If half of the warnings in Dana Milbank’s WaPo column “A Putin-sponsored October surprise?” pan out, the closing weeks of the 2016 election could make the ‘Brook Brothers Riot,’ hanging chads and voter suppression scams of the 2000 election seem like a day at the beach.
The really scary thing is, Milbank’s warnings seem plausible, considering what we know of Putin’s character, track record and priorities. Milbank elaborates:
We learned earlier this summer that cyber-hackers widely believed to be tied to the Kremlin have broken into the email of the Democratic National Committee and others. The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported Monday night that Russian hackers have also been targeting state voter-registration systems. And, in an apparent effort to boost Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, they’re leaking what they believe to be the most damaging documents at strategic points in the campaign.
Last week, we learned something else: The Russians aren’t just hackers — they’re also hacks. Turns out that before leaking their stolen information, they are in some cases doctoring the documents, making edits that add false information and then passing the documents off as the originals.
Yes, that’s right. Forgeries crafted to obliterate the integrity of U.S. elections and create an outcome that serves Putin’s agenda, specifically the election of Donald Trump. Milbank continues:
Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll reported last week that the hackers goofed: They posted both the original versions of at least three documents and their edited versions. These documents, stolen from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, were altered by the hackers to create the false impression that Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was funded by Soros. A pro-Russian hacking group, CyberBerkut, had inserted Navalny’s name, bogus dollar amounts and fabricated wording.
This raises an intriguing possibility: Are Vladimir Putin’s operatives planning to dump edited DNC documents on the eve of the presidential election?
At this point, maybe the smart answer is another question: Why wouldn’t they? If they can hack the Soros Foundation, perhaps they wouldn’t have too much trouble hacking into the offices of Secretaries of State, particularly “red” states where Republicans run election day operations.
And what sort of b.s. memes might the Russians try to implant? Milbank offers a few possibilities, including “Perhaps they’ll show that the Clinton Foundation has been funding the Islamic State, or they’ll have Hillary Clinton admitting that she didn’t care about those Americans who died in Benghazi after all.”
If this sounds a little too ‘out there,’ consider Milbnk’s reminder that “Russian “dezinformatsiya” campaigns such as this go back to the Cold War; the Soviet portrayal of AIDS as a CIA plot was a classic case.” Milbank conceders that “this type of cyberwar — email hacking and, now, the altering and release of the stolen documents — is a novel escalation.” Further, adds Milbank:
…On Sunday, Neil MacFarquhar wrote in the New York Times about Russian attempts to undermine a Swedish military partnership with NATO. The campaign is spreading false information that there’s a secret nuclear weapons stockpile in Sweden and alleging that NATO soldiers could rape Swedish women with impunity. This Russian use of “weaponized information” helped cause confusion in Ukraine in 2014, when conspiracy theories spread by the Russians about the downing of a Malaysian Airlines jet helped Russians justify their invasion of Crimea.
…Putin has meddled in domestic politics in France, the Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere, helping extreme political parties to destabilize those countries. He appears to be doing much the same now in the United States, where, in addition to the DNC and state voter system hacks, there have also been reports this summer about Russia hiring Internet trolls to pose on Twitter and elsewhere in social media as pro-Trump Americans.
Could Putin make Trump his puppet? Trump is still hiding his taxes from public scrutiny, but it appears that they have some economic interests in common. As Milbank observes, “Trump and Putin have expressed their mutual admiration, and even after the departure of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump and several top advisers have close ties to Moscow.” It’s even been reported that Trump’s daughter is hanging out with Putin’s wheeler-dealer girlfriend.
“The hyper-competitive American media environment,” concludes Milbank, “is vulnerable to the sort of technique the Russian hackers used in the Soros case — stealing documents, altering them, then releasing them as the original.” Given all of the above, the biggest surprise would be if Putin decides not to meddle in our presidential election to help elect Trump.
It may seem counter-intuitive that Putin would prefer Trump to Clinton, since Democrats are far more of a pro-worker party than Republicans. Russia as a whole has prospered in recent years under Putin, but is now mired in a deep recession. The World Bank projects Russia’s poverty rate to increase to over 14 percent this year. Never much of a socialist, Putin has not been an enthusiastic champion of Russia’s workers. He has put his KGB cronies on industrial boards, not workers, and he has restricted human rights in general.
The labor movement is still weak in Russia, but there have been wildcat strikes and protests in recent years. Putin has been able to deflect much worker discontent with nationalist distractions, like the invasion of Crimea. It’s not hard to see why he would like Trump better than Clinton, with whom Putin clashed during her tenure as Secretary of State. Don’t be surprised if Russian-doctored emails and other forged documents designed to discredit Clinton suddenly appear in the weeks ahead.