Shhhhh! Don't Tell Russia, but We're Totally Gonna Cyber Their Asses!

Maybe focus on protecting American data, not seeking revenge for Clinton's embarrassment?


Joe Biden
Brett Marty/Polaris/Newscom

It's not clear what to make of NBC's weekend report that the CIA is plotting a cyberattack against the Russian government (Vladimir Putin in particular) or why sources decided to go public about it.

To summarize: The CIA has apparently been planning a cyber counterstrike to expose information intended to "embarrass" the Kremlin and "unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin." Why this has been made public is anybody's guess, but Vice President Joe Biden confirmed with a wink and a nod to Meet the Press that America is "sending a message" to Russia. When asked whether the public would know about this message, Biden responded, very Bidenly, "Hope not."

While we try to wrap our minds around the idea of the public not finding out about a cyberattack Biden is openly promoting on a Sunday talk show, NBC does get a sense of the internal conflict with the administration about whether it's possible to retaliate against Russia in any meaningful way:

A second former officer, who helped run intelligence operations against Russia, said he was asked several times in recent years to work on covert action plans, but "none of the options were particularly good, nor did we think that any of them would be particularly effective," he said.

Putin is almost beyond embarrassing, he said, and anything the U.S. can do against, for example, Russian bank accounts, the Russian can do in response.

Really, what exactly is America going to be revealing about Russia or Putin at this point that its citizens don't already know? The winter Olympics in Russia were an absurdly costly, cronyist affair for a country where average citizens suffer remarkably low standards of living. Critics of Putin tend to wind up dead. Yes, Putin's hold over the media in Russia tends to help him withhold critical information from citizens, but you'd have to be naïve to think Putin is in power simply because Russians don't know the kind of guy he is.

What's remarkable about the story, though, is how little it engages in the actual content that (allegedly) Russian hackers have leaked about Democratic politics and Hillary Clinton and how this information has ended up feeding the polarized political discussion made entirely out of soundbites and carefully managed outrage.

As I noted back when hackers leaked internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, Putin wasn't responsible for the party treating Bernie Sanders like crap. And as embarrassing (and yes, criminal) as it is to have Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's emails getting put out there by Wikileaks, it's also not Russia's fault voters are getting reminders that Clinton is exactly the calculating politician she's often accused of being.

And yet the Democratic response appears to increasingly be this ad hominem-driven deflection that the problem here is the source of the information. Yes, it is bad that our political institutions are being hacked by Russians, don't get me wrong. But is there any attempt by Clinton partisans to learn at all from the outraged response by some citizens to the contents of this information?

One of the stories coming out today from files released about Clinton's private server scandal is that Pat Kennedy, a State Department official under Clinton, attempted to pressure the FBI to downgrade the classified ratings of a bunch of emails in her private server as "unclassified" last year in exchange for the State Department allowing more FBI agents to operate in foreign countries where they normally were not allowed. The FBI declined.

The FBI responded today that this request came prior to the investigation of Clinton's server use and was connected to Freedom of Information Act requests, not accusations of improper handling. As for the request by the FBI for more staff in foreign country, the agency says that was discussed in the same conversation but denied there was any sort of "quid pro quo." And it will be difficult to prove otherwise because neither side agreed. The files remained classified.

The Clinton campaign has responded, as they typically have, that this is all just complicated negotiations about classification ratings and nothing special or odd. So in this case, Clinton in her staff are all super-savvy about classification, though when the FBI interviewed Clinton, she claimed to not even know what the "C"-classification stamp even meant.

The entire manner by which Clinton and her enablers have handled her email controversies have inspired a lot of cynicism from those who aren't already planning to vote for her. While this new news isn't directly connected to the Podesta leaks, the natural inclination to deflect the criticism and concerns to something else entirely continues to help explain why Clinton is not running away with this election.

The alleged pending cyberattack on Russia is also a very helpful reminder that we are operating under a federal government and intelligence agency that seems to be prizing the ability to engage in hacking and infiltration over the desire to protect Americans from intrusion. Note that this debate is over whether to punish Russia for embarrassing the Democratic Party and Clinton, not about how to prevent future breaches. This is why it's so important to have private companies devoted to developing encryption tools for our use and why it's important to stand against a government that wants to corrupt it. They seem more interested in playing cyber-wargames than protecting our data.