The Hard Truth Keeps Trickling Out, Little by Little
It increasingly looks like Russian hackers may have affected actual vote totals.
By Charles P. Pierce Jun 13, 2017
The last outpost of moderate opinion on the subject of the Russian ratfcking during the 2016 presidential election seems to be that, yes, there was mischief done and steps should be taken both to reveal its extent and to prevent it from happening again in the future, but that the ratfcking, thank baby Jesus, did not materially affect the vote totals anywhere in the country. This is a calm, measured, evidence-based judgment. It is also a kind of prayer. If the Russian cyber-assault managed to change the vote totals anywhere, then the 2016 presidential election is wholly illegitimate. That rocks too many comfort zones in too many places.
(Bear in mind, for the moment, that we are discussing Russian ratfcking, and not the myriad problems with how we ourselves manage our elections. That’s for another time, except in the context of how those inherent problems facilitated the Russian chicanery.)
It may well be that the Russians didn’t affect the actual numbers last November but, as Bloomberg points out, that was not for lack of trying.
In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said. The scope and sophistication so concerned Obama administration officials that they took an unprecedented step — complaining directly to Moscow over a modern-day “red phone.” In October, two of the people said, the White House contacted the Kremlin on the back channel to offer detailed documents of what it said was Russia’s role in election meddling and to warn that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict.
One of the mysteries about the 2016 presidential election is why Russian intelligence, after gaining access to state and local systems, didn’t try to disrupt the vote. One possibility is that the American warning was effective. Another former senior U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the classified U.S. probe into pre-election hacking, said a more likely explanation is that several months of hacking failed to give the attackers the access they needed to master America’s disparate voting systems spread across more than 7,000 local jurisdictions.
This may be so, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to believe that, in one of those 7,000 local jurisdictions, the Russians didn’t strike gold. American democracy went out on the roof last fall.
Apparently, the Obama administration first caught wind of the attack when the Illinois system was seriously compromised.
Illinois became Patient Zero in the government’s probe, eventually leading investigators to a hacking pandemic that touched four out of every five U.S. states. Using evidence from the Illinois computer banks, federal agents were able to develop digital “signatures” — among them, Internet Protocol addresses used by the attackers — to spot the hackers at work. The signatures were then sent through Homeland Security alerts and other means to every state. Thirty-seven states reported finding traces of the hackers in various systems, according to one of the people familiar with the probe. In two others — Florida and California — those traces were found in systems run by a private contractor managing critical election systems.
The Obama people went to condition red; the Department of Homeland Security tried to declare state election systems to be part of our critical national infrastructure, which they clearly are. The Republicans in Congress shot that down. Curiouser and curiouser, some states declined to cooperate fully with DHS. As the invaluable Marcy Wheeler pointed out on the electric Twitter machine Tuesday morning, one of the recalcitrant states was Georgia, where you can’t audit the voting machines, and where they are having a crucial—and extremely expensive—special congressional election next Tuesday.
Depressingly, the Obama administration decided to keep a lid on most of what it knew so as not to undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity of the election, even though those same people in the Obama administration knew that the integrity of the election was completely up for grabs. There are a lot of dangers to self-government, and one of those dangers that’s done a lot of damage in my lifetime has been the feeling that the American people are such fragile ornaments that we don’t dare risk telling them the truth of something lest they fall to the floor and shatter to pieces. This is just the latest example of this infantilizing attitude toward our general democratic obligation to be wise to what out government is doing.
We are creeping ever closer to actual evidence that there was Russian ratfcking of the vote totals in the last election. Not long ago, people wouldn’t even suggest that out loud. We were made vulnerable to something like this because of the interference by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, by the curious goings-on in Ohio in 2004, by a relentless campaign to convince the country of an imaginary epidemic of voter fraud, and by a decade of voter suppression by any means necessary. The Russians wanted to undermine the confidence Americans had in their elections? We made it pretty damn easy to do that.