The Other Factor in the DNC Hack: WikiLeaks’ Personal War with Hillary Clinton

Since yesterday, both Jack Goldsmith and Peter Singer have had offered some interesting perspective on the alleged Russian hack of the DNC.

Singer had a bit of a Twitter rant.

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His linked (recent) Oversight testimony which discussed how much more complex cyber deterrence is than Cold War nuclear deterrence is.

For his part, Goldsmith first considered what was old and new in the hack, finding the only real new thing was releasing the emails.

While there is nothing new in one nation using its intelligence services to try to influence an election in another, doing so by hacking into a political party’s computers and releasing their emails does seem somewhat new.

He then dismissed the notion — floated elsewhere — that this amounts to cyberwar while implying that the US has to get far better at defending our own networks and systems.

How seriously do you think the government takes issues of cyberwarfare? Do you feel confident about our defensive capabilities and competence?

“Cyberwar” is a misleading term—the Russian hack, if it is that, is not an act of war, at least not by traditional standards. It is closer to an intelligence operation with the twist of a damaging publication of the stolen information. That said, the U.S. government takes all major cyberoperations against it and its major public and private institutions very seriously. My confidence about our defensive capabilities and competence depends on what institutions you are talking about. Today, some components of the government (e.g. the Defense Department) do better than others (e.g. the Office of Personnel Management, which recently suffered an very damaging hack). And private sector defenses, even of important critical infrastructure networks, are a very mixed bag. The scale of the challenge is enormous, and offense has many advantages over defense. I don’t know anyone who is sanguine about our defensive capabilities overall.

Then he went on a Twitter rant directed at the hand-wringing about how unusual this is.

1/ In assessing the DNC hack, remember that USG is no innocent when it comes to infiltrating foreign computer networks.

2/ The cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges was one of the most consequential in history.

3/ USG openly & aggressively supports technologies that weaken foreign gov’t control over networks.


6/ It’s also well known that US has in past used covert ops to influence foreign elections.

7/ Current U.S. cyber-espionage almost certainly extends to political organizations in adversary states.


11/ The point is that USG plays rough in cyberspace, and should expect others to do so as well.

12/  And yet USG seems perpetually unprepared. DNC hack is tiny tip of iceberg of possible electoral disruptions via cyber.

In short, both think this is something other than cyberwar, but view the importance of it differently (even while both provide suggestions for a policy framework to respond), particularly the uniqueness of the perceived sabotage of the election. But their discussion (along with virtually everyone else’s) has pitched this as a two-front question, us against Russia, though Singer’s testimony has a lot of discussion about how much more complexity there is to this issue, including the non-state actors who might be involved.

After having dismissed the unthinking equation of 2 intelligence hacks = Guccifer = Russia = WikiLeaks = Russia story, I want to return to it to complicate matters somewhat, to talk about Wikileaks role whether or not it cooperated with Russia on this. First, what follows is in no way meant to be a defense of Wikileaks’ action here, which included the inclusion of credit card and social security information in the dump. Particularly against the background of what it recently did with Turkish documents: in the guise of releasing a bunch of Erdogan documents, it also dumped voting information on most women in Turkey, including whether or not they were members of Erdogan’s AKP.

WikiLeaks also posted links on social media to its millions of followers via multiple channels to a set of leaked massive databases containing sensitive and private information of millions of ordinary people, including a special database of almost all adult women in Turkey.

Yes — this “leak” actually contains spreadsheets of private, sensitive information of what appears to be every female voter in 79 out of 81 provinces in Turkey, including their home addresses and other private information, sometimes including their cellphone numbers. If these women are members of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), the dumped files also contain their Turkish citizenship ID, which increases the risk to them as the ID is used in practicing a range of basic rights and accessing services. The Istanbul file alone contains more than a million women’s private information, and there are 79 files, with most including information of many hundreds of thousands of women.


Another file appears to contain sensitive information, including Turkish citizenship IDs of what appears to be millions of AKP members, listed as active or deceased. Yet another file contains the full names, citizenship IDs and cellphone numbers of hundreds of thousands of AKP election monitors — the most active members of the party.

As Zeynep Tufekci points out, in the wake of the failed coup and Erdogan’s retaliation, this has the possibility of endangering a great number of people.

She blames the dump on Wikileaks’ failure to work with locals, who could have explained that the emails themselves were virtually worthless. Perhaps. Perhaps Wikileaks served as someone else’s useful idiots — or even, if you believe there’s something more deliberate behind the coup and counter-coup, perhaps Wikileaks played a more active role.

So Wikileaks has done two things that were egregious and damaging. I do not defend that. I condemn it (and the sloppy journalism that enabled it).

Update: see this post on where the Turkey files came from, which came from Phineas Fisher; it wasn’t Wikileaks.

But I want to consider how different its role is with the target of this leak — Hillary Clinton (and Democrats more generally) — and Turkey.

Most of the discussion about the where and whyfor of the leak assumes it is all about Russia’s interest (assuming, of course, that this was a Russian state hack). But consider why Wikileaks might want to leak in this way and at this time.

Hillary was, of course, Secretary of State when Wikileaks leaked the State department cables and pushed aggressively for Chelsea Manning’s prosecution (as Charlie Savage wrote in a piece published just before I finished this, this is a point Assange made when he discussed the emails 6 weeks ago). She has, since then, been found to treat information claimed to be far more sensitive in careless fashion (as has the State Department generally).

Very importantly, State worked closely with DOJ as it investigated Wikileaks. There is very good reason to believe that as part of that investigation, DOJ mapped out Wikileaks’ supporters and, possibly, financial contributors — that is, precisely the kind of people, to the DNC, that Wikileaks just doxxed. That’s arguably a violation of Section 215, which includes First Amendment protections.

We also know that GCHQ was (at least as a SIGDEV research project, but those often serve to conduct surveillance that wouldn’t really fly within other legal guidelines) collecting log files of people who visit Wikileaks.

We know that under pressure from the US government, traditional funding sources stopped taking donations for Wikileaks. I’ve seen hints of some legally dubious action that may be worse, as well. In addition, in 2012, the FBI considered Bitcoin donations to Wikileaks among the many nefarious things one could do with Bitcoin.

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Love or hate Wikileaks, but it — and its political and financial supporters — were tracked. Its sources of funding were cut off. And then the government realized that Wikileaks (at that point, at least) was engaging in what a lot of media outlets also do and conceded it couldn’t charge Assange for those activities.

Now I’m not trying to say two wrongs make a right — that because FBI collected data implicating innocent supporters of Wikileaks, it is okay for Julian Assange to dox all the DNC’s supporters.

Rather, I’m trying to raise this in the context of the issues that Singer and Goldsmith lay out. Whether Wikileaks cooperated with Russia (if Russia did the hack) or not, it is a key player in this leak. Even if Russia did this to help Trump, Assange executed the leaks to maximal damage to Hillary (and I suspect Wikileaks will continue to do more damage with further leaks). What does this say about issues of retaliation against non-state actors working with the sphere of state actors, as people consider information war in the era of cyber?

I don’t know the answer to that, but as we raise the question, those issues need to be addressed as readily as the state actor question. The way this rolls out may be as much a question of a non-state actor retaliating against a political figure as it is a state actor trying to elect its preferred candidate.


15 replies
  1. Pete says:

    Agree that you cannot condone the egregious breaches of personal privacy in the leaks (e.g. SSNs CC info), but as you point the USA has done and does the very same thing and we certainly do intervene in foreign elections b undoubtably digital means and certainly based, on history, other more “hands on” means.

    Reminds me a bit of the question posed by Glen Greenwald in mid July:

    What comes around, goes around…

    Do unto others as you would ave them do unto you…

    Payback is a bitch.

    American exceptionalism indeed.


  2. jo6pac says:

    I’m really tired of the Russians are coming. There is nothing about rebuilding Amerika other that those words.

    The lesser of evils or as bmz pointed out think of the supremes. I give and did a while back as some one who has no children or grand children all I think about is how bad it will be for them. It will get worse before it gets better by voting for real change, Green. Sadly the neo-conns have complete control over this nation called Amerika.

    The system can’t change until the sheeple wake up and supporting the same system isn’t a wake up call to me, then again it’s just me.

    It’s a long time until Nov. and anything can happen but I doubt it will be for the better.

    Pass the vids check the links.

    Go Raiders, Warriors, and Giants. 9ers owners just go away. F-1 boring.

    • bmaz says:

      Go Cards, Packers and Pats!!
      Yeah, F1 is boring right now, at least up front. The racing, week in and week out in P3 through P12 or so has actually gotten very good, not that you see much of it from the crappy NBCSN coverage.

      • jo6pac says:

        Sadly I had to give up watching those event do to $$$. I read about the next day or record it in Spanish. It’s good.

        • bmaz says:

          The video on the Spanish coverage is actually sometimes better (no clue why, should be generally same feeds). Sky Sports in UK has a superb live blog during practices, qualifying and races. Heartily recommended. That and the Univision or whatever version you can get will probably be better than the dreck I see.

          • scribe says:

            Quality of coverage proceeds from the level of interest in the respective countries. German TV coverage of F1 is quite good, as is their newspaper coverage. Of course, Germans love their F1. They have NO affinity for NASCAR, though, so there is no coverage of that.

  3. scribe says:

    Well, private actors retaliating against political figures is as old as politics. In the past, it might be through financing a primary opponent or, in the case of a former ally, dumping some really embarrassing stuff the pol thought the ally was cool about.
    No big deal, then, that WikiLeaks is retaliating against HRC, if that’s what it is. Old as the hills, just a new method.
    As to Erdogan’s government leaving all that database info laying around, that’s all bad on Erdogan. On one level, it’s pretty reprehensible for a government, any government, to store that much information on people in a form accessible to the outside. (I know: the USG probably has files that extensive on each of us. No less reprehensible. And I’m waiting for everyone’s electronic health records to hit the net.) On another level, it’s wholly unsurprising that a putative dictator would want to have extensive files like that. And probably use them.
    I don’t have much sympathy for the DNC folks – they threw their hats into the ring of politics and can’t really be heard to complain when they got their info thrown around by the inept network security folks in their party’s HQ. Not that this is a new thing with Dems. Recall during the 2006 CT-Sen primary, Rape Gurney Joe Lieberman’s campaign went apoplectic claiming Lamont and/or The Bloggers had hacked his campaign website, to the point of complaining to the US Attorney (who, IIRC, did investigate). It turned out, we veterans of the blogosphere will remember, that Lieberman’s campaign spent like thirty bucks on some cheap-shit website with no capacity, and the site promptly crashed when more than a handful of people tried to look at it. In other words, the collapse was their own fault.
    As is the case with the DNC. Not as extreme or clear-cut a case as Lieberman’s, but still something they could have done a better job of avoiding.
    In other words, tough shit.

  4. LuLu Lemon says:

    Does the DNC collude with the heads of networks?
    To: Miranda, Luis
    Subject: Fwd: MSNBC’s Brzezinski: Wasserman Schultz ‘Should Step Down,’ Dem Primary ‘Has Been Unfair’ To Sanders
    This is the LAST straw. Please call Phil a Griffin. This is outrageous. She needs to apologize. DWS

    So DSW wants a journalist to apologize for reporting the news?

  5. Bill Michtom says:

    Why isn’t WHO did the hack very secondary to the corrupt DNC behavior–something that should be looked at way down the road rather than, as it seems, a focus that overwhelms what the DNC did?

  6. EdHead says:

    Maybe I have misunderstood this site for a long time. I am disappointed that emptywheel is joining the Neoliberal power elite and inclined to make sustained attacks on Julian Assange and Wickileaks. Further, posters are entering items such as market and M&A news – as if readers here are most concerned about their portfolios of stocks and not so much security which I thought was the overarching theme of the site.


  7. rugger9 says:

    They are linked more than you are grasping at the moment. Remember that while Bernie has been caucusing with the D’s for a long time in Congress, he’s actually an independent and therefore from the DNC viewpoint an outsider. The response from DWS was pretty much what I would expect from an entrenched tone-deaf bureaucrat who already had decided she wanted HRC. DWS also went away from Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy that worked to the triangulation strategy that hasn’t since Bill left office. So, like any other party machine (the GOP tried, but failed to stop Trump) the DNC would do their best to select someone who was one of their own. To Bernie’s credit, he broke through the obstructions and forced an actual campaign on the issues, which forced HRC and the DNC to shift to the left. Also to Bernie’s credit and no doubt due to his extensive electoral experience he expected this and understood it for what it actually is and he still got his policies into the platform, and both HRC and Kaine are now on record against TPP. All of this is to explain that while much of the sleaze was exposed, it’s pretty much what happened in every smoke filled room since there were Federalists. The only one who will really feel the burn from this dump will be DWS in her congressional district because Canova’s already beatng her up for this, and for supporting FL GOPers she liked personally instead of the Ds running against them, and for being a payday loan industry shill in a state where many people use those legal loan sharks.
    Sleazy and politically underhanded? Sure. Illegal? Not so far.
    Do you realize or remember how sleazy every GOP administration has been? The emails pale in comparison to Iran Contra, Reagan’s deal with the mullahs to delay the hostage release until AFTER the 1980 election, Nixon’s treason in 1968 to interfere with the South Vietnamese negotiations, more garden variety stuff like S&L, Enron, the 2008 meltdown, Katrina responses, losing 9 BILLION DOLLARS in cash in Iraq, Halliburton profiteering while Darth was still on the board, etc., et al. shows that moral rot is fundamental to being a Republican, hence the acronym IOKIYAR. The D’s don’t have such a long and sleazy track record, especially over the last 50 years.
    So, the content isn’t a real issue, but the sourcing is. Assange does have a bad history with HRC, since she is part of the reason he is where he is now (note, the Swedish charges are not as solid as they appear). If Assange thinks that Trump would let him travel again, he needs to look at how Trump routinely gets what he wants and doesn’t deliver what he owes. That means Trump will be more likely to run the bus over Assange once Assange is no longer useful to the campaign than HRC is.
    This is why the sourcing is important, because it is clear that the parties behind this are trying to steer the election to suit their interests. Locally grown wingnuts are one thing, but foreign interlopers illegally interfering and contributing to our political process adds a whiff of real treasonous behavior. Note that treason is defined very specifically in the U.S. Constitution, which was intentional since that charge was routinely used for political purposes in the mother country on amazingly flimsy grounds to get rid of malcontents. If we are talking about Rove and his ilk, it’s bad but not illegal, but if we are talking about Putin, the PRC, or Prince Bandar financing this in ways now functionally allowed by Citizens United (because the detection of and enforcement against the activity was removed), our American democracy is now available to be sold and our interests and troops sold out by someone compromised by foreign interests like Trump clearly is.
    U.S. Constitution, Article III Section 3:
    Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

    The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

  8. jerryy says:

    Amazingly though, none of these folks are talking about actively using encryption and safe methods to avoid hacking and surveillance.

  9. P J Evans says:

    Trump just added more fuel to the fire by asking Russia (or any other country) to hack servers:

    If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!
    — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2016

  10. Tony Butka says:

    As a Bernie supporter, I thought it was cool that someone released the information proving that the DNC system was indeed rigged against Bernie. Shame on them, and good for Wikileaks.

    Interestingly, when I went to donate $50 to WikiLeaks via my Ax card, it was declined. So I’m now probably on some Federal government watch list. (Paypal, by the way worked).

    Something is fundamentally wrong in our country. As our government and institutions hide more and more, spy on us more and more, lie more and more, we need someone who will out them. If that’s Wikileaks, good for them.

    My personal belief is that most government ‘secrets’ are really not critical national defense at all, they are only labeled secret to prevent embarrassment for some slime government officials.

    • John Casper says:

      Tony, thanks.
      Like you, I supported Bernie.
      FWIW, Wikileaks forgot to scrub SSN’s other stuff from the date they leaked.

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