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.

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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. Continue reading

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. 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

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

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

Rising Buddha, Perching Crane

Chinese triumphalism may seem strident at times, but it’s not entirely unwarranted

The development of China in recent decades is best considered as geography, not landscape. The combination of market forces with what was coyly labelled ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has achieved something previously unimaginable.

At the end of nearly a century of conflict and unrest culminating in the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to picture China at peace, let alone prospering.

Today, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Most people still think that China’s great wonders are the Forbidden City and its Great Wall. But these are dwarfed by its current transformation.

The pastoral arcadia that characterised its classical landscapes is gone.

Where cormorants once preened on posts on the Yangtze’s shores, the horizon is now punctuated by steel construction cranes perched atop half-completed buildings.

They are almost literally everywhere. In the suburbs of Hefei city, I counted 32 of them outside my train window. Continue reading

Letter from a ‘foreign news outlet’

Dear Quartz;

I’d like to thank your Asia correspondent Steve Mollman for lumping the Vanuatu Daily Post in with the Tehran Times in his list of news outlets who ‘totally back‘ China’s South China Sea policy. Last time, it took a category 5 cyclone that wiped out half the country for Vanuatu to get any mention in the US media.

I’m just sorry that we had to get mentioned in such a flatly jingoistic article as this.

Our newspaper doesn’t ‘totally support’ any of China’s policies. We’re also not crazy about a lot of American policies in the Pacific, and Australia—described by George W. Bush as the ‘sheriff’ in our neck of the ocean—well, they don’t get many hurrahs from us either.

Frankly, nobody seems to notice us until we’re underfoot.

But when our Prime Minister endorses China’s South China Sea policy, we report on that. Because it’s noteworthy and in the public interest. That’s what we call journalism.

You might have a different definition. But that’s just you.

China makes no bones about what they expect from Vanuatu’s government. ‘We don’t have any hidden agenda,’ one diplomat told me. ‘We give you aid, and you support our policies. That’s how it works.’

That, I’m afraid to say, is the reality in this country, which still ranks among the Least Developed Nations according to the UN. Virtually all aid comes with geopolitical strings attached, no matter what the source. And Vanuatu, poised on the edge of the Coral Sea, only a short flight from the populated coast of Australia, is of strategic interest to China and the USA alike.

It may be galling for us to live with the realisation that we’re only getting new roads, wharves and airports because of their strategic value to our superpower neighbours. But what choice do we have, realistically?

The plight of small countries throughout the Pacific is to be viewed as little more than squares on a pan-Pacific chessboard.

The last time this game got played out in anger, our nation served as the staging ground for the Solomon Islands campaign. Over the course of World War II, over a million US servicemen passed through the Espiritu Santo military base.

Michener’s classic Tales of South Pacific is largely set there.

In 2017, the Shanghai Construction Group will complete construction of a brand-new 360 metre wharf on that island. It seems China’s memory is a little longer than others’. Probably because they suffered more—and longer—than most other nations at that time.

Not to put too fine a point on it, even if Vanuatu is dancing to the tune of a new master, not much has changed in the great game. In the mean time, excuse us if we feel the need to report the news.

Hugs,


Dan McGarry
Media Director