How did we go from Benghazi to Russia?
Some weeks ago, I discussed California Representative Maxine Waters, including her belief that the 2016 U.S. elections were hacked by Russia. I promised to lay out where I differ with prominent Democrats, including Waters. Now is the time to address this topic, although it isn’t an easy one to cover.
In numerous News Roundup posts, I have addressed the issue of Russia and allegations that nation interfered in the 2016 United States presidential election. I shared some of the information I had read, like the call for the probe and the information that came from analysts (including the team from Crowdstrike). I also talked about the sanctions placed on Russian individuals and companies by President Obama in reaction to the 2016 elections.
However, I never gave my own opinion on the findings, the calls for an investigation, or the actual probe itself. What do I think about the allegations and everything else in connection? Well, there’s a nuanced answer, but I feel I need a full-on explanation of what I know in order to express this opinion.
First, I would like to see how we got here. In order to do that, I need to review past events in this post and back up everything with facts and sourced information.
That means this is going to be a two-parter. The first part will contain much of the information I found and the second part will serve as my commentary.
Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but I would prefer it if you read this post fully before leaving a comment. What I have to say in might tick you off, but I am basing everything on my own research and observations.
Table of Contents
- Brief Overview of Russian Probe
- What Led Us Here
- When We First Learned of the Hacks
- What We Learned from the Hacks
- The Connections Made to Russia
- Possible Reasons Why Russia Would Be Involved
- Hurting Clinton’s Campaign and Thus Promoting Trump
- Clinton’s Stance on Russia (and Iran)
- Trump’s Stated Position on Russia/Possibly Lifting Sanctions
- Trump’s Negative Impact on America
- Sowing the Seeds of Mistrust in the American Electoral Process
- Russia’s Role in Past Cyber-Attacks
- Related: Assange’s View of Clinton
- Hurting Clinton’s Campaign and Thus Promoting Trump
- Lead-Up to Next Post
Brief Overview of the Russian Probe
In December 2016, outgoing President Barack Obama ordered American intelligence agencies to conduct a full investigation into possible links between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
By November 2016, there were already calls for a congressional probe into possible meddling in the United State election. Led by Democrats, the calls were largely ignored by Republicans … until the U.S. intelligence community said it was likely Russia did play a part in the series of hacks that occurred to the DNC and John Podesta.
Eventually, more and more connections were made between Trump’s transition team and Russia. Each revelation brought more and more suspicion and more Republicans came forward to concur this wasn’t a good look. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were especially vocal about Russia.
Senate and House probes finally began in earnest in January of this year. The Senate investigation began around January 10 and the House of Representatives began its own probe around January 25.
By late March, it became clear that the Senate investigation was more bipartisan than the House investigation. The latter became dysfunctional by March 22.
By that date, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes (California; the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee) appeared to throw a wrench into the chamber’s investigation. On Wednesday, March 22, he called for a 1 pm press conference outside the Capitol Building. He told the press that, according to a report he said he’d read, there was incidental surveillance of the Trump campaign during the election.
According to Nunes, information had been collected on Trump’s team on “numerous occasions,” but the information collected by the U.S. intelligence community was done so legally under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He then went to brief President Donald Trump on the findings.
A number of people, including Republican members of Congress, questioned why Nunes would make such an announcement, let alone notify the president of his findings. That was highly inappropriate, since the House Intelligence Committee was conducting an investigation that could implicate Trump.
(Previously, Nunes had voiced full-throated support for Trump after the latter won the Republican nomination. Also, Nunes was immediately named to Trump’s transition team after the election.)
Nunes did not divulge his sources. It would later be revealed that Nunes had read the documents he spoke of on White House grounds.
The Senate Intelligence Committee continued with its own investigation with little problems. Marco Rubio (R-FL), revealed that his campaign had been hacked.
By the end of the month, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was told she would be blocked from testifying because the information she knew would be part of attorney-client privilege.
Additionally, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, offered to testify if granted immunity. He was denied immunity.
The spotlight was put on former National Security Advisor Susan Rice after Nunes pulled his stunt. Ultimately it was revealed she had asked for the unmasking of individuals connected to Trump’s transition team.
When Rice took part in ensuing interviews, she said the unmasking was routine and she asked for it in the interest of national security. Under the instruction of then-President Obama, Rice asked for the identities of individuals suspected of colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election. However, Rice said no such evidence was found.
Days after calling a press conference, Rep. Nunes announced he was stepped down as the leader of the House probe of Russia’s alleged meddling with the 2016 presidential election. He was placed under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics based on his behavior and closeness to Donald Trump. Nunes said he was being hit with “entirely false and politically motivated” charges.
The charges come after news of the unmasking by Susan Rice surfaced.
What Lead Us Here
In 2012, Mitt Romney and President Obama were asked what the greatest threat to the United States was at the time. Romney said Russia, and Obama quickly laughed at that notion. Outside the debate, Romney was roundly mocked by a number of commentators and voters alike.
So, how did we go from not viewing Russia as a threat to viewing the country as an enemy that is trying to destroy our own democracy?
We were led to Russia because of the events that unfolded during the 2016 election. But everything, believe it or not, began with the Benghazi probe.
Democrats largely see the probe as an attempt by Republicans to hurt Hillary Clinton politically. It was understood at the time that Clinton was considering another presidential run and Republicans would like to get a head start on targeting her as the Democratic frontrunner.
Mrs. Clinton, who served as the secretary of state from 2009-2013, had been questioned by Congress for over 11 hours by a committee led by Republicans. They wanted to find something that implicated her in the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. The attack resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
After 2 years, the 800-page report by the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi was released on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The committee ultimately found that a false narrative of the events originated with Clinton. But while Clinton’s silence about the truth was politically motivated, there was no smoking gun in terms of malfeasance. It was not clear if the State Department could have done anything to prevent the attack, let alone get the personnel out of harm’s way.
However, the probe had wide-reaching effects. One thing that resulted from the probe was the public eventually found out about Clinton’s use of a private email server. And it the House committee was alerted to the existence of the server by Reddit, of all places.
Private Email Server
The House Oversight Committee was looking into whether Clinton ordered the destruction of emails that were subpoenaed by the Benghazi Select Committee. On July 22, 2014, the Benghazi Committee reached an agreement with the State Department to produce related records.
As Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) would later tell The Hill, the committee was reviewing a deleted Reddit post started by a user named “stonetear.” In a July 23, 2014 post, stonetear asked other users how to alter the contents of “VERY VIP” emails from a private server.
The New York Times identified Combetta as the user “stonetear.” That was not confirmed, although there was compelling evidence linking Paul Combetta to the Reddit username. Combetta has the username “stonetear” on Etsy and combetta.com, an inactive website, is registered to stonetear’s Gmail account.
In the week of September 11-17, 2016, Combetta and a colleague, Bill Thornton, appeared in a House Oversight Committee hearing. Each exercised their Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
The emails took the Republicans in another direction, especially after they were released, and Clinton’s use of the server from her time as Secretary of State led to an FBI investigation. The entire time, Clinton’s campaign was beleaguered by the drawn out investigation, as the Republicans had hoped.
When We First Learned of the Hacks
Of course, there was a steady drip of information from March to November 2016.
The information from the emails was shared in separated installments, and from multiple sources. In July 2016, emails from the DNC were leaked. In October 2016, emails from John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, were leaked.
Details of Clinton’s government emails were also shared, starting in March 2016. Those were legally obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, but Clinton had over 30,000 emails deleted and she left out parts of her schedule.
The other emails were obtained illegally, through a series of hacks. (Press outlets can still legally report on the information.)
Now, when you look at everything, it’s amazing how we came from the relentless Benghazi hearings to accusations that Russia tried to interfere with our elections.
What We Learned from the Hacks
There was a lot of damaging information in the emails from Clinton’s campaign aides and the DNC, but most emails themselves were mundane.
I would include information about emails where Debbie Wasserman Schultz communicated with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd over bad coverage she received from Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. But, as Todd would attest, this was the normal operating procedure between members of the press and politicians.
Among the most damaging information:
- Donna Brazile shared debate questions with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
- Members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign wanted to get rid of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as DNC chair or at least minimize their contact with her.
- Clinton aides pushed the DNC to move around primaries to give her an advantage and hurt Bernie Sanders and “moderate” Republicans.
- DNC officials wanted to paint Bernie Sanders, who is “culturally Jewish,” as an atheist.
- Hillary Clinton talked of having “a public and a private position” on issues.
- Emails exchanges between Clinton family contacts suggested payments were being made to the Clinton foundation in order for some powerful interests to gain access to the Clintons.
- In one email exchange, longtime Bill Clinton aide Doug Band expressed his contempt for Chelsea Clinton; Band at least inferred that she was interfering with his consulting firm and the foundation.
- Clinton, no longer the Secretary of State, was being briefed on Freedom of Information requests about her State Department emails.
- Clinton disavowed her position on the Keystone XL Pipeline because she was running for president.
- Despite pushing for Obama to increase the number of Syrian refugees the United States allowed in, Clinton was concerned there would not be enough time to properly vet the number of refugees she suggested be granted asylum per year (from 10,000 to 65,000).
One of the Worst Revelations from the Email
By far, the most damaging information — at least in terms of the election itself — was about the “Pied Piper” strategy employed by the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s team. It was a 3-part strategy aimed at marginalizing the “moderate” Republicans and promoting the far-right candidates, including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and one Donald Trump. The point was to give Hillary Clinton the easiest opponent in the fall.
On top of that, the strategy called for the press to be steered toward the far-right candidates and for Democratic operatives to muddy the waters when controversies involving Clinton were brought up.
Did we see this strategy play out?
Well, believe it or not, Trump was given $2 billion in free press overage during the primaries alone. That was more than double the amount of coverage Clinton received and it outstripped the coverage Sanders and Cruz received by a factor of 6. CNN, arguably a pro-Clinton television network, was part of the problem.
Also, Correct the Record, a SuperPAC run by David Brock, was created to pay trolls to counter any negative post about Clinton online. The paid posters not only attacked people on Facebook and Twitter, but on forums, videos, and blogs. Some trolls infiltrated Facebook pages and got them shut down by sharing links to child pornography.
The Connections Made to Russia
By June, at least two firms, CrowdStrike and Fidelis, said that they confirmed that the hacks had similar patterns to Russian hackers. There may have been disagreements on whether the actors were independent or working for the Russian government, but most experts pointed to Russia.
The first accusations aimed at Russia pertained to the DNC leaks. Russia was eventually blamed for the Podesta email leaks and for irregular activity regarding voter registration information in states like Iowa and Arizona.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) began monitoring its computer network in May after detecting suspicious behavior. It called upon cybersecurity firms like Crowdstrike to trace the hackers. CrowdStrike found that two hacking groups had attacked the DNC servers: one was there more recently and the other had been there for nearly a year.
In a blog post, CrowdStrike confirmed it had worked with the Democratic National Committee to confirm the location of the hackers who attacked DNC servers in 2015 and April 2016. Dmitri Aperovitch, the co-founder and CTO of the firm, said two Russian hacker (groups), COZY BEAR and FANCY BEAR, were working for the Russian federation and that they might be part of Putin’s Hydra.
Under this intelligence system, multiple departments compete against each other and may be attacking the same agencies/victims without knowledge. Aperovitch said the hacking patterns were consistent with breaches of systems in the United States and across Europe.
U.S. Intelligence Reports
In November 2016, the Central Intelligence Agency briefed senators on its findings about the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to the CIA, the Kremlin hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign and instructed several actors to release information in order to sway the election.
The information was based on assessments from 17 intelligence agencies. However, there were key disagreements among agencies. For instance, the FBI disagreed with the CIA about Russia’s motives.
In Mid-December, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence officials told them they had “a high level of confidence” Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved with hacks against the Democrats. Two individuals said they had access to proof Putin directed how information taken from Democratic operatives was used and distributed. They said the sources of the information were diplomats and spies working for U.S. allies.
In March, FBI Director James Comey revealed his agency was already looking into links between Russian officials and Trump associates. The FBI has information on Trump associates which might indicate communications with Russia operatives suspected in leaking information last year. The information includes human intelligence as well as travel, business, and telephone records.
Everything is currently being reviewed and the investigation could take months to complete. U.S. officials cautioned the information is currently inconclusive and the information is largely circumstantial. But the FBI is focusing on evidence that suggests collusion.
During the campaign, Trump’s second campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was forced to leave the campaign after reports surfaced of his political consultations with a Ukrainian politician.
There were already known Russian connections with Rex Tillerson. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had regular communications with Russian businesses and officials. In 2010, he was given the National Order of Friendship, a Russian award granted to foreigners who advance the country’s business interests.
Trump’s former National Security advisor Michael Flynn’s dishonesty about his Russian connections led to his resignation. But as we’re finding out, there are even more connections Flynn has to Russia (and other foreign nations).
Jeff Sessions also got into hot water when it was revealed he had met with Russian diplomat Sergei Kislyak (and lied under oath when asked by the Senate Judiciary Panel about possible ties to Russia).
Wilbur Ross, our new Commerce Secretary, has connections to Russia through dealings with a bank in Cyprus and three Russian oligarchs. The bank in question is owned by Russia and it has been known for laundering money from the country and making bad loans.
Ross and his associates put more than $1 billion into the Bank of Cyprus. He later became one of the bank’s two vice chairmen; the other vice chairman was appointed by Vladimir Putin.
Now, we are finding out more information on Trump aid Carter Page. He was revealed to have traveled to Russia in early 2016. According to recent reports, Page was being recruited by Russia.
After a while, Wikileaks was accused of working with Russian hackers to dispense information that was harmful to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The “pro-transparency” website started showing emails from John Podesta shortly after Guccifer 2.0 started sharing information from the email hacks.
Also, there was a steady release of information from Wikileaks since September 2016. Much of the information appeared timely. The first batch of emails was shown after Donald Trump began imploding in the month of August. And even more came out shortly after the old Hollywood Access tape of Trump came out.
Additionally, there were reports about Wikileaks changing its server to one from Russia. But the last time I checked, the info I got was that it was situated in the Netherlands.
Does Julian Assange, the face of Wikileaks, have any ties to Russia? All I know is he talked about finding information on Vladimir Putin 6-7 years ago, but he never followed through. He has also denied any connection to Russia and Russian officials have denied connections to any of these leaks.
Other Connections Made by Democrats and Others
Additionally, some have speculated that some of the information from the leaks could have been altered and placed along with actual information. Despite what appeared to be an admission of guilt by Donna Brazile, she now says that Russian hackers altered her emails.
Others have said that, just maybe, Russian trolls went online and roiled up Republicans and Democrats. Notably, there are new claims that Bernie Sanders supporters were bombarded with lies and “fake news” pertaining to Clinton.
Now, some Democrats, including Brazile and freshman Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) are siding with Dick Cheney of all people in viewing the cyber activity as an “act of war.”
Possible Reasons Why Russia Would Be Involved
From what I have found, and can think of myself, there are at least three reasons why Russia may be involved in the email hacks:
1. Hurting Clinton’s Campaign and Thus Promoting Trump
Russian President Vladimir Putin does not like Hillary Clinton and she does not like him at all. When she assumed her rule as Secretary of State, the Russian president was Dmitry Medvedev, now the Russian prime minister (he and Putin swapped roles in 2008 and again in 2012). When Putin resumed his role as president, Clinton was on her way out of public office.
- In 2008, Clinton warned George W. Bush about letting his personal relationship with Putin cloud his judgment.
- In 2014, Clinton compared Putin to Adolf Hitler.
- Putin said that Clinton was rude and often rude leaders act that way to hide their weakness.
Trump’s Stated Position on Russia
By contrast to the above, Trump has often said nice things about Russia. He has expressed the desire for the United States to repair its relationship with the Kremlin. Trump said we needed to have a good relationship with Russia in order to fight ISIS, our top priority.
Furthermore, Trump had no made any definitive statements about the Ukraine, and even said he was open to suspending the sanctions placed on Russia. That sanctions alone would make Trump the favorable option for Russia.
Clinton’s Stances on Russia, Syria, and Iran
When Clinton was running in 2016, she had a markedly aggressive stance on Russia. She made it clear that she opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and, along with some Republicans like John McCain, supported giving weapons and training to Ukrainian soldiers.
Clinton wanted to institute a no-fly zone in Syria. Although she was asked if that would put the U.S. in direct conflict with Russia, Clinton insisted that the U.S. would inform the Russians of U.S. positions and expect Russia to respect those positions.
Ultimately, Clinton wants to be rid of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, a Putin ally.
In 2008, Clinton let it be known that she was willing to bomb Iran. (That same year, McCain was half-joking when he talked about bombing Iran as a policy measure.) Clinton was opposed to Iran’s nuclear program and as Secretary of State she supported a number of sanctions being placed on Iran.
It should be noted that Iran is one of Syria’s partners in the civil war and it is thus working with Russia.
However, Trump recently called for missiles to hit Syrian military targets. If you notice, much of the Russia talk has quieted down as some Democrats support the recent action …
Trump’s Negative Impact on America
What better way to make sure your adversary is too preoccupied to focus on you than sabotage? Trump ran for president despite his lack of political experience and knowledgeability (about the role of president, the U.S. government, and current events). He is also preoccupied with money and bombastic.
That lack of general knowledge combined with greed and bombast would put President Trump in position to sell out the American people while sowing the seeds of discord among the American populace.
2. Sowing the Seeds of Mistrust in the American Electoral Process
Numerous Intelligence expects have pointed to this as a factor.
There were numerous factors that depressed voter turnout last year (in which only 53% of eligible voters took part in this election, and only 9% of voters chose the eventual Republican and Democratic nominees). Was the information from the emails one factor?
I will say this: Too many Americans tend to forget about the down-ticket races and measures and mainly focus on the president. As hard as it is to hear, both Clinton and Trump had record unfavorables. And many people were already disillusioned because they knew the Electoral College would decide who the next president would.
But I think the emails were a factor. Most of the elections took place between March and June, when information from all the emails was being reported on. What’s more is people who had already accused the DNC of tipping the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton said the information only confirmed what they had been saying for months.
Was that enough to depress the vote?
3. Russia’s Role in Past Cyber-Attacks
There were two cyber-attacks of note, but they involved hits to critical infrastructure.
On April 27, 2007, Estonia became the first nation state hit by cyber-attacks. The attacks were sustained for over a month. Government, banking, and media websites were among the targets, as were routers and servers. Russia was immediately blamed for the attack.
Luckily for Estonia, its government had long partnered with cyber defense experts and its population (1.3 million people) was relatively small. They were prepared to deal with cyber-attacks and were able to work closely and quickly.
As the experts were dealing with the attacks and preparing for them, they had kept close watch on Russia-speaking forums. Those forums contained posts pointing to attacks in Estonia and leaving information like dates.
In 2009, Kremlin loyalist Konstantin Goloskokov was named as a hacker behind the attack. While Russia could claime plausible deniability, Goloskokov was an aide to a pro-Kremlin member of parliament and the hacks happened after a Soviet-era statue was moved from the Estonian capital. That was a move that angered Russia.
On December 23, 2015, Ukraine’s power grid was attacked by hackers. The first warning came to the Prykarpattyaoblenergo control center, where one operator saw that his computer was being controlled remotely. The hackers had gained control of 30 power substations, changing passwords and firmware. About 230,000 Ukrainian residents and the substations themselves were left without power.
Robert M. Lee, a co-founder of Drago security, assisted in the following investigation. He explained how the hack was carried out and he said the hack was sophisticated. The hackers took logistics into account and had thorough knowledge of how the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) was maintained by various companies and control stations. However, Lee said he believed the operation was rushed, because the hackers had the opportunity to physically destroy equipment via code to make it harder to restore power.
Ukrainian officials immediately blamed Russia for the attacks. Although the Ukrainaian government offered no proof, tensions between the countries were high and there would have been reason for Russia to attack the Ukrainian power grid. After Russia annexed Crimea, that area’s power grid was attacked. Also, Ukraine was looking into nationalizing power grids, but a Russian oligarch owns at least one Ukrainian power company.
Related: Assange’s View of Clinton
If Assange is really in cahoots with Russia, it stands to reason his personal view of Clinton would be a factor in his decision to release damaging information on her.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, you can figure out what Assange thinks about Clinton by how he views the United States.
Over the years, Wikileaks has published a lot of material that embarrassed the United States and U.S. businesses. The information on corrupt business was largely cheered, but the information on U.S. institutions like the military have often been met with mixed reactions (in the U.S.)
Assange is happy to dispense this information because he views the United States as a dangerous empire. He doesn’t like that the U.S. is involved in so many conflicts in the world not does he appreciate how he has been targeted by the U.S.
You can also take Assange’s words regarding Clinton. In an interview with ITV, Assange gave this answer when asked if he preferred Clinton or Trump:
“Trump is a completely unpredictable phenomenon. You can’t predict what he would do in office,” Assange said. “Hillary was overriding the Pentagon’s reluctance to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. … She has a long history of being a liberal war hawk, and we presume that she’s going to proceed.”
“Hillary Clinton is receiving constant updates about my personal situation; she has pushed for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” he told ITV. “We do see her as more of a problem for freedom of the press generally.”
He views Clinton as being more dangerous than Trump, so there would be incentive on Assange’s part to embarrass Clinton and her hurt chances.
In Part 2
I will explain a few reasons why there may be not Russian connection (regarding the emails), along with the implications of proving Russia did in fact play a part in the hacks.