On Monday, 50 current and former U.S. intelligence officials signed on to a “Public Statement on the Hunter Biden Emails,” in which they assert that “the arrival on the US political scene of emails purportedly belonging to Vice President Biden’s son Hunter, much of it related to his serving on the Board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” (H/t: Breitbart, Politico)
The problem with their communication is that, as classic Russian information operations go, this one misses the mark by a lot.
For one thing, if it were an info op, it would be very awkwardly conceived – for any purpose, classic or otherwise. Its impact seems to depend on a “going public” moment that was brokered by a random computer repair dude in a storefront shop, who happened to find the emails on a laptop left unclaimed for over 90 days.
Unless the intel officials are proposing to complicate the narrative by making this guy a Russian agent – a really irresponsible thing to do to him, considering there’s no evidence for that – you don’t get from Point A to Point B in this info op on a timeline the Russians could control.
And if the timeline can’t be controlled, there’s no way to make it an info op about the U.S. election. What if computer dude didn’t look at the laptop’s contents until sometime in 2021? What if he went out of business during the pandemic and the computer was dropped off for recycling and never heard from again? What if arsonists burned his store out and looters made off with the laptop?
But let’s back up a little further first. The classic purposes for Russian info ops (aside from the special category of military info ops) are to affect public attitudes, affect public opinion, and affect high-level political decision-making. I’m speaking here of influence ops, as opposed to spying, which is a separate category although we may also consider it a type of info op.
The reason I’m speaking of influence ops is that that’s what the intelligence officials – the signatories to the statement – have in mind.
The classic domestic targets through which these purposes are worked are, respectively, the education and entertainment sectors (public attitudes); the realm of debate, opinion, argument, lobbying, law-making, advocacy (here’s where news media and NGOs typically fit in) (public opinion); and the revolving-door bureaucracies of the institutions, namely government, political parties, and big business (high-level decision-making).
The classic operational approaches to those targets have been evolving in the last couple of decades. Eighty years ago, public attitudes and opinion were approached through Communist Party cadre inside the United States (or inside another foreign target). Literal face-to-face recruiting, extensive but secretive organization, the holding of meetings, the printing of fliers, publishing of broadsheets, making of speeches, getting the “influenced” into classrooms, newsrooms, onto script-writing teams and editorial staff, into union hierarchies.
In the era of social media, the Russians have tried to achieve some (not all) similar goals with a social media presence. As far as I can see, their success with that has been very limited. If not for Democrats and the media constantly telling us we’re being influenced for evil by the Russians, the Russian social media info effort would have no noticeable effect. It apparently consists mainly of repeating themes Americans are already kicking around on social media, without any prompting.
Then there’s the classic approach to influencing high-level decision-making. That involves maneuvering people into positions of great influence. But in doing that, it’s of extraordinary importance that the people not be widely known to be connected to Russian interests or Russian intelligence.
It’s hard to think of a valid, no-kidding Russian influence op that featured a fully aware chorus of media critics pointing at “Russians!” and all agreeing that the influence of Russians is what they’re seeing – as opposed to the extremely common scenario in which media mercilessly ridicule and defame anyone who suggests the Russians are at work.
Those are the classic outlines of Russian info ops. This, meanwhile, is what the 50 intel officials describe:
There are a number of factors that make us suspicious of Russian involvement.
Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives, as outlined publicly and recently by the Intelligence Community, to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump.
As regards the creation of political chaos, it’s not the Trump administration or the American public in general being affected, with a Russian info op of the type suggested. It’s the media and the Democrats. They’re the ones who are beside themselves, daily perceiving “chaos” in all they survey and reciting a wearisome litany about it.
As regards political divisions, it’s monumentally unconvincing to claim that Americans need any help having them. We have people flooding the streets burning down buildings and attacking the police; no one sane or well-intentioned can have anything but division from them. There is no reconciling with such actors. And if the Russians had anything to do with developing the violent, thuggish agitators or egging them on, it certainly wasn’t by means of exposing the emails sent to and from Hunter Biden.
Undermining the candidacy of Vice President Biden? Well, hold that thought. Because here is what the intel officials say next:
For the Russians at this point, with Trump down in the polls, there is incentive for Moscow to pull out the stops to do anything possible to help Trump win and/or to weaken Biden should he win. A “laptop op” fits the bill, as the publication of the emails are clearly designed to discredit Biden.
In fact, a “laptop op” doesn’t fit the bill at all. We’ve already considered the difficulty of controlling the timing of it, which would be indispensable to affecting the election. But there’s also the logistics of pulling it off in a credible manner, if the laptop story as we know it so far is all a big ruse.
It’s ridiculous. Why would anyone try to expose Hunter Biden’s emails to the world by leaving a laptop in a computer repair shop and then orchestrating the communication of its contents to Rudy Giuliani, relying on Steve Bannon to then learn of it and tell the New York Post about the contents so that the Post was made eager to obtain them from Giuliani?
It’s not clear what value the laptop, per se, has at all, when the emails and other contents could just be provided – and by cyber means not easy to trace (or, conversely, easy to create a cyber trail for if you want the trail to augment your malign story). If the laptop’s authenticity can be doubted, it can be doubted just as well in the absence of an artifact so inconvenient to fake. Having to manufacture and wrangle a credible fake laptop through all the waypoints this one seems to have traversed complicates such an op something fierce.
The intel officials are careful to say that they don’t know if the laptop’s contents are authentic. That leaves open the possibility that the Russians are trying to use real contents, and perhaps a real Hunter Biden laptop, by staging them where they’ll do the most damage. But again, aside from the fresh question how the Russians got hold of Hunter Biden’s laptop, we keep coming back to the really unsuitable deployment method for such an objective.
Such Keystone Koppery hasn’t actually been a classic feature of Russian info ops. The intel officials close by claiming that “such an operation” – a “laptop op” – “is consistent with several data points.”
They start with the strongest one: reporting that the Russians “targeted Burisma late last year for cyber collection and gained access to its emails.” It’s possible, if implausible, to extrapolate from that a scenario in which the Russians also gained access to hundreds of private images of Hunter Biden. It’s much more likely that Biden kept such images on his laptop but wasn’t emailing them around in correspondence that might have been penetrated through an intrusion of Burisma systems.
If we try to make this data point mean more than merely that it illustrates the Russians having a cyber interest in Burisma, we’re confronted with complication problems as to what the point then is. Is there any evidence for the Russians’ use of the laptop being connected with the Burisma attack? If the consistency lies merely in the fact that Russians want to hack and pilfer cyber stuff, this strongest element of consistency is a pretty weak one.
The rest are weaker. Arkadiy Derkach, Giuliani’s contact among Ukrainian officials, passed “purported materials on Burisma and Hunter Biden to Giuliani.” Yes, that’s been widely reported. It’s also been widely known that Derkach has ties to Russian intelligence. The two facts have been public knowledge for months, and Giuliani has made no attempt to evade or deny them.
Those facts actually seem to make it far less likely that the Russians would try to introduce material to Giuliani’s notice by routing it through a computer repair shop, a 90-day abandonment, and a period of stonewalling by government agencies and frustration for the public-spirited repairman, when he tried first to shop it to them.
Plowing on, I admit that the final two data points made me laugh out loud. Here’s one:
According to the Washington Post, citing four sources, “U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence.”
Well, thank goodness. Data point number four:
In addition, media reports say that the FBI has now opened an investigation into Russian involvement in this case. According to USA Today, “…federal authorities are investigating whether the material supplied to the New York Post by Rudy Giuliani…is part of a smoke bomb of disinformation pushed by Russia.”
So intel craft tells us this smells like a Russian info op because the media hear from their sources that federal agencies are investigating it as disinformation pushed by Russia. Seems a bit circular.
In fact, it sounds an awful lot like the smell of a Fusion GPS info op. You know what it doesn’t smell like? The “classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
DNI John Ratcliffe said on Monday, in the most categorical terms, that there’s no intelligence suggesting it is a Russian info op, and the intel community doesn’t think it’s one.
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) October 19, 2020