned” from the broad campaign the United States has accused Russia of carrying out to steal emails, publish their contents and probe the vote-counting system.

Does Dark Marketing Have a Function in Trump’s Mobs?

As you likely know, Trump has sicced his mobs onto one of the first non-public figures since the election: the United Steel Worker organizer for the Carrier plants affected by Trump’s involvement, Chuck Jones.

On Tuesday, Jones said that Trump “lied his ass off” about the Carrier deal, pointing out the same thing I did: that 300 of the jobs Trump took credit for “saving” were actually white collar engineer jobs. Jones said they were never slated to move to Mexico.

At first, Jones’ comments only showed up in print outlets and Trump had no response. But then CNN ran the comments (it seems, though this is not yet proven, that Trump primarily tweets out when things get on TV). And Trump responded.

The response, in general, was encouraging: rather than just report that Trump had attacked a labor organizer, several TV programs had Jones on, resulting in giving him even more opportunity to call Trump a liar.

Except then the creepy calls started.

Half an hour after Trump tweeted about Jones on Wednesday, the union leader’s phone began to ring and kept ringing, he said. One voice asked: What kind of car do you drive? Another said: We’re coming for you.

He wasn’t sure how these people found his number.

“Nothing that says they’re gonna kill me, but, you know, you better keep your eye on your kids,” Jones said later on MSNBC. “We know what car you drive. Things along those lines.”

“I’ve been doing this job for 30 years, and I’ve heard everything from people who want to burn my house down or shoot me,” he added. “So I take it with a grain of salt and I don’t put a lot of faith in that, and I’m not concerned about it and I’m not getting anybody involved. I can deal with people that make stupid statements and move on.”

This is, of course, not new with the election. Trump did it all through the campaign, particularly targeting protestors at his events. But this makes it clear he is perfectly happy to target individuals for retaliation when they call him on his lies.

I’ll have more to say about what I think the appropriate response to this is (though as I said, I was reassured by last night’s performance, to a point).

But given the way last night’s tweets led so quickly to threatening phone calls, I wanted to raise this article [This is in German, but an English translation is due soon; I read it using Google translate; I will update with quotes when it is translated], on the psychological approach behind Trump’s Cambridge Analytica work during the election (which were covered in less detail in this Bloomberg article). It describes the model behind Cambridge Analytics, the amount of data it collects, and the kind of accuracy it claims. The article describes how closely the model has been integrated with Facebook. And it describes how CA got bought by Strategic Communications Laboratories, which has been used for things like influence campaigns in Afghanistan. The article then describes CA’s role in Brexit, and how first Ted Cruz and then Trump came to rely on it (partly at the direction of billionaire Robert Mercer. The article then describes how CA uses highly individualized maps of individuals to target advertising.

The success of marketing by Cambridge Analytica is based on the combination of three elements: psychological behavioral analysis according to the Ocean model, big-data evaluation and ad-targeting. Ad targeting, that is personalized advertising, that is advertising, which adapts as closely as possible to the character of an individual consumer.

Nix frankly explains how his company does it (the lecture is available on Youtube free). Cambridge Analytica purchases personal data from all sorts of sources: land registry entries, bonus cards, dial-up directories, club memberships, journal subscriptions, medical data. Nix shows the logos of globally operating data traders like Acxiom and Experian – in the USA almost all personal data are available for purchase. If you want to know where, for example, Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information. Including telephone numbers. Now Cambridge Analytica crosses this number packets with voter lists of the Republican Party and online data as Facebook Likes – then one calculates the Ocean Personality Profile: From digital footprints suddenly real people with fears, needs, interests – and with a residential address.

The article goes on to describe (as Bloomberg had) how Trump used dark ads, targeted to very narrowly tailored groups, to depress Hillary’s turnout.

There are a lot of implications of all this, if the targeting is as effective as CA likes to claim. But I wonder whether Trump intends to use it as part of his governance strategy (there were reports that Steve Bannon only agreed to join the campaign if he got access to the data). Obviously, a Trump Administration could use such an approach to apply pressure on specific legislators.

But people close to Trump (this is all hypothetical, but this is the kind of thing you keep a plausible deniability distance away from the principal) could also use it to rile up anger in response to perceived slights of the President.

Trump has been playing a double game. The firing of Michael Flynn (the son) from the transition team — in part because Flynn had a role in riling up PizzaGate — makes it clear Trump wants to maintain a visible distance from the violence his supporters commit. But Trump has always relied on mobilizing his mob to heighten the illusion that he is under attack, and his persistence in doing so after actual violence shows it is intentional.

So what might Trump’s team do with a proven communication program that can communicate with almost no notice?

The Bible Still Outperforms Facebook in Delivering Fake News

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We’ve reached the stage where articles about fake news themselves engage in fake news tactics.

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman — who has written many of the stories on fake news in recent weeks — had Ipsos do a poll querying whether or not people believed some of the real and fake news headlines that got shared around during the election. He presented the results, in both tweets and his BuzzFeed article on the results, this way:

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-7-25-37-am

But that’s not actually what the poll showed, though a number of people — even some of the people who are the most dedicated serious commentators on fake news — seemed to believe the headline without reading the article closely (that is, they treated it precisely like fake news consumers might, including sharing it before they had evaluated it critically).

Rather, the poll showed that of the people who remember a given headline, 75% believed it. But only about 20% remembered any of these headlines (which had been shared months earlier). For example, 72% of the people who remembered the claim that an FBI Agent had been found dead believed it, but only 22% actually remembered it; so just 16% of those surveyed remembered and believed it. The recall rate is worse for the stories with higher belief rates. Just 12% of respondents remembered and believed the claim that Trump sent his own plane to rescue stranded marines. Just 8% remembered and believed the story that Jim Comey had a Trump sign in his front yard, and that made up just 123 people out of a sample of 1809 surveyed.

Furthermore, with just one exception, people recalled the real news stories tested more than they did the fake and with one laudable exception (that Trump would protect LGBTQ citizens; it is “true” that he said it but likely “false” that he means it), people believed real news at rates higher than they did fake. The most people — 22% — recalled the fake story about the FBI Agent, comparable to the 23% who believed some real story about girl-on-girl pictures involving Melania. But 34% remembered Trump would “absolutely” register Muslims and 57% remembered Trump’s claim he wasn’t going to take a salary.

The exception should be an exception, because Buzzfeed shouldn’t have treated it as news anyway. Just 11% recalled Mike Morell’s endorsement, titled “I ran the CIA. Now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton,” which appeared in NYT’s opinion section. All endorsements should be considered opinion, and this one happens to be from a proven liar with a history of torture apology, so for the rare people who knew anything about Morell, I would hope his opinion would carry limited weight.

What all of this shows is that the fake news headline claims Buzzfeed made last month, that “Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” should be revised. What that clickbait story actually showed was that the top fake stories received more “engagement” — shares, reactions, and comments — on Facebook than the top real news. But the last paragraph of the article admitted that might not be the same as actual consumption or even non-Facebook moderated engagement.

It’s important to note that Facebook engagement does not necessarily translate into traffic. This analysis was focused on how the best-performing fake news about the election compared with real news from major outlets on Facebook. It’s entirely possible — and likely — that the mainstream sites received more traffic to their top-performing Facebook content than the fake news sites did. As as the Facebook spokesman noted, large news sites overall see more engagement on Facebook than fake news sites.

What this newly reported poll at least suggests (one would need to do a more scientific study to test this hypothesis) is that even the most shared fake news was not really retained, whereas more of the real news was. And that’s true even in spite of the fact that Buzzfeed/Ipsos did not test the most popular real news (in reality this, too, is an opinion piece), “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” That’s a pity, because it’d be interesting to see how many and what kind of people remembered and believed that one.

Effectively, then, Buzzfeed was testing the most popular fake news (about the Pope endorsing Trump, with 960,000 engagements) against the third ranking real news (the Melania girl-on-girl story, with 531,000 engagements) and real news still performed better overall in terms of recall. Which would seem to suggest these Facebook engagements don’t actually track how much “news” — fake or not — people will consciously retain (I admit unconscious retention is probably an issue too).

Which is how I get to my claim that the Bible outperforms Facebook for spreading false news. After all, as recently as 2014, 42% of Americans believed in creationism, while just 19% believed in evolution. That number is changing quickly (importantly, as more purportedly fake news consuming youngsters who don’t consider themselves religious get asked). Nevertheless, a significantly larger chunk of the country believes that God plunked us down fully-formed into Eden than believe that an FBI Agent involved in the Clinton case died in a murder suicide.

We should expect more people to believe what they read in the Bible, because it is a story that gets reinforced week after week by people with some authority in the community. It also gets reinforced in institutions like the Creation Museum, where I took the picture of white Adam and Eve above. For people who believe in creationism, their religion is fundamentally tied to their self-identity in a way that politics might not be. It is precisely for that reason it provides important counterpoint to these fake news stories. Especially given the way that a preference for religious stories over scientific ones poisons so much of our ability to deal with crises like climate change.

Don’t get me wrong: algorithmically-delivered sensationalism is a problem (as are polls that get shared to make claims about headlines they don’t really support). But it is one of many problems with our politics, and the evidence from this poll actually suggests it isn’t yet the most urgent one.

Update: Pope Francis, who believes the notion of evolution can coexist with that of creation, just issued a statement calling those who spread shit news sinners.

Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly “Tertio” that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.

[snip]

“I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said.

Update: Matthew Ingram covers this issue at Fortune.

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