Did Russia ‘hack the election?’ Yes and No

Here’s a quick summation of where we stand, based on public domain analysis and reporting, vis-à-vis the purported Russian ‘hack’ of the US Presidential election.

Anyone who claims that the Podesta emails were not real is delusional. There’s no real dispute over that.

Anyone who believes that Julian Assange isn’t biased against Hilary Clinton is also delusional. Mr Assange also shows a disturbingly willful blindness to find any problems with the state of civil liberties and human rights in Russia—this, again, is not really subject to controversy.

Anyone who believes that Assange can be certain about the origin of the Podesta emails doesn’t understand chain of custody. His de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian Embassy makes it physically impossible for him to objectively, empirically verify any claims of provenance. If this were evidence for the courts, he wouldn’t be allowed to testify as to the provenance of the emails.

Anyone who has examined the pattern of overt and covert activities as already detailed by public domain sources that has been judged with a high or a moderate level to confidence to originate from the Russian state would be foolish to deny that there isn’t a strong preponderance of evidence that yes, Russia conducted an anti-Clinton (dis)information campaign.

On-the-record print and TV interviews with avowed state-paid Russian trolls who profess a strong preference for Donald Trump constitute probitive evidence of a classic old-school dezinformatsiya effort. It’s something that both sides used frequently in the Cold War. RT’s overt anti-Clinton editorial slant is obvious, and strongly contributory. Assange’s frequent appearances on the channel are evidence of nothing more than a bit of narcissism on his part.

The fact that the APT28 modus operandi is consistent with well-documented spying activities against the Bundestag as well as the TV5 cyber-attack is a substantive plank in the circumstantial case. The fact that APT28 code was almost exclusively developed in a Russian language build environment, in the Moscow time zone is damning. The fact that that they used of bit.ly as an URL-obfuscator—and then committed a rooky OPSEC slip-up that allowed investigators to see what other individuals were targeted by the same account—is compelling. The fact that APT28 source has been found in the wild doesn’t diminish the likelihood that this particular use of it originated from the Russian state. The use of encryption keys and certs (e.g. the way the software ‘phones home’ securely) pretty much makes it impossible for third parties to use the code without significant—and obvious—re-engineering. There is no evidence of such changes. In fact, at least one cert used in the Bundestag hacks was re-used in this effort.

The evidence suggesting that Guccifer 2.0 is almost certainly not Romanian (as ‘he’ claimed), and is probably a Russian speaker, is not probitive, but it’s strongly contributory to a conclusion that the account is a sock puppet, probably linked to a Russian source.

The USA intelligence community lacks credibility. It has relied far too much on its own much-sullied authority to make its arguments. But its credibility is laughable, and its patent insincerity and systematic dishonesty is demonstrated by a mountain of evidence. The fact that their assertions are consistent with open-source evidence indicates, however, that they’re not lying about everything—this time. That does nothing to diminish the fact that they’re driving a clear agenda, possibly because they don’t trust Donald Trump and they feel he’s compromised, or at least willing to put personal interest before national interest.

Conclusion: It’s not necessary to believe the CIA/NSA/FBI to conclude that there is a concerted Russian effort to subvert the integrity of key aspects of American democratic institutions, including the US Presidential election. The Russian state has motive, means, opportunity and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, in absence of any more compelling explanation, they have probably been at it for quite some time. Did they ‘hack the election’? No. Did they sway it? They certainly put a lot of time and resources into the effort. Did they change the outcome? Probably not. The single event that correlates most closely with an actual swing in the electorate is James Comey’s letter to Congress concerning the Weiner laptop. Did they help swing it? Almost certainly, yes. There’s a compelling argument to be made that if countless sources—with Russian actors prominent among them—hadn’t worked so hard to poison the Clinton well, the Comey announcement wouldn’t have been so decisive.

Don’t argue as if the world were sane

Glenn Greenwald, in every respect a reputable, diligent and ferociously smart gadfly, continually forgets to remember that few people are as sane and as willing to be led by evidence as he is. It’s his great failing.

Nowhere is it more visible than in his incredulity toward the CIA and the rest of the US state security apparatus concerning their claims of Russian tampering in the election process. He is dead right to mistrust the CIA’s every utterance. Lying, after all, is a large part of what they do for a living. Likewise, a politicised and partisan FBI is not a useful source for agenda-free commentary on Russia’s disinformation campaign.

But none of the above provides a sufficient basis to say that Russia has not played a direct and active role in the subversion of the American democratic process. Using the espionage establishment’s lack of credibility to refute the claim of Russian meddling is completely illogical.

We discount or discard the CIA’s claims precisely because we know that they’ve done far, far worse countless times in the past. We know they’ve planted or spun innumerable stories. To people living in vulnerable parts of the world, it’s simply axiomatic that Voice of America and USAID are tools of American influence. We also know they regularly use economic leverage to bring about certain policies, and they regularly plant stories to tarnish the image of any government that doesn’t toe their line.

Yes, they’re hypocrites and liars. Nobody disputes that. Yes, they’re guilty of exactly the sins of which Russia stand accused. But if anything, that realisation should reinforce the suspicion that Russia might be giving back as good as it gets. (Or better, depending on where you stand and how you feel about the success of the campaign to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation.)

The sins of which the Russians stand accused are exactly the things that powerful countries do. They do it continually, shamelessly and cynically. It’s what they do.

The strong preponderance of evidence points to a multi-pronged, often unmediated Russian campaign to subvert faith in American democratic institutions. On the propaganda front, the weight of it is irrefutable. Just watch a couple of hours of RT. It’s slick, nicely weighted cynical propaganda that is calculated to seduce young, disaffected liberals.

The use of troll accounts to conduct disinformation campaigns is likewise well documented. There is sufficient circumstantial evidence to assume that, absent evidence directly contradicting what we know, that young Russians are being paid by the state to use social media to spread lies, distrust and conspiracy theories.

And if there were any lingering doubt, we’ve got several on-the-record interviews with Russians claiming to be paid trolls, deriving from independent sources.

There is sufficient circumstantial evidence that Russia was behind the DNC hack to convince some of the foremost minds in the IT security establishment. Bruce Schneier may not be perfect, but he is trustworthy. And if he says that there’s significant evidence pointing to Russian involvement in the interception of Democratic National Congress emails, you should listen. And if you don’t possess evidence contradicting his conclusion, you should accept that he’s probably right.

This is a bit of an argument to authority, I’ll admit, but having looked at the evidence he cites, on this and countless other occasions, I can say that statistically, he’s right most of the time, and when he’s not confident about a conclusion, he says so. But in this particular case, having seen the same evidence he has, I also don’t think he’s wrong.

Julian Assange’s claims that he knows his source isn’t Russian is neither credible nor conclusive. He’s locked up in an embassy, for heaven’s sake. He simply cannot know where his source got the data from. Any chain of custody breaks when it reaches him. He’s the weak link in his own argument.

The fact that he is biased, under extreme stress and has a history of paranoid persecution complexes that predate his captivity don’t have to come into it to discard him as a reliable source of evidence.

Most of the debunking of these claims consists of people finding logical inconsistencies in various accounts of the hack. That’s pretty weak tea. Strong evidence can be weakly presented, and usually is, because most reporters just don’t understand tech.

And that ignorance cuts both ways. A lot of the more incredulous posts evince an equal lack of understanding of technology, security and intrusion tactics.

A good example of this is Leonid Bershidsky’s op-ed saying he still doesn’t believe that Russia is behind the DC hack. To his credit, he is clearly keeping a more open mind than many. But his argument runs largely like this:

The evidence so far is from limited sources; and their interpretation of it isn’t iron-clad. Their recent claim to have linked the same malware to attacks on targeting software used by Ukrainian artillery is poor. It consist mostly of the argument that nobody benefits more than the GRU from subverted ballistic calculator software. Besides, the only infected examples were found on an online forum, and who gets their targeting software from an online forum when they can get it from their peers?

Hence,” he writes, “it’s hard for me to believe that this infected app—found somewhere on the internet and likely never used by Ukrainian soldiers—offers evidence tying the GRU to APT28.”

Here, right here, is where the vast majority of spy masters and tactical officers fail. They assume that people are smart and ruled by logic, just as they are. I would never download software from an untrusted source, they say, so who would? And if nobody’s that stupid, why would the Russians bother to show their hand with such a naïve tactic?

But people are that stupid. Repeatedly. Chronically. Historically. And they remain so in the face of every effort IT administrators have made over the decades since malware was first invented (by the Soviets, incidentally).

One of the first rules of intrusion is that you aim for the weak spot. Why the hell would you invest insane amounts of effort attacking the strongest part of the fort when all you have to do is convince some useful idiot to do the work for you? Formal experiments have been conducted to demonstrate how this can work. In one case, the attackers simply dropped a few infected USB sticks on the ground in a parking lot, and let some credulous bumpkin walk their spyware straight into the bank.

This seems to be exactly the same tactic as used with the infected targeting software. Leave a few compromised APK files around in forums, then wait for some idiot to download it and use it. He’ll no doubt be willing to share his copy with others who trust him. In a brief period, it could be possible to compromise and neutralise a number of artillery units.

Assuming that artillery officers are technically sophisticated and operate logically is… er, unwise.

But this is an all-too-common mistake made by people like Glenn and Leonid. They wrongly, and in the face of incontrovertible evidence, persist in wanting the world to operate logically and based on sane impulses. It doesn’t. People don’t.

Using people’s many and obvious inconsistencies to discard or debase their point of view is a silly, fruitless tactic. Yes, the evidence is often argued poorly, but that doesn’t make the evidence poor. Yes, people say one thing and then say another. But that doesn’t make all of what they say untrue.

Yes, a particular attack requires some pretty stupid victims to succeed. But the world has never lacked naïve, credulous people.

Weapons of the Weak

Radio New Zealand journalist, Johnny Blades, created a memorable image last week when he posted a montage of six heads of government from some of the smallest states of the world, each standing at the podium at the United Nations General Assembly.

The leaders of these six countries—Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu—all raised the issue of continuing human rights abuses in West Papua, and advocated for its right to self-determination.

These representations should by rights have emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, but if rumour is to be trusted, the organisation’s larger economies are responsible for the Forum’s resounding silence on the issue.

In a tacit demonstration of the unwillingness to live within the Forum’s constraints, a half dozen Pacific leaders engaged in an orchestrated manoeuvre, a chorus of complaint against the clear pattern of systemic disregard for the human rights of indigenous West Papuans.

Talk may be all we can do about it, but at least we can do that.

Slowly, inexorably, human rights have clawed their way into international relations. In spite of tragic setbacks when strategic and financial concerns come to the fore, quality of life has come to be accepted as kind of important to development. (A shocking revelation, I know.)

Slowly, governments and their leaders have come to the realisation that where for systemic injustice is concerned, payback can be a bit—er, a bit more than they’re able to withstand. All the Indonesian government has succeeded in doing in its decades-long campaign to tip the demographic balance in West Papua in their favour is create a smaller, poorer version of Northern Ireland. With a gold mine in the middle. Continue reading

Advisors were never the problem

It’s always someone else’s fault. Even when we were kids, it was always little brother or sister who stole the cookies, spilled the milk or woke the baby. Then you went to school, and it was the kid at the desk behind you.

Then you began to work, and it was anyone but you. Now you’re on the national stage, and it’s not Vanuatu’s fault; it’s some insidious foreigner whose life is devoted to subverting your country.

It ain’t that simple. It never was that simple.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: foreign technical advisors are just that—advisors. They have no executive power, they do not make policy, and they perform their work at the pleasure of the administration of the day.

When we start blaming technical advisors for our problems, we’re no better than a child blaming a sibling for something they both did. Nobody is forcing us to take advice. Continue reading

We should spend more time on sport

Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.

As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.

Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.

In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.

One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.

And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.

Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’

But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
Continue reading

PIF-fle

The Pacific Islands Forum has come and gone, and people here in Vanuatu could not care less. There are few Pacific conclaves that generate less interest than this meeting.

In principle, nobody particularly disapproves of getting all Pacific leaders together once a year for a bit of a chat and maybe some minor course correction.

In practice, it seems clear that not all leaders are equal in the eyes of the Forum.

This year more than ever, the final communiqué simply side-stepped any views that didn’t suit the developed nation members.

The event might more accurately be described as the McCully/Bishop Forum.

The region-wide movement to disown PACER Plus was simply ignored in the final language. If Vanuatu needed any other excuse to walk away from this one-sided deal, their treatment in Pohnpei provided one. Scuttlebutt from the venue has it that France’s inclusion in the Forum was anything but a unanimous decision. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai exercised characteristic tact and diplomacy when asked about it, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to imagine how Vanuatu, one of the staunchest supporters of decolonisation in the Pacific, felt about bringing France into the Forum fold.

France was excluded from the Forum specifically because of its refusal to discuss issues of decolonialisation when the organisation was formed in the 1970s.

West Papua is perhaps the only topic that could dampen Vanuatu’s joy following its under-20 football team winning their way to a World Cup berth. And once again, the Forum has gone to excruciating lengths to make the least possible effort to stop the ‘slow motion genocide’ under way in PNG’s eastern neighbour. Continue reading

Silence an ‘indictment’: Chetwynd

Justice Chetwynd yesterday acquitted the men accused of intentional assault on Florence Lengkon, accepting the defence’s submission that they had no case to answer on those specific charges.

The people of Vanuatu, however, have still to answer for their silence.

Judge Chetwynd ruled that there was indisputable evidence that Ms Lengkon was struck once ‘forcefully’ on the head, and said that if that was the case then it is impossible that all three men could be guilty of landing the blow.

The Prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on a statement submitted by two police officers, who stated that co-accused Elton Worwor put them at the scene of the crime.

But the police officers didn’t ask some very basic questions during that interview, such as how Mr Worwor knew they were involved, whether he actually saw them strike Ms Lengkon, and if so, which of the three of them actually struck her.

Ultimately, the evidence was ruled inadmissible. The three men charged with the assault on Ms Lengkon had no case to answer, and they were therefore acquitted of this serious charge.

But… Justice Chetwynd paused meaningfully before continuing. He scanned the packed courtroom and stated that the fact that over 50 people could have seen what happened and not one of them stepped forward to identify the culprit is ‘an indictment’ on our society. Continue reading

Consultation means negotiation

Despite friendly advice from numerous people close to the process, it appears that the government is proceeding with its draft revenue review plan much as it has with past policies. Doing things the ordinary way wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this particular policy will have an extraordinary impact on the economic landscape.

Extraordinary policies require extraordinary efforts.

We accept in good faith the government’s promise to deliver a number of important briefing documents, explainers on key topics, and basic information about taxes and how they work. Good information is essential to any discussion.

And we have no reason to doubt the government’s promise to conduct public awareness events, either. They have committed themselves to holding public meetings at least in the municipal centres, and possibly elsewhere.

Some people have voiced alarm at the fact that draft legislation had been prepared even in advance of the CoM decision to proceed with the revenue review plan. This is common practice.

The mere existence of draft legislation doesn’t imply that a fix is in. The Family Protection Act existed in draft format for nearly a decade before it was finally enacted. The draft Cybercrime Bill is still—rightly—getting kicked back and forth. The Right to Information Bill has yet to see the Parliamentary floor, too, in spite of being in an advanced state of completion for some time.

No, the issue that is raising peoples’ hackles, in the private sector and at the grassroots, is the sense that a plan is being prepared, and that the only chance they will have to weigh in on it will be in an up/down vote.

Taxation is one of the most fundamental aspects of any democracy. Along with the ballot box, it’s one of the few ways that a citizen interacts directly in the administration of the country. And that’s why the people need to be presented with alternatives, rather than a simple yes-or-no decision. Continue reading

The Violence Must Stop

For the third time in a week, the nation’s media are reporting cases of serious crimes against visitors to our country. In every case, the victims were female.

Gender based violence in Vanuatu was described as ‘horrific’ by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells following her recent visit here. This is only the most recent example of a litany of concern that visiting women of influence have expressed.

When are we going to listen?

After Florence Lengkon was assaulted, nearly a thousand women and men, young and old, marched to call for an end to this callous, cruel disregard for the dignity and rights of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The Deputy Prime Minister, responsible for tourism, responded swiftly, stating that he expected arrests to be made. Within a day, it was announced that the people responsible had been brought in for questioning.

Now, we’re told that it may be one of the same men who bashed Florence that beat up a Canadian woman, allegedly over a mere fender bender.

The Police reportedly failed to respond to her assault. The Police failed to arrive when called to the scene of the heinous attack reported in today’s newspaper, telling the victim to proceed directly to hospital. It was the local chiefs who brought the suspect in a brutal assault and rape in rural Santo earlier this month.

The Vanuatu Police Force do many things right. They could do many things better. But this complacence in the face of violence and brutality is symptomatic of an illness that afflicts the entire country.

Why is it okay to bash up, hospitalise and even kill our women? Continue reading

Brexit, pursued by a bear

What do Britain’s EU exit vote, Donald Trump and Vanuatu have in common? Too much, actually.

When Great Britain turned its back on Europe, markets reacted predictably, shedding trillions of dollars in value. Japan’s Nikkei exchange, among the first to open after the vote result, suffered its biggest loss in over a decade and a half, knocking nearly 8% off its value in a day.

Media have been all over the calamity, reporting the unintended consequences of the UK’s knee-jerk rejection of Polish plumbers. Likewise, the international commentariat have made hay from the unprecedented—some say unforeseeable—rise of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in the upcoming US election.

Many have asked, but few have answered: how did we get here, anyway?

People have been griping about immigrants since the dawn of time. I’m pretty sure that any self-respecting classical scholar would be able to dig up a Roman rant against those shifty Gauls tramping all over traditional Republican values and stealing Roman jobs.

Donald Trump has been angling for a seat in the Oval Office since 1998. But as long as we were willing to listen to reason, he never stood a chance. Nor did the ideas propounded by the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Social media changed that. The sudden flood of counter-factual, exclusionist, biased, fear-mongering noise—don’t call it information—that floods our Facebook timelines has subverted our conception of how things are, and how they could be.

This isn’t accidental, nor is it new. Continue reading