The Russia bogey

Print edition : February 17, 2017

National Intelligence Director James Clapper (centre), FBI Director James Comey (left) and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 10. Photo: JOE RAEDLE/AFP

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Photo: REUTERS

The intelligence report on the role of Russia in the U.S. election that was ordered by President Obama. Photo: OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE/NYT

Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Pittsburgh on the eve of the election on November 7, 2016. Photo: DOUG MILLS/NYT

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP

A U.S. intelligence report accuses Russia of interfering in its election process but provides no evidence to back up the claims.

Most of the American political establishment and the mainstream media seem to be convinced that a hidden Russian hand was responsible for the electoral victory of President Donald Trump. Accusations of Russian hacking of emails of key Democratic operatives, coupled with the spilling of unsavoury party secrets into the public domain, are cited as major factors for the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

“Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s long-standing desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal-democratic order,” declared James Clapper, director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama. He was releasing a declassified report in the first week of January which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign “to undermine faith in the American democratic process”.

It blamed Putin for ordering “an elaborate campaign” aimed at influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections. “Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focussed on U.S. presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived to be hostile to the Kremlin,” the report stated. It was also alleged that Russian military intelligence passed on material to WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has denied this. Assange had said during the election campaign that he sided with neither Hillary Clinton nor Trump and had added that the choice was between “cholera and gonorrhoea”.

The Russian broadcaster Russia Today (RT) and the website Sputnik were also named in the report. Their “crime” was to “consistently cast President-elect Trump as a target of unfair coverage from the traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment”. On the basis of the report, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. Putin said his government had “all the grounds for a comparable response but would not stoop to the level of irresponsible diplomacy”. Alexey Pushkov, a Russian parliamentarian and member of that country’s defence and security committee, compared the American accusations to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) assertions of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. “Mountains gave birth to a mouse: all accusations against Russia are based on ‘confidence’ and assumptions. U.S. was sure of Hussein possessing WMD in the same way,” Pushkov tweeted.

America’s security establishment conceded that it had no clinching or concrete evidence to back up its claims of Russian interference in the U.S. election process. Days before Trump was sworn in as President, lurid stories surfaced on how Russian intelligence had collected an incriminating dossier against Trump. The new President of the U.S. had earlier characterised the investigation methods of his intelligence agencies as similar to the tactics adopted by the Nazis. Trump later changed tack and said that Russian agencies may have been involved in the hacking of the Democratic Party headquarters but vehemently denied allegations that he or his associates acted in league with the Russian intelligence agencies.

Putin, replying to a question during a media interaction in the second week of January, said the latest allegations of Russia meddling in America’s elections “had no moral scruples”. He said that he had no reasons to either protect or attack Trump. “I have never met Trump and don’t know what he will do on the international arena. So I have no grounds to attack him or criticise him for anything or protect him or whatever,” Putin said. He also said the campaign to implicate Russia was part of the game plan of certain forces in the U.S. “to undermine the legitimacy of the President-elect”. Those making allegations about the Russian intelligence agencies having material to blackmail Trump “were worse than prostitutes”, Putin said.

A dossier prepared on behalf of another presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush, by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, had alleged that Trump had cavorted with prostitutes during a business visit to Moscow many years ago and that the Russian intelligence agencies had tapes of the alleged encounter. Senator John McCain demanded that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) look into the allegations urgently. The allegations were leaked to the media and were headline news in the days preceding the Trump inauguration. Sections of the American media did not think twice before publishing the scurrilous story. “When Trump visited Moscow several years ago he wasn’t a political figure. We didn’t even know about his political ambitions. He was just a businessman, one of America’s richest people. So, does someone think that our intelligence services go after each American billionaire?” Putin asked.

The Russian President would no doubt have been surprised by the electoral upset witnessed in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. With the American political and security establishment solidly behind Hillary Clinton and the Democratic candidate consistently showing a healthy lead in the opinion polls, no world leader would have bet on a Trump victory. Besides, the Kremlin has reasons to be wary of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” talk and American “exceptionalism”. Trump has also been openly dismissive of the United Nations and multilateralism.

In the aftermath of the Trump victory, the American intelligence community tried to spread another canard about Russian hacking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI in a statement released on December 29 accused Russian hackers of trying to penetrate and compromise the country’s critical power utilities. The report claimed that the same hackers who were accused of playing a role in the presidential elections were involved. The Washington Post promptly ran a story saying that the “penetration of the nation’s grid is significant because it represents a potential serious vulnerability”. But when the Burlington Electric Company that was supposedly the victim of the hack issued a strong denial, the newspaper was forced to retract and acknowledge that no evidence of Russian hacking existed.

Many commentators pointed out that it is the U.S. that started cyberwarfare in a big way and patented the art of influencing election outcomes in other countries. Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed that America’s hacking of rivals as well as competitors has been going on for many years. It was the U.S. and its all-weather ally Israel that developed the malevolent Stuxnet virus, which caused extensive damage to Iran’s nuclear, industrial and petroleum sectors. The mobile phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the U.N. Secretary-General were hacked by the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA’s hacking of Chinese targets has been going on for many years.

American interference in the electoral process in countries all over the world is too numerous to enumerate. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. has either fomented military coups or lent a helping hand in the rigging of elections in Latin America and the Caribbean. America’s role in overthrowing popularly elected governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries is well chronicled. In the 1970s, the U.S.-supported coup against Salvadore Allende was a defining movement in the continent’s history. The CIA-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran in 1953 was also a momentous event for the people of West Asia. In South-East Asia, American involvement in local politics led to devastating consequences. In Indonesia, more than a million people were massacred after the CIA-supported military coup in 1965.

After the Second World War, it was American interference that stopped Communist parties from winning power through the ballot box in European countries such as Italy, France and Greece. It was the Bill Clinton administration that helped rig the 1996 presidential election in Russia in favour of Boris Yeltsin. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, was leading in the election until the eleventh hour. With the help of top American pollsters like Richard Dresner and the backing of the American intelligence community, a deeply unpopular Yeltsin was re-elected despite his popularity rating being 7 per cent a few months before the election. (Dresner, along with Bill Morris, had played a big role in Bill Clinton’s political career.) Skulduggery and vote-rigging were rampant in that election. On the eve of the election, the Clinton administration got the International Monetary Fund to provide an emergency $10 billion loan to Russia so that Yeltsin could pay back wage arrears to government workers, pensioners and welfare recipients. It is another matter that Yeltsin himself paved the way for the rise of Putin, the current bete noire of the West.

The U.S. has been trying for a regime change in Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1997. The Obama administration supported the ouster of democratically elected Presidents in Honduras and Paraguay. And it is not to be forgotten that the current political crisis between the U.S. and Russia has its genesis in the regime change that took place in Ukraine in 2014 and Washington’s game plan to do the same in Syria. A democratically elected government in Kiev was overthrown with the tacit support for the “Euro-Maidan” demonstrators by the Obama administration. In 2011-12, Russian officials and politicians blamed the Obama administration for bankrolling and supporting the opposition in the election held at the time. Both the U.S. and Russia are signatories to the Helsinki Final Act, which forbids both countries from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

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