The Obama administration’s move against U.S. election systems has been one long bait-and-switch, and has had all the subtlety of a steam calliope – to invoke a vivid comparison I’ve long remembered from a George Will column many years ago (on another topic).
But the media have been next to useless in making it clear that a move against U.S. election systems is what’s been going on. Everything has happened in plain sight. But the media have made little or nothing of the actionable, significant events.
They have focused instead on nonsense like whether Putin and Trump are sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. That’s what they’ve got all the talking heads babbling about. Naturally, that focus is meant to sow emotional, drive-by doubt about Trump, and befoul his presidency before it starts. But if it did only that, it would be weak sauce, for starters – there’s nothing to the implied narrative; no place to go with it – and would not yield a good return on the investment of political capital.
What DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson did today – Friday, 6 January – definitely will yield such a return, assuming it stands.
The big move
Immediately after the new national intelligence report came out, Johnson designated America’s election systems as “critical infrastructure,” requiring oversight and security protection from the Department of Homeland Security. Johnson has been talking about doing this since August 2016. And although he doesn’t appear to have directly invoked the DNI report on Russian influence operations, the timing is certainly obvious, and the move predictable. It would take a stupid person to actually buy any claim that Johnson’s move was unrelated to the DNI report.
The problem, of course, is that the DNI report didn’t establish the slightest connection between Russian influence operations, Russian cyber operations, and the outcome of the November 2016 election. The report acknowledges that explicitly – as DNI James Clapper did in testimony to Congress this past week. (As I have highlighted repeatedly, Russia’s “cyber war” against the election, to the extent there was one, consisted of hacking the DNC email system. That’s the DNI narrative, reduced to its bare facts.)
So parse this. Russia tried to influence the U.S. election. But no action of Russia or Russian agents affected U.S. election systems. Nevertheless, Jeh Johnson decided, the same day the intel report on the Russian effort came out, to designate U.S. election systems “critical infrastructure,” thus ensuring that a federal bureaucracy will have intrusive, detailed oversight of all of them.
The DNI’s findings certainly don’t justify taking that step. What they do is give the “critical infrastructure” takeover cover – as long as you don’t actually examine the facts, and instead let yourself be persuaded that a nebulous episode of Russian interference was enough like “Russian hacking of the election” to justify pretending that a hacked election is a big problem.
I only have time tonight to make a couple of additional points, but I think they’re important.
A reason for skepticism about motives
One is a reminder that a dissident state official, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, in November reported that intrusion attempts were made against his department’s website by someone using a DHS IP address. The Georgia Department of State, of course, runs elections in Georgia. Kemp’s IT people later determined that multiple attempts were made from DHS in 2016.
DHS has yet to give an explanation for this that passes the smell test. Kemp, meanwhile, has been a vocal critic all along of the Obama administration’s efforts to bring all state election systems under the tent of DHS security management. He declined last year to participate in a DHS-sponsored program to “secure” election systems – arguing, as I did in August, that too much centralization of election system design and security measures would actually make them more vulnerable to cyber-attack, not less. From today’s AP report (link above):
Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp, who is a member of the U.S. Election Infrastructure Cybersecurity Working Group run by DHS, is among those who have opposed the designation. Testifying in September to a House Oversight subcommittee, Kemp said more federal oversight could make systems more vulnerable and could make protected records more accessible.
We must hope the Trump administration will follow up on this.
Strange padding for the weakly supported intelligence report
The other point is this fascinating one: that the national intelligence agencies chose to flesh out their report with the analysis that Russian media make a practice of attacking hydraulic fracturing – fracking – as a way of deterring U.S. oil and gas operations.
This is what they call a really big DU-UH. Of course the Russian media do this. The Russian media have talked up selected narratives of the Western “environmental” movement for decades, from back when they were the Soviet media. Russian backers have long been suspected of financing the anti-fracking movement in the West.
What’s not such a big duh is that the Obama administration allowed such a point to be featured in an intel assessment. Much of the Obama administration agrees with the Russian media on this topic. Obama has allowed more fracking than his critics on the radical left want him to. But his EPA is overflowing with zealots who oppose fracking, and who have attempted for years to impose fracking limitations that had to be fought in court.
Team Obama was willing to undermine part of its own narrative in order to make a case against Russia seem to amount to more than it does. I also can’t help wondering if this point was chosen in part because it was expected to resonate with a right-wing audience. (Those sneaky Russians, agitating against all-American fracking!)
It could, equally, be that it’s just something the intel community agrees to be factual, and which therefore could be used in the report – like the point that Russia does try to influence politics and policy in the United States, using media narratives and cyber espionage. Of course Russia does this. It’s no revelation that Russia does this. To differing extents, other nations and foreign actors do it too (e.g., the Saudis, the Chinese, the Muslim Brotherhood).
As Jeff Dunetz concludes in his analysis of the intel report (link above), the whole thing is pretty thin gruel. Basically, it’s not an assessment; it’s an a priori premise in search of support, and it’s desperate to adduce some very particular support: i.e., the implied proposition that Russian influence activities amounted to an actionably belligerent use of “information operations” against the American election in 2016.
This is an awfully big stick to suddenly cut and wield from the prickly undergrowth of foreign information operations, which are always underway by most of the world’s top 50 nations against each other. The near-psychotic focus on Russia stands out (up to and including actual sanctions), as does the one other material move the administration has made: taking over the state election systems. Maybe the whole Obama project has had that takeover as the ultimate objective.
A usual-suspect hand behind this?
But I do wonder if the dog-with-a-bone snuffling and snarling about Russia comes from another motive. The antagonism between George Soros and Russia can hardly be overstated, and Soros has been Obama’s most important donor and source of financially productive political organization. The “election hacking” narrative campaign has pounded away at two of Soros’s biggest goals, bringing American elections under the effective control of Soros-backed Democrats, and attacking Russia. Looking at the laundry list of election-related causes Soros has poured money into in the last couple of years (outlined by J. Christian Adams at the last link), it defies belief that he would have no stake in the very election-related cause of subordinating state election-system design and security to a federal bureaucracy.
At times, it’s been almost laughable to watch the MSM as it spouts talking points useful to the Soros objectives, participating in what looks like a proxy war between George Soros and Vladimir Putin. The case is circumstantial. But it’s both reasonable and characteristic.
I recommend taking a step back, and not barking on cue about Trump’s connections to Putin. In this context, that’s a waste of time. The big deal here is that federal bureaucrats who will one day be controlled by the Democrats again have been handed the keys to every election system in the U.S. In a number of states, the state bureaucrats involved are already Democrats, who will run with a progressive-left plan even if it stalls for a time at the federal DHS.
The rest of it is collateral damage, some probably more intentional than not.