“We need to take action (and we will)….at a time and a place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized. Some of it may not be….” – Obama 16th Dec 2016
But as we all should remember, it was the Obama Administration which wanted to “reset” relations with Russia after it took office, against the advice of some. We also remember that when the US produced a “reset button” which Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov could press the word “reset” was mistranslated into Russian as “overcharge”. They both pressed the button anyway. So what is the state of US-Russia relations now?
The expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and agencies from the US is part of a long campaign of accusing Russia of everything under the sun. This has worked so far because Westerners were brought up in a world where Russia equals the Soviet Union, so you can safely accuse it of anything you don’t like. But the target of these expulsions is not Russia but Donald Trump – and if the thinking behind them goes unchallenged, they will hit a much bigger target, which neither Obama nor any other US president should seek to attack.
The aim of these expulsions, and the new sanctions which accompany them, is not to protect the world from cyber hacks which have apparently already taken place. It is to give the US and its allies the power to become another Soviet Union. Western states were built on contrary principles, and therefore neither their institutions, nor their populations, would allow this to happen through the front door. But for as long as the West can hide behind “democracy” it will continue to try and become exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to be – and this, rather than Russia, is the threat the next US Administration should be addressing.
Russian down the wrong road
Few expected Donald Trump to win the US Presidential election, including US pollsters and politicians. Therefore his victory is very difficult to explain by the usual factors, such as discontent with the performance of the other party and its president. If it can be so easily explained, the public will ask “so why didn’t you see it coming, if it’s so simple?”
So to preserve their own credibility other reasons have to be found. As the use of voting machines has often caused controversy in the US and abroad, suggestions of electronic tampering are easy to make. Translating these into cyber attacks, which can come from anywhere and affect a wide range of devices, makes it easy to portray the culprits as foreign. As Muslim or Third World states which don’t like the US are all considered backward, the country of Sputnik, weapons and gas pipelines is the first one anyone would infer was responsible for such crimes.
It is perfectly possible that the computer systems of the Democratic Party and its candidates, and many others, have been targeted by hackers and that some of these hackers have been successful.
During George Bush Senior’s administration two hackers obtained Vice President Dan Quayle’s full bank records by hacking a system and typing in “Dan Quayle” rather than his full name, James Danforth Quayle, just to show how easy it was. A few years prior to that another US-based hacker got into a high security system at a defence facility, and returned the following night to be greeted by a message saying “Who’s a clever boy then. Now tell us how you did it.”
But if Russia is hacking these systems to try and help Donald Trump that would be a crime. It should therefore be dealt with by the legal process. This requires giving evidence. What evidence do we have?
All the allegations are based on an FBI and Department of Homeland Security report, which is confidential. If it does contain the relevant evidence it will not be presented in any court, for this reason. The only part of its contents which has been released is a 13-page report meant for IT professionals, entitled “GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity”.
This report begins by making the sweeping statement that “This activity by RIS (Russian Intelligence Services) is part of an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the US government and its citizens.” Significantly, it then cites cases of alleged cyber-hacking in foreign countries allied with the US, as if all these countries are also part of the US, and then says it will show how to report all these incidents to the US government, not those of the countries concerned.
The content of this report has not convinced IT professionals. The people who work in cyber security day in, day out have criticised the report for a lack of depth, and being an inadequate response to the situation it claims exists. Yet this is the only evidence which has been presented in this case, and was designed to persuade that particular audience. It wouldn’t get the US government very far even in a nationalistic US courtroom, which the Administration knows.
But of course the president has seen the full range of evidence. All those who support his position also claim to have seen it, or have every confidence in those who have. So we are supposed to believe that that is enough. If someone within the US intelligence system is alleged to have said that a certain thing happened, that assertion does not have to be subject to any process, and the president can do whatever he likes in response.
The accused cannot defend themselves, see the evidence against them or know exactly what they are accused of, but on the basis of secret documents known to only a few they must be guilty and therefore be punished. In countries the US doesn’t like, such behaviour would be described as contrary to the rule of law. Indeed, both the US and the EU have spent considerable sums of money on establishng Rule of Law projects in allied countries, teaching them to do as the West says it does, with aid strings attached.
Even if the cyber hacking allegations are true, and there is actual evidence which can be presented, the accused have to be given the opportunity to answer the charges. In order to ensure their conviction, and thus the truth of the charges, they must be brought to trial, and people now described as “intelligence officers” rather than diplomats are not subject to immunity .
Instead a number of alleged cyber criminals have been expelled from the US, rather than being brought to trial, even though they can commit the same crimes from anywhere on earth. Every so often, as in the recent atrocity in Berlin, we hear of people suspected of committing serious crimes dying in police shootouts, i.e, before they can talk. The expelled can’t talk to a US court any more than the dead can, as the evidence against them will never be examined if there is no one there to try.
War and Peace, Volume Two
There have been many reports linking Donald Trump to Russia, both politically and financially. Therefore it can be casually assumed that Russia will behave badly to benefit Trump. If we accept this premise, it goes a long way to explaining the presidential election result – democracy was hijacked, so the outcome was not what dedicated democrats expected.
After how Hillary Clinton abused democratic process to win her party’s nomination she can’t make that argument too strongly, and isn’t. But the significant factor here is the attempt to drag other countries into what we are told are cyber-crimes against the US, presenting hacks there as crimes on a homogenous “democratic world” by “anti-democratic forces”.
As well as trying to improve relations with Russia, Trump has frequently said that the US should stop getting involved in expensive foreign wars, and that its partners should foot their share of the bill if they do. But these wars are justified by the very same reasoning. They are sold with the idea that anti-democratic forces, whether they be dictators or terrorists, are determined to destroy the West and must therefore be stopped. Russia has been lumped in with these negative forces because the historic portrayal of the Soviet Union helps governments explain what enemies look like, and gain tacit public approval for using any financial and human means to stop them.
The military-industrial complex is a major US employer and major influence. It remains whilst Administrations come and go. It is not going to stand by and see itself reduced in importance, and profit, by a new president. It is going to use what leverage it has to maintain its budgets and contracts and effectively dictate policy itself, as it does on the ground in many countries the US is involved with.
Every country has a procedure to follow for declaring war, committing troops or getting involved in a conflict. Resolutions have to be brought, and matters debated within parliaments and international organisations. At all of these stages, justification has to be given and evidence presented. Tony Blair is still suffering today from justifying his intervention in Iraq on the basis of incorrect evidence, which he and others knew, or should have known, was incorrect given what was available.
Putin’s response is especially revealing over Obama’s lame duck sanctions and expulsions. These actions are not merely attempts to portray Trump as a friend of anti-democratic activities and forces, as Vladimir Putin hinted when he first stated that he would not expel anyone from Russia in response to the US action. They are attempts to provide continued justification for previous and future US actions, lay proverbial landmines for the new US administration, and prevent any democratic scrutiny of those actions by the institutions entrusted with fair play and the rule of law.
If action can be taken against a country and its citizens on the basis of secret reports, the US military-industrial complex can override the President, Congress and the international community. Any attempt to examine evidence can be portrayed as a delaying tactic designed to serve the enemy, just like, for example, Sinn Fein’s request for “clarification” of the meaning of the Anglo-Irish Joint Declaration of 1994. We will be told – “We’re the experts, we say this is so, we are entrusted to do these things and for the sake of protecting democracy a mere president, particularly one who praised the latest enemy during his campaign, is not entitled to insist that we abide by the Constitution”.
Lies which precede the sex and videotape
Trump has done himself no favours by saying that we should all concentrate on bigger issues and get on with our lives. If he really had worked hand in glove with the Russians to rig the elections and undermine his country he would say that, wouldn’t he? But whatever his guilt or innocence, the actions of the Obama Administration are not merely aimed at undermining him, but the democratic values of his own country, all of which hinge on the sovereignty of the people, not unelected agencies acting without any public scrutiny.
If Russia is guilty, let’s see the evidence and have a trial. A conviction would do far more damage to Putin’s empire than any cosmetic sanction the West could impose. Trump may not be interested in such a trial, but if Obama wants to attack Russia rather than Trump or the US itself he can institgate the process now, while he is still in office, and Trump will have a difficult time politically trying to undo that action whilst these allegations hang in the air.
Obama’s actions exploit one basic fallacy. The notion that Russia exerts undue influence on many countries, by means of energy, trade and political deals, is generally accepted. It is less widely accepted that the West does exactly the same, because it is assumed that the West is a civilizing influence, bringing higher values and greater prosperity to the far larger bloc of countries it influences.
Applying this double standard enables Russia to base its foreign policy on doing unto others as the US does unto it. Russia simply waits for the US to act in a way which contradicts its own professed principles and rhetoric, and then does the same itself. For example, the West intervened to help break up Yugoslavia, and rigged votes to do it, so Russia organised a referendum in Crimea.
If the US really wants to stop Russia taking over the world it should put its own house in order first, but it cannot admit politically that it has a need to do so. It had long undermined itself by saying that although democracy and human rights are the highest values, the “US interest” is more important still – a position it would not take if it really believed in the value of democracy and human rights. But now it has added an extra layer to this value system – the “US interest” is something determined in secret, on the basis of evidence no one will be allowed to see, and if you are a real American you just have to accept this, whatever your Oath of Allegiance may say.
The EU has long operated like this – many of its policies are made by secret committees, meeting in secret, which examine evidence no one is allowed to even know the existence of, as migrant support bodies have frequently complained about. It is this sort of behaviour which has created such widespread disillusionment with the EU. Now the US has erected such practices as its highest value, who is the threat, the US or alleged Russian hackers?
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.