Belmont Club

O Ye of Little Faith

O Ye of Little Faith
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

One of the most interesting aspects the Russian election hacking story comes from Time Magazine’s account of how Russian hackers accidentally made California GOP and Democratic operatives suspect each other of fraud .  “Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin was at his desk on June 7, 2016, when the calls started coming in. It was the day of the California presidential primary, and upset voters wanted the county’s top prosecutor to know that they had been prevented from casting their ballots.”  Hestrin later suspected it was the Russians

The California secretary of state’s office told Hestrin’s investigators that the state’s system hadn’t recorded the Internet addresses of the computers that had made the changes, so there was no way to learn the identity of the hackers. Hestrin could go no further, but that wasn’t the end of it. The lingering mystery of the voter-registration changes bred doubt among members of both parties. Local Republicans publicly alleged that Democrats were ignoring the issue and privately accused them of trying to suppress the GOP vote. Democrats thought Republicans were making up an excuse for their losses at the county polls. “That was a big concern,” says Hestrin, an elected Republican. “People should still have faith in our election systems.”

In the event Russia failed to alter the vote count in significant ways but they nevertheless succeeded at achieving what Hestrin feared: convincing significant numbers of Americans to lose confidence in the elections.  Anyone who hasn’t been living on Mars for the last year can’t have missed the stories about how the Russians rigged the 2016 vote. Ironically the most damaging penetrations were to unofficial systems such as the “email accounts associated with the Democratic National Committee and the party’s candidate for president, Hillary Clinton”.  Even when they involved official systems the Kremlin exploits were suspected of traveling along pathways created for more traditional “fixes” — as the voters in Riverside believed.

No one thinks fraud out of the ordinary when committed by the usual suspects.   What was unthinkable to both Republicans and Democrats was that Russians would join the fun.  The significance of Hillary’s email server as an archetype has been obscured by the focus on Clinton herself, which blinded most pundits to the fact it was similar to many systems even less secure than hers through which the smoke filled business of American politics flowed. In retrospect it was obvious that the Russians might try to slip in through the back gate left unlatched for the boys both because that’s where the action was and the locks were weakest.

Putin probably counted on American politicians being powerless to stop him without jeopardizing the secret panel and trap door house of electoral mysteries that was their own portal to power.  Even after being alerted to the danger Obama tried to keep the Kremlin’s activity as quiet as he could. “In the months leading up to the election, Obama’s administration would routinely discuss the hacking situation but tried to keep the intelligence as quiet as possible — even Vice President Joe Biden was not informed until much later.” He fretted, even “pondered deploying armed federal agents to polling places last November to counter any potential cyberattacks targeting the U.S. election system … [said] the 15-page plan … drafted by the White House last October and obtained by Time magazine.”

But in the end he did nothing, held back by the assumption Hillary would win. “‘It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,’ said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia,” in a Washington Post article. “‘I feel like we sort of choked.’ … The assumption that Clinton would win contributed to the lack of urgency.” After all there was no sense discrediting an election Hillary Clinton had in the bag thereby undermining her presidency.  Thus was Obama caught in a Monkey Trap.  Like the animal of the story, the former president only escape by letting the Hillary go.  Instead he clung to Hillary until the election ended only to open his fist and find — Trump.

From a security point of view, there can be no way to prevent a repeat of the 2016 attack while keeping a system with trap doors and secret panels open. The sincerest indicator of genuine outrage over Russian hacking ought to be a total commitment to electoral integrity.  But that agonizing choice, which paralyzed Obama, is no easier for political parties today.  If there is one thing Democrats hate more than the phrase “Donald Trump” it is “accurate voter rolls”. As Leon Neyfakh of Slate explains, to Democrats the phrase means ‘just another fix’:

On June 28, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice sent letters to state election officials asking them to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining accurate voter rolls. The DOJ noted that, according to federal law, states are responsible for regularly pruning their lists of registered voters to remove people who’ve died, moved away, or become ineligible to vote for other reasons.

Taken in isolation, the DOJ’s request might seem innocuous—who doesn’t want clean, well-maintained voter rolls? Against the backdrop of the president’s obsession with voter fraud, however, these letters look like something more ominous: a first step toward bringing back a George W. Bush–era strategy of forcing states to aggressively purge their voter rolls under threat of litigation. According to voting rights advocates, such purges frequently result in large numbers of eligible voters being removed from the rolls by mistake.

Maybe deep down inside we don’t want to fix the system, because that’s how sausage gets made.  Everyone wants clean elections, but not yet.  Ultimately systems like Hillary’s server were not defended by so much by technical barriers but what amounted to a gentleman’s agreement, or rather an assumption that polite politicians don’t read each other’s mail.  But Putin is no gentleman.  “He wouldn’t dare”, and he did.  Still the politicians could have stopped Russia in 2016 just as they can stop Russia in 2018 but won’t necessarily —  because the primary obstacle isn’t Putin but the imperatives of party.  Faith in the System must be maintained or the machine stops.  That requirement made it necessary to minimize Putin then.  It seemed like a small price for ambitious men to pay at the time.  Maybe it still is.

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