Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, January 8th, 2017.


Russian Hacking: Should We Be Worried?

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Bad Hair, Russia

First, let me be clear that it’s sensible to be skeptical about anything ANYBODY is saying about the Russian hacking scandal. ANYBODY includes government agencies, news media and Julian Assange. ANYBODY includes the many nobodies crawling out of the internet woodwork who claim to be cybersecurity experts, or espionage experts, or both. Lots of people are pulling lots of “facts” out of lots of butts to serve their own ends. There are no disinterested parties here.

Let me also be clear that even if the assessment — that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the meddling of the election to favor Donald Trump — is true, it’s unrealistic to expect the intelligence agencies to explain what they know and how they know it. Assuming it’s true, this is an ongoing intelligence operation. “What they know and how they know it” must remain secret so that the Russians don’t know how the CIA is finding them out. So, the lack of “proof” is not in itself “proof” that the intelligence agencies are making it up. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. I’m astonished at the number of people I run into who don’t “get” that.

It’s also important to understand that we don’t know for a fact that the hacking changed the outcome of the election. Harry Enton of Fivethirtyeight analyzed polling data and said that one simply can’t see a clear pattern of Wikileaks releases moving the poll numbers. See also Matt Yglesias.

Opinions on who’s right or wrong on this matter seem to fall pretty much along predictable ideological lines. If you were a big Hillary Clinton fan before the election, you probably believe the intelligence agencies assessment, and more. Note that a Yougov.com poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russian hackers somehow hacked into voting machines and changed election tallies. I’ve run into these people on social media. When you tell them no government agency or major media source has made any such claim, they don’t believe it.

On the other  hand, both the whackjob Right and the #DemExit Left tend to believe anything Julian Assange says, uncritically. I personally don’t trust Assange as far as I can throw him.

I see lots of opinions on the Web that boil down to, “So what? The U.S. has interfered with lots of elections.” True, and usually that’s come back to bite us. However, that’s no excuse to dismiss the Russian hacking scandal as something of no importance. That’s a bit like saying that it’s no big deal if someone drops a nuclear bomb on San Francisco, since we dropped one on Hiroshima all those years ago. It’s rather a big deal if you live in San Francisco, or downwind of it, at least.

So let’s hypothetically assume there is some truth to the claim that Russia at least intended to manipulate the U.S. into electing Donald Trump. And he got elected. Why should be we concerned?

There is lots of speculation about how much money Trump owes and who his debt holders might be. There seems to be widespread agreement that his debt is over $1 billion, much of which has been repackaged as bonds. But without his tax returns, everybody is guessing.

Ben Kentish of the Independent (UK) reports:

Donald Trump’s companies are almost $1.8 billion in debt to more than 150 institutions, a new report has suggested – raising fresh questions about potential conflicts of interests when the Republican takes office in January.

The new evidence exposes the extent to which the businessman will soon be responsible for regulating many of the institutions he owes sizeable amounts of money to.

Mr Trump has previously declared $315 million (£254 million) of debt owed to ten different lenders. However, a new study by the Wall Street Journal claims an additional $1.5 billion is owed by companies that are partly owned by the billionaire.

(Wall Street Journal articles are behind a subscription firewall, and I refuse to buy a subscription.)

Is any of that debt held in Russia? Last August Jeff Nesbit reported in Time:

Most of the coverage of the links between Trump and Putin’s Russia takes the GOP presidential nominee at his word—that he has lusted after a Trump tower in Moscow, and come up spectacularly short. But Trump’s dodge—that he has no businesses in Russia, so there is no connection to Putin—is a classic magician’s trick. Show one idle hand, while the other is actually doing the work.

The truth, as several columnists and reporters have painstakingly shown since the first hack of a Clinton-affiliated group took place in late May or early June, is that several of Trump’s businesses outside of Russia are entangled with Russian financiers inside Putin’s circle.

So, yes, it’s true that Trump has failed to land a business venture inside Russia. But the real truth is that, as major banks in America stopped lending him money following his many bankruptcies, the Trump organization was forced to seek financing from non-traditional institutions. Several had direct ties to Russian financial interests in ways that have raised eyebrows. What’s more, several of Trump’s senior advisors have business ties to Russia or its satellite politicians.

(There’s an internet rumor that Trump owes the Blackstone/ Bayrock Group $560 million dollars. I can’t find any confirmation of that. A quick google didn’t turn up confirmation that Blackstone and Bayrock have ever had anything to do with each other. Blackstone’s CEO is cozy with Trump, but Blackstone is supposed to have stopped doing business in Russia a couple of years ago. Bayrock Group is a sleazy company with definite connections to both Trump and American crime families. The managing director, Felix Sater, is rumored to be the son of a Russian crime boss, but I can’t find a not-hinky source for that. )

On the other hand, Putin has a keen interest in jacking up the price of oil, and Trump’s election may be a critical part of making that happen. The selection of an Exxon CEO as Secretary of State does seem suspicious; see Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! on that point.

My larger concern has to do with the Middle East. If Trump is doing favors for Putin, how will this influence Middle East policy? There is an alliance between Russia and Iran. I don’t want the U.S. to be pulled into making that a threesome. Another concern regards the Iran Deal, about which Putin is said to be ambivalent.

So yes, I’d say there’s reason to be concerned.

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