By Patricia Lee Sharpe
On the Left the reaction was fear and outrage; on the Right indifference. Politics explains the polarity. Russian interference, impossible now to deny, thanks to Grizzley Steppe’s tip-of-the-iceberg data dump, was damaging Clinton while giving Trump a boost. A bromance, it seemed, was under way. Donald and Volya. With Hillary cast as the wicked witch in a Russian fairy tale.
It's all but certain that government-sponsored Russian hackers were stealing information from American individuals and institutions. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Mosquitoes bite. But no one needs to get bitten, and prevention is easy. Screens. Bednets. Deet. Eliminting pools of stagnant water. Ditto with computers and all sorts of e-technology. They can be attacked and they can be protected. Unfortunately, most Americans and too may critical American institutions don’t take that responsibility seriously enough. Hence, American infrastructure is ripe for interruption and American data, including juicy email exchanges, are ripe for stealing. Our democracy rests on fragile grounds, by the way, if our elections are not safe from foreign manipulation.
Defencelessness Is Indefensible
The just released DHS-FBI report entitled Grizzley Bear not only identifies by name dozens of operators connected with Russian intelligence services, it tells people what to do when their computer operations have been compromised by attacks traceable to those actors. Just this past week there was a false alarm involving a Vermont power company which, it was reported, had identified a compromised computer by using this vital information. The computer involved was quarantined, the incident was reported— and it turned out that someone had jumped to unwarranted conclusions, a process clearly open to various interpretations. Prudent precaution? Conspiracy theory fodder? Simple honest mistake?
But let's consider a worst case scenario anyway.
What if a compromised computer had been connected to the rest of the power company’s system and thus to the national grid that links power providers throughout the U.S.? Suddenly the entire U.S. goes dark and nothing—nothing!—works. The U.S. is defenseless. This is war, cyberstyle, and the Russians are clearly aware that the U.S. is not well defended. Given the vulnerability of U.S. cyber systems to outside attack, President Obama had to tread very carefully when it came to exacting a tit-for-tat price for Russia’s election fiddling—and, yes, TrumpTeam, this was a very big deal requiring a strong reaction. The wrong tit, however, could have resulted in a paralyzing tat. Not a good situation to be in.
While it is no surprise that Russia is hacking away at ill-defended American institutions, the complacency with which many Americans have greeted the Russian mischief is more than surprising. It is shocking. Some Trump supporters won’t even admit the possibility. Many “Progressives” fear a revival of McCarthyism. Both may argue that the mere existence of a massive American information-gathering apparatus exonerates the Russians from blame not only for stealing information but for swaying an American election. To me it's partisanship and/or objectivity gone mad.
Russian Dirty Tricks: an Old Story
I spent 23 years as a foreign service officer. Much of that time I served in Africa where I had to deal with Soviet propaganda charging that AIDS was created by the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick. People were dying in Africa. Their friends and relatives were angry and frightened. That false story was comforting. It said that the scourge had a known, external cause. In fact, AIDS came from chimps, and little by little I and my colleagues in the U.S. Information Service got the truth across. That wasn’t the only malicious Soviet disinformation we had to dispel over the years. Thus, openly, by every available and public medium, we defended the U.S. and promoted the superior economic and political system during the Cold War. And when, for a host of other reasons as well as our own efforts, the Berlin Wall tumbled, the Soviet Union crumbled, and people previously subservient to a brutally imposed Stalinism were free to construct their societies along democratic lines, I felt no shame. There was no moral equivalence. Ditto if we fast forward to compare today’s radically imperfect American democracy with Putin’s repressive one man rule in Russia. Unfortunately Donald Trump hasn’t noticed. Or maybe he doesn’t care.
Back in 1989, however, the U.S. crowed loudly. Much too loudly. “The sole surviving super power.” “The essential nation.” Etc. What we might call “Trumpian” braggadocio today. It was bad politics then and now. Being a good winner isn’t a genteel anachronism. The humiliated never forget. Revenge is usually on the agenda.
Enter Vladimir Putin with a score to settle.
To repeat: humiliation, sooner or later, breeds retaliation, something that Donald Trump needs to learn. His tweets abound in smears and insults. He glories in stomping on losers, the apparently helpless and the hapless, as if a worm can’t turn—into a viper. Ditto a cagey flatterer, like the President of Russia, who's been showering his American bosom buddy with flattery. Which brings us to candidate Trump’s reaction to any suggestion that Russian interference might skew the election. A threat to U.S. democracy? Not at all! “Bring it on!” he declared. Meaning “help me trounce the witch.”
Who's the Really Clever Operator?
That’s where he crossed a line and came very close to treason, to put it mildly. His post-election behavior has been consistent, actively collaborating with a foreign power to discredit a sitting U.S. president and his policy. Meanwhile, back to questionable electoral politics: an aspirant to the U.S. presidency courted victory via covert aid from a hostile foreign power already scheming to weaken long-standing American allies and to wean the U.S. from organizations that have, for the most part, strongly reinforced American policy. N.A.T.O., for instance. Even the U.N.
As an ego-blinded (“Putin loves me.”) Donald J. Trump blithely puts it, “Vladimir Putin is clever."
There’s something downright suicidal about Trump’s embrace of Putin. Once the U.S. is terminally fragile from internal divisions Trump himself has encouraged and totally isolated from allies he’s systematically denigrated, what happens? What if the bear hug gets a little too stifling and the U.S., thanks to Trump’s (mis)calculations, no longer has the strength to break away? Spying is normal. Circulating propaganda is normal. Trying to influence politics is normal. Not objecting, not resisting, not shaming, not countering—these are abnormal in the extreme.
Is it any wonder, then, that a certain question is making the rounds: what’s in it for the Trump organization? Worse, is the Donald working for the U.S. or for Russia? Or, less culpably, when is he going to realize (or show us that he realizes) that running an international real estate operation for personal profit is child’s play compared to the multidimensional chess game of international politics in which do or die isn’t a metaphor?
In the meantime, those cyber vulnerabilities must be addressed. Above all, Americans need to solve the privacy vs. security conundrum, technically and legally. A door open to U.S. security services is also open to Russian hackers. On the other hand, given an inch the home grown snoopers usually take a mile or more.