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Academic, Writing

Maybe there was no collusion. What if there was?


Photoshop: Richard Giddens



Gary Leupp, who has written good material in the past for Counterpunch, asks ‘What if there was no collusion?’ The entire point of the Mueller investigation, Leupp alleges, ‘has been to unite people around an anti-Russia, anti-Putin line, and view “Russian ties” as inherently suspicious, the better to isolate and topple a president allegedly in a bromance with the Russian leader,’ and argues that, being ‘merely a fantasy of Hillary shills, it ‘won’t and shouldn’t work.’

It is certainly apparent that amidst the Mueller investigations, corporate media treatments have sought ‘to revive and even intensify Cold War-era Russophobia.’ the problem with this line of reasoning is that it involves some precarious prior assumptions about the ability of ‘Hilary shills’ to control the political narratives produced by the corporate media. By invoking these assumptions without acknowledging or attempting to justify them, Leupp unhelpfully exhibits the conspiratorial mentality he attributes to Clintonites, producing some torturous logic along the way. One of the worst features of this period, he continues,

has been the spectacle of liberal Democrats (and Bernie Sanders) all embracing the notion that Russia is an “adversary,” Putin a monster, and that Russia did something unconscionable during the U.S. elections (such as never performed elsewhere in the world by the U.S. itself). The point has been to say: “Why won’t Trump ever say anything bad about Putin?” as though the default mode is to damn the Russian leader.

One might argue that taking a critical attitude to power is this is not only a trait of a healthy independent thinker and a derivative of the democratic onus on leaders to justify themselves to their constituencies, but of one who knows anything about the history of Russian politics or of Putin personally. While what sociologists working in the field of moral panics call ‘deviance amplification’ (knee jerk reactions in plainer English) is certainly evident in the case of the new Russophobia, this does not of necessity mean that the object of the moral panic is a perfect angel either.

In Putin’s case, this is patently not true. Seeking to absolve Putin in the name of opposing Russiophobia in the name of holding the Democrats to account is arguably as stupid and pointless as embracing it in the name of making Putin a scapegoat for the obscene shortcomings of Democratic Party politics in general and the Clinton campaign in particular. It would certainly appear that the US and its allies are doing the same around the world, but the assumption that that fact excuses Russia makes Leupp the same kind of Russian apologist he claims to see as a problem in others.

The fact of the matter is that Russia obviously did do unconscionable during the U.S. elections; as the watchdog project at Securing Democracy clearly demonstrates, they are still doing it! If Luepp finds reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election ‘thoroughly unconvincing,’ he needs to provide supporting evidence to support his opinions with facts. A substantial amount of evidence exists to support collusion, inclusive of interference, alleged or actual ideological biases of the sources notwithstanding (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The evidence for Russian involvement in the DNC breach is likewise compelling. Private security firm Crowdstrike was brought in once the hack was discovered; they watched activity from two separate APT (advanced persistent threat) actors as it happened.

Crowdstrike found that two groups were involved: Fancy Bear (APT28) and Cozy Bear (APT29). Neither group appears to have been aware of the other at the time. Despite working independently, both have however been connected to other incidents, Fancy Bear has been tied to attacks including the Dutch Safety board, Bellingcat journalist group hacks in the aftermath of the downing of MH17, the Ukrainian artillery hacks, Dutch ministries and the recent IOC hacking, and the hacking of election systems in Germany and France as well. Cozy Bear is associated with the Pentagon hacks in 2015, Norwegian government breaches and multiple breaches of NGO’s and various government agencies.

Several rival firms in the extremely competitive security industry have confirmed Crowdstrike’s findings. Secureworks found a bit.ly account that contained phishing links used in the DNC hack and in several of the other incidents linked to these groups. Multiple lines of evidence link these groups to GRU, Russian language metadata in files left in the aftermath of the hack, with St Petersburg timestamps — shared MO’s in the hacks and techniques used. The Dutch security agency AIVD penetrated an office used by Cozy Bear and captured security footage of many of the people involved. While full details of this are yet to be released, they allege the group is associated with the Russia Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The hacks used multiple ‘Zero-Day’ exploits, which suggests significant resources behind the culprits, far beyond Trump’s suggestion of ‘somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.’ These valuable and sophisticated exploits were used alongside cruder techniques such as phishing and other social engineering (interestingly, at least one of the leaked NSA exploits was also used in the DNC hack). Much of this timeline was established well before the 2016 election, around June/July.

Recently a right-wing blogger has made claims about the metadata from the DNC hack being faked, but this is far from persuasive and seems to be tied into various right-wing conspiracy theories around the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich. The argument hinges on transfer speeds but ignores many more parsimonious explanations and is based on several faulty assumptions (the files were not copied more than once, and internet transfer speeds based on US consumer services). The consensus in the security industry is that these were state-sponsored hacks, connected to the GRU. More recent evidence also shows Russian hackers penetrated around 20 different state voter registration services in the US, and US electrical supply grid infrastructure, so it seems they still are maintaining a presence within these systems.

For its part, Wikileaks has also long maintained that the Russians were not behind the DNC hack, but the smart money says the personality Guccifer 2.0, who took credit for it, is nothing but a Russian sock-puppet. We believe Julian Assange is more than aware of the true facts of the situation and is yet again playing politics with his supposedly neutral transparency organisation. His back-peddling on delivering Russian government dirt, the abrupt changes of the hashes for his “insurance” files are suspicious given the circumstances, as are the efforts now known by associates of Trump and members of his campaign to create a “backchannel” to Wikileaks. If the numerous appearances of Julian Assange on Fox News over the course of the 2016 campaign didn’t make it obvious enough, Wikileaks plain anti-Clinton bias is apparent just from a cursory look at the Twitter account and their various other online presences.

Attempting to argue the contrary by conflating subjective opinion with arguments based on established evidence is, at best, laziness. Continuing in the train of thought predicated on this basis, however, Leupp alleges ‘it appears news directors instructed anchors to say “the entire U.S. intelligence community has established beyond a reasonable doubt that the Russians intervened in the elections.”’ Without elaborating on what facts he bases this grandiose and paranoid claim of collusion amongst The League of Colluding News Anchors, Leupp tries to suggest that the allegations of Russian interference and collusion by the Trump campaign is wrong because ‘Russia had revealed to the U.S. electorate the nature of the system by providing authentic, relevant primary sources with very disturbing information.’

His claim that providing ‘authentic, relevant primary sources with very disturbing information’ disproves Russian interference or Trump’s collusion is simply a non-sequitur. Lots of media outlets do that, including Russian ones. That does not mean that the Russians are not engaging in cyber-warfare against the United States or that a cynical and corrupt megalomaniac did not take advantage of that for reasons yet to be revealed in tawdry completeness for his own political gain.

Leupp’s Russian apologetics are not much helped by his hyperbolic commentary to the effect that the Mueller campaign is investigating charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Or some Russians. Any Russians. Or even Russian-Americans. Or supposedly pro-Russian Ukrainians.’

But, as a recent SNL sketch so amusingly suggested, Mueller has found not collusion but obstruction (as in “obstruction of justice”). Trump campaign officials lied to the FBI about some of their contacts and business activities. But their prosecutions will probably not destroy Trump. Meanwhile the House Intelligence Committee has concluded its investigation and the Republicans determined there is no evidence of collusion.

The obvious rebuttal, one that a primary school student could probably manage, is why lie to the FBI unless you have something to hide. The lazy argument makes an appeal to authority through the reference to SNL, without clarifying the content of the sketch or how Mueller’s finding are supposed to be understood prior to him releasing them. Nevertheless, Leupp is satisfied that Trump will probably not be destroyed and that the glorious Republicans have exonerated themselves of any wrongdoing. Furthermore. Trump supporters are to be lauded because they are not Goldwater Republicans. In case anyone was wondering, the Russian political establishment and Trump supporters are both great!

Seemingly with rose-coloured glasses on then, Leupp argues that ‘Russia is an “adversary” only in that it opposes the expansion of NATO, especially to include Ukraine and Georgia.’ We can certainly concede that the conflict between NATO and Russia is a source of contention; we might even go so far as to add that the new Russiophobia is motivated at least in part by a desire to scapegoat those outside of US dollar imperialism and the reach of US corporations for disobedience within a world order dominated (for the moment) by US hegemony in decline. If anything, however, this gives Putin and his chums more motivation rather than less to engage in cyberattacks against the US, and to attempt to undermine the US electoral process through any means at their disposal. Russia has motive, means and opportunity, so it is anything but paranoid conspiracy theorising to imagine that they might do so.

Neverless, Leupp argues not very coherently that most Americans don’t know enough to be able to know what the issues are (unlike himself being the underlying assumption) and are therefore susceptible to corporate propaganda. It is certainly true that corporate propaganda is devoted to the manufacture of consent, but in this case, and contrary to all evidence and intuition, Leupp proposes that the corporate media are colluding to undermine the POTUS through the manufacture of discontent, apparently as useful idiots of the all-powerful DNC. ‘People,’ he alleges, ‘are vulnerable to the notion that a president who refuses to be adequately hostile is somehow in the other camp.’

This is a pure and simple strawman; the problem is not that Trump is not adequately hostile, but that he is not critical of Putin or Russia at all. To accuse those with whom he disagrees of applying the False Dilemma logic of ‘with us or against us is rank hypocrisy; Leupp has already stated at the outset that anyone who thinks differently to himself is a ‘Hilary shill.’ If you think for yourself, the Clintonite Democrats win. That Leupp invokes this kind of logic at all is of deep concern; that he feels the need to speaks to the confidence he has in the merits of his own argument minus associating critics with the enemy.

Having failed to make a case against Russian intervention in the 2016 elections or Trump collusion, Leupp nevertheless points out the problematic nature of topping Trump alone, leaving Pence to assume power. The problem here seems to be that, in the case of collusion and intervention, Pence is as guilty as the rest, and will, one would hope, be held to account at the same time. Not even hinting at this possibility smacks of scaremongering. Luepp rejects the Mueller probe to this end along with all the supporting evidence for collusion in particular and cyberwarfare far more broadly in favour of advocating ‘a popular uprising producing revolutionary change.’ Conceding that this is ‘unlikely near term,’ he proposes ‘saner options’ in the form of an Article 25 removal on the grounds of mental instability, or a 2020 Democrat resurgence, though waiting for the outcome of the Mueller investigation might conceivably be another option.

This sort of commentary seems in the main to substitute conjecture and substituting opinions for arguments based in fact. Theories about a large-scale media conspiracy to undermine the Trump presidency on behalf of the DNC bear little resemblance to what we know about how the mass media manufactures consent as a systemic effect of corporate control and of capitalist social relations. The corporate mass media simply reflects the values and priorities of the billionaires who own and control it. It makes perfect sense that they would be party to Russophobia on behalf of the American Empire. It makes no sense that they would be party to the whims of the DNC.

To imagine otherwise is to invoke what Richard Hofstadter called ‘The Paranoid Style,’ a perfect example of everything it claims to oppose. As purported leftist analysis, claims invoking the Paranoid Style actually tends more to coincide with conspiracy theories from the alt-right. Insofar as such claims also include a monopoly over the truth, daring to suggest that only shills for Hilary Clinton think differently, they reflect haughty attitudes and mentalities prevailing on the left that drive people into the arms of reactionaries, and/or apathy. That leftists entertain paranoid conspiracy theories of the kind discussed in this article reflects a desire to explain away the failures of everything to the left of Hilary Clinton. If Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump collusion is all just a big nothing burger, the left doesn’t have to worry about being too disorganised, incoherent and indicative of everything they claim to oppose to do anything about what it represents.

Ben Debney and Richard Giddens, 18 March 2018



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