In what is an obvious exercise in diversion the Hillary Clinton campaign and the US media have sought to still the embarrassment caused by the leak of the emails from the Democratic Party’s National Committee by conjuring up a fake storm around the issue of whether the Russian authorities (“Putin”) might have been behind the leak.
Donald Trump’s bizarre but possibly effective proposal that the Russians also publish the 30,000 emails Hillary Clinton deleted from her private server has taken the hysteria to an even higher level.
Just to clarify, Trump did not call on the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Since the emails he was referring to have already been deleted there would be no point. What he was doing was making a joke whilst reminding everybody that because of Hillary Clinton’s own negligence the Russians are almost certainly already in possession of these emails.
But were the Russians actually behind the leak of the DNC emails?
The short answer is that nobody outside the intelligence agencies knows. Edward Snowden says that the NSA has the technical means to determine positively the identity of the hacker. Stories have appeared in the US media sourced from the US intelligence agencies which suggest that the Russian intelligence agencies were the hackers.
Certain private firms who claim expertise in this area also claim the hacker was probably located in Russia. However all this information is hardly conclusive and does not seem to me to bear the weight some place on it.
There is no doubt Russia’s various intelligence agencies have the skills to read both Hillary Clinton’s personal emails and those of the Democratic National Committee. It is in fact overwhelmingly likely they have done so, just as we can be sure the NSA reads or tries to read the personal emails of Russian officials.
After all it is know that the US has listened to the private telephone conversations of people like Angela Merkel and Kofi Annan. It is naive to think the Russians don’t do the same, which is why it was beyond negligent – as well as horribly complacent and arrogant – for Hillary Clinton to treat her emails in such a careless way.
Was it however the Russians who passed on the DNC emails to Wikileaks, albeit it seems through an intermediary?
One of the great problems with discussions of Russian intelligence agencies is that because they are the subject of so many stories (including so much spy fiction) people assume they know more about them than they really do.
Whilst much about how Russian intelligence agencies work is obviously obscure, it is clear from open sources that they bear little resemblance to their spy story image, and that they do not act in the way people in the West commonly suppose them to do. There is little evidence for example that they commonly engage in “dirty tricks” or “black propaganda” or “wet jobs” or in fomenting coups or in other James Bond type work.
Instead they seem to be overwhelmingly focused on intelligence gathering and analysis. Moreover Russian handling of the collection and distribution of intelligence data appears to be highly structured and tightly controlled by the country’s political leadership, to a much greater extent than appears to be the case in the US.
The chances of one of Russia’s intelligence agencies therefore doing something like the DNC leak on its own without consulting the political leadership are minimal.
Would the Russian political leadership however authorise such a leak?
From what one can tell the three key policy making officials involved in intelligence related decisions in Russia are Putin himself, Nikolay Patrushev who is the Secretary of the Security Council, Russia’s key decision making body, and Sergey Ivanov, who is Putin’s Chief of Staff. Importantly all three of these men have backgrounds as professional intelligence officers.
Whilst these three men are the key decision makers, it is a virtual certainty that a decision to leak intelligence material that might influence the electoral process in the US would be a decision of such importance that it would first have to be discussed by Russia’s Security Council at one of its regular meetings before it could happen.
Would Putin and the Security Council authorise a leak of this kind? Since doing so would be a political decision it would be political factors that would weigh most in making the decision. I have to say that I think it extremely unlikely a decision to authorise such a leak would be made. Doing so would be completely contrary to the well-established principles that govern Russia’s foreign policy. Political factors also weigh heavily against doing it.
I heard the principles set out in great detail by none other than Putin himself at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (“SPIEF”), which I attended a few weeks ago. Putin went out of his way at SPIEF to say that Russia would not interfere and was not taking sides in the US Presidential election and that this for the Russians was a matter of principle.
When Fareed Zakaria famously misquoted a remark Putin had made about Trump to make it seem like it contradicted this, Putin not only corrected him but – as was obvious to those of us who were physically present in the hall – became very angry. Putin tries to conceal his anger by cracking jokes, which is why when he is angry it is not so obvious on television.
Putin then launched into a lengthy explanation of the principle, explaining how Russia – unlike the US – never interferes in the domestic political arrangements – including the elections – of other countries. He absolutely ruled out Russia interfering in the US election, and said the same about the Brexit referendum which at that point had not yet taken place.
He also said that if Hillary Clinton was elected President he would strive to work with her, and that he was accustomed to the fact that individuals moderated their opinions after they took office. He also made it clear that he looked to Hillary Clinton’s husband – ex-President Bill Clinton – to act as a restraining force on her.
Over and above the things that Putin said at SPIEF, something else that was very clear to me from the things I heard at SPIEF is that the Russians expect Hillary Clinton to win the Presidential election. In that they merely share the common view of most foreign governments.
Given all this it makes no sense for the Russians to arrange a leak which so completely contradicts the publicly declared principles of their foreign policy, and which whilst it might temporarily embarrass Hillary Clinton would be unlikely in the end to stop her. The one thing it would however be guaranteed to do is make her very angry. Would the Russians, already anticipating a difficult relationship with Hillary Clinton as President, do something that would make it even more difficult especially if – as Snowden says – the NSA can trace it back to them?
In order to get round these objections some people in the US are saying that Russian intelligence agencies “farm out” operations of this sort in order to preserve “plausible deniability”. I don’t for a moment believe that. Would intelligence agencies carrying out secret work really be willing to “farm out” a “dirty tricks” operation in that way?
The risks of involving outsiders in an operation of that sort where the stakes are so high seem to me so enormous that I can’t imagine them doing it. Besides they would surely know that Hillary Clinton and the NSA would be unlikely to be fooled by it.
Whilst on such a murky subject certainty is impossible, on balance I think it is very unlikely the Russian authorities were behind the leak.
By contrast It is highly possible that a Russian private individual or group of individuals might have been behind the leak. There is a huge pool of people in Russia who have very high mathematical and computer skills and who do not like Hillary Clinton.
It is by no means implausible that some of them might have hacked the DNC and passed on its emails to Wikileaks. That might explain the Russian traces that some claim to find in the hack. However that does not mean Putin or the Russians authorities were involved and personally I doubt that they were.