The Sources for Some Russian Voting Hack Stories Will Not Be Prosecuted

Yesterday, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spent 90 minutes meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russian investigators.

Today, Bloomberg reports that Russian probes of election-related targets was far more extensive than previously reported, reaching into 39 states. It relies on three unnamed sources for the story, either including, or in addition to, at least one former senior US official.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

[snip]

Another former senior U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the classified U.S. probe into pre-election hacking, said a more likely explanation is that several months of hacking failed to give the attackers the access they needed to master America’s disparate voting systems spread across more than 7,000 local jurisdictions.

[snip]

One former senior U.S. official expressed concern that the Russians now have three years to build on their knowledge of U.S. voting systems before the next presidential election, and there is every reason to believe they will use what they have learned in future attacks. [my emphasis]

The report also uses the document allegedly leaked by Reality Winner as corroboration and confirmation of one of the companies targeted, rather curiously included as a parenthetical comment.

(An NSA document reportedly leaked by Reality Winner, the 25-year-old government contract worker arrested last week, identifies the Florida contractor as VR Systems, which makes an electronic voter identification system used by poll workers.)

The Bloomberg story is critically important, as it should provide pressure on the Republicans for real protections for voting systems, even if they’ll probably ignore that pressure. It provides far more details than the Winner document did. That said, much of this information might come out formally in Jeh Johnson testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

I raise all this to note that the treatment of Bloomberg’s sources will be dramatically different than that of Winner. I’d bet there won’t even be a referral for this story, especially if it relies on (as is likely) information shared by people protected by the speech and debate clause and/or people who might have been original classification authorities (OCAs — the people who get to decide whether something is classified or not) for this information in the past.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Perhaps our democracy has unofficially agreed that OCAs and congressional staffers should serve as kind of a relief valve, the place where classified information may be leaked without criminal penalty. Perhaps we believe those kinds of people have a better read on whether the interests of leaking outweigh the sensitivity of an issue. Though obviously, when OCAs like David Petraeus become impossible to punish (or former SSCI staff director Bill Duhnke, who was the FBI’s primary suspect for the Merlin leak, but who was protected by the Senate’s refusal to cooperate), that creates a profoundly unequal system of justice. Reality Winner can be prosecuted even while people leaking similar — perhaps even more sensitive — information within weeks might not even be investigated.

To be clear, I don’t want Bloomberg’s sources to be investigated. But we need to acknowledge the double standards for leakers in this country.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    This post reminds me of Nicolai Ivanovitch Lobachevsky, Marcy.

    In his famous song “Lobachevsky,” mathematician and musical satirist Tom Lehrer painted a picture of a young scholar musing on his hero – a senior leader in his field who borrows from this scholar, steals from that scholar, and publishes their work under his own name. He introduces his hero like this:

    I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky
    In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics:
    Plagiarize

    Plagiarize!
    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
    So don’t shade your eyes
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
    Only be sure always to call it please “research”

    For a senior scholar, it’s “research” but for an undergrad, it’s plagiarism.

    To come back to your post, for a SAO, leaks like these are speaking on background; for an underling, they are damn near treason.

    Bozhe moi!

    • Desider says:

      Ah, Tom Lehrer – what was his Catholic Rag, “genuflect genuflect genuflect”. He’s plagiarizing his own music.

      • lefty665 says:

        And “Poisoning pigeons in the park” and “We’ll all go together when we go” and many more… “The Elements” was an amazing exercise in memory, it made “Route 66” seem like child’s play.

    • prostratedragon says:

      The good old days, when the “Midnight Special” show on WFMT really was special.

      Regarding Ms. Winner, is she actually to be charged with espionage? Isn’t that an overcharge, even putting the worst light on what she did? But then, I guess to some leaking those documents was much worse than turning a democracy over to grifting, smirking hackmasters.

  2. lefty665 says:

    It is the same double standard that we saw with Betrayus and Clinton last year. The elites skate and poor schmucks go to the slammer.  As we saw in our election last year and in Britain last week, the masses are fed up with being screwed while the fat cats skate and just get fatter. Until we reform and shape up our institutions the instability will get worse.

    The nationwide switch to electronic voting machines was a cluster f**k with widespread adoption of touch screen machines with no paper trail and things like WEP wifi security. The nation remains a hodgepodge of vulnerable and unreliable local elections systems. The Russians are the least of our worries. A bigger concern is at the state level, as we saw in Ohio in 2004 when Secretary of the State Ken Blackwell moved Ohio’s election system to backups on RNC servers in Kentucky and the Ohio vote totals miraculously flipped from Kerry to Duhbya. If I were the Ruskies I’d be going after it at that state database level.

    The hodgepodge of 7,000 local systems with varying hardware, software and security is an awful lot of work for not much return on the effort.  It might go something like this. Oh boy, we exploited a hayseed local elections officer in Rats Ass and flipped 152 votes. 1 down and 6,999 to go. If the Russians are really doing that it is the IT equivalent of being sent to Siberia in the old days.  And you Comrade will spend the next 20 years at hard labor phishing local American elections staff.

     

     

    • Peterr says:

      If I were the Ruskies I’d be going after it at that state database level.

      I agree with a lot of what you say, but not the hacking at the state level part. That’s the most easily noticeable place to catch someone screwing around.

      Think about what happens on election night. If I’m the county elections officer, I know what count my people reported to the state. I stood up in front of the cameras of the local news outlets and said “Here’s how our county voted,” and the reporters went back and did their stories about What It All Means. Later in the evening, when the secretary of state puts out county-by-county numbers, I’ll know immediately if my numbers and their numbers don’t match, and so will the local reporters who were righting their stories.

      They won’t know who screwed with the system, or whether it is nefarious hacking or simply human error in transposing a couple of numbers, but it will be immediately clear that there is some kind of problem.

      If I’m the Ruskies, this is the last thing I want to have happen.

      • lefty665 says:

        I hear you, and you make a lot of sense. The only way local hacking gets caught is of there is a physical recount of the paper trail (if it is an optical scan machine) against the reported totals. OTOH, the Repubs got away with flipping Ohio at the state level. It seemed Rove was pretty sure it was going to happen again in ’12. He was crazy on the air about not calling Ohio.

        The bizarre hodgepodge of local voting arrangements we’ve got complicates any widespread attack, foreign or domestic.

        Thanks for bringing Tom Lehrer around. “New math” made a lot more sense to me when my first computer system was base octal. It all fell right in place. His history included working for NSA or a predecessor.

  3. jerryy says:

    “THE SOURCES FOR SOME RUSSIAN VOTING HACK STORIES WILL NOT BE PROSECUTED”

    I see your claim and raise you one: The un-auditable voting machines will not be secured nor replaced by the next election cycle (or the one after that).

  4. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Cliffs Notes on Sessions testimony (2.5 hours)

    Sessions nervous. Made notes before oath or questions.

    DOJ rules, CFR 45.2

    Sessions decided, so he said, that he should recuse on his first day on job. (Feb 10)

    Sessions and Rosenstein had discussed Comey performance before Sessions confirmed for office.

    Sessions confirmed Comey concerns about discussions with President.

    Sessions does not know if President records conversations.

    Sessions said there has already been leaks from last Thursday Comey *CLOSED* session.

    What are the ‘longstanding rules’ that provide cover for WhiteHouse-DOJ conversations?

    Wbat are the ‘other privileges’ besides EP?

    Rogers 2 hours closed session last night.

    Sessions out of loop. No detailed briefings.

  5. Evangelista says:

    If Only Some Of These “Leaks” Had Some Real Content!

    We are all like the Organic Gardner whose roses were dying for lack of nutrition, who appealed to his neighbors for help. His neighbors rallied and brought him bag after bag, but the bags contained only farts; no shit.

    Come on; enough of farting around in this “Russian Hacking” stink. Let’s see some real shit. Or just let the business die.

    Has no one noticed hat in the “Reality Winner” “leak” there is no substance? Also no “Reality” and no “Winner”? And that the latest is just another balloon blown up with the same bad air?

    These Senate Hearings are taking on an air of adolescent idiocy.

    • Avattoir says:

      I’d hoped Always Sunny in Philly would have established a toll for this sort of thing.

  6. Avattoir says:

    The U.S. is practically if not actually unique among major western democracies in tolerating the unequal application of laws that brings about this sort of injustice.

    See: the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Right which AOT requires comparable & dove-tailing  in each member nation state (so, for example, the Human Rights Act of 1998 in the U.K.), the Canadian model upon which most of all that is based on, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act & a bundle of enabling legislation, and the New Zealand counterpart.

    In each of those jurisdictions, an individual (and in certain restrained circumstances an organization) has not just the right but the ability to complain, as well as a formal forum with actual teeth to complain to, about practical discrimination in the application of punitive legislation, & to some extent  investigatory laws, regulatory powers & even policy

    • Evangelista says:

      In the U.S. it is the moral responsibility of the judiciary (presumed to be principled) to provide equality in adjudicate application.  The supremacy of Principles and principled behavior is established and assigned in the U.S. Constitution.  It, of course, did not take long for corruption to impose, especially in a terrain such as was emplaced by the compromise that kicked th slave-ownership anomaly can down the road, and where prior ownership problems were aleady extant, and historically given little or no shrift.  Marshal’s effort to define a legal basis relationship between indigenous owners and the new Constitutional government was well meant, and a good start, but was doomed by immediate breach, which breaching set precedent for corruption.

      In the EU we have seen, and are seeing continuing, similar strains, and them driving toward corruption, again.  It is human nature.

        • Evangelista says:

          My “gibberish” is legal history, bmaz, something not taught in U.S. law schools, obviously, but which should be, clearly.  The EU is of recent composition, so its legal history is near to contemporaneous, almost current.  The EU grew out of BeNeLux and the European Economic Area, whose histories one needs to familiarize oneself with to recognize deviations, and attempted deviations (introductions and attempted introductions of corruptions).  In North America introductions of corruptions began early, and were, of course, not all in America.  The anti-corruption Stand-On-Principles tradition reflected in the U.S. Constitution was established in both negative examples from the Theocratic Rule experiences of the religious-foundation colonies, and the positive examples provided by Saxon Traditions in everyday applied law (the base for the unwritten “English Constitution”, William Penn Jr., defending common law right (and Charles the Second defending them, Penn and His Prerogative), the Zenger Jury Defiance  and “tradition” “descending”  (growing) from the foregoing and its institutionalization in the Constitution Convention and its generated perspectival ‘tradition’.  The Seditions Era was the first real and significant inroad of corruption in U.S. law, whose historical inroad remains with us for the Principle Tradition being still strong enough to generate the self-certainty that the corrupt law of the Sedition corruption event could be left moot in nullity, not needing removal…  A carelessness we can see the consequence of currently, as well as in history.

          Your perception of legal history being “gibberish” is product of your ignorance of the history, and the utility of knowing it, which is product of the failure of the U.S. education system to teach legal history and its utility.

          You are not alone, of course, in your ignorance or your disdain:  I don’t think there are three U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the last one and a half centuries who did not and have not displayed the ignorance and disdain you do, and so not written their ignorance into U.S. Law, doing their parts to make that law, today, a mess worse than merely gibberish, whose corruptions, where not products of ignorance are products of adjudicative corruptions, prejudices and malfeasances, where not criminal (knowing and willful) manipulations.  These corruptions have moved the United States today away from its Constitutional foundation, in effect overthrowing the Constitutional United States, making, in its place a non-Constitutional alternative State, and, in so doing creating conditions that study of legal histories show to lead toward and into eruptions, revolts, revolutions and destructions.

          Of course, the deer in the headlights does not have to know that the fascinating glow growing like the glory of Jesus to envelope him is going to kill him.   The events of history are among those things, like tsunami, that none need to know to be inundated by.

          • bmaz says:

            Naw, it is just pure unadulterated gibberish. In fact, I am starting to think you are just a tl;dr bot here to annoy people with run on comments.

  7. SpaceLifeForm says:

    #define story russianhacking

    If story is true, then no investigation in order to keep the narrative going.

    If story is false, then no investigation in order to keep the narrative going.

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