The would-be incoming presidential administration insists that they should not be held responsible for their security failures in the wake of Russian hacks––a standard radically removed from the one applied to other powerful organizations, in previous hacks of very similar nature.
In fact, the DNC and the Clinton campaign have been portrayed in the media as bearing far less responsibility than either Target or Home Depot did when both were hacked by Russian groups.
Daily exhortations by TV pundits, the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and the Hillary Clinton campaign instruct viewers that these latest hacks targeting campaign chairman John Podesta, and before that the DNC, should be considered acts of Russian aggression meriting an official, even military response. Indeed, media has already trumpeted a “covert” (because Russians don’t have TV of course) CIA-led cyberattack in retaliation for these Democratic Party breaches.
The question arises: were these latest Russian attacks on American organizations unique? Were they of such a dangerous new nature as to warrant a public escalation of confrontational rhetoric, to the point of increasing the likelihood of war between nuclear powers?
Far from it. Russian groups were behind the 2013 Target and 2014 Home Depot hacks, both of which involved sophisticated attacks breaching their security and compromising record-setting amounts of sensitive data. For being the victims of these hacks, the companies themselves took the brunt of blame in the media. Bloomberg was unsparing in its treatment of Target: they “blew it,” read the headline:
By virtue of doing business, these companies are, by default, expected to safeguard the financial information of their customers. It is incumbent upon them to secure their databases from hacking attempts, and take their lumps from customers and media when they fail to do so — then improve their security to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Imagine for a moment, in the context of the 2016 election season, that Bloomberg ran an article doling out culpability in an equivalent fashion:
Missed Alarms and Thousands of Stolen Donor Credit Cards: How the DNC Blew It.
This headline is virtually inconceivable in the current political landscape.
When Home Depot was hacked by Russians in 2014–– compromising some 40 million customers’ credit card data and home addresses–– lawmakers demanded that the company explain what failings “permitted unauthorized access” to the sensitive information:
Federal lawmakers have begun probing how Home Depot was breached. Senators…sent the company a letter today requesting a briefing.
“We ask that Home Depot’s information-security officials provide a briefing to committee staff regarding your company’s investigation and latest findings on the circumstances that may have permitted unauthorized access to sensitive customer information,” the senators wrote in the letter to Francis Blake, Home Depot’s chairman and chief executive officer.
Notably absent is any mention of either Russian hackers or Vladimir Putin.
In past cases where crime syndicates tied to the Russian government successfully breached a US company’s database, as in the case of a 2014 JP Morgan hack, the media still placed the onus on the hacked institution to explain its failure to secure its databases. Why? Because “companies of our size unfortunately experience cyber attacks nearly every day,” said JPMorgan spokeswoman, quoted in Bloomberg. Cyberthreats are taken as a fact of life in the modern digital world, and accountability lies with the powerful institutions to protect themselves from the inevitable attempts at intrusion. It is expected that large, high-profile organizations with valuable databases will be targets for hackers.
In the case of the 2015 Anthem hack, the health insurer “was the target of a very sophisticated external cyberattack” that compromised “names, birthdays, Social Security numbers, addresses and employment data” of as many as 80 million customers: an identity theft goldmine. Media commentary again held Anthem and its industry accountable: “The breach is a wake-up call to the health industry, experts say,” wrote USA Today.
The 2015 Office of Personnel Management hack was, as Washington Post describes, “one of the most devastating breaches of U.S. government data in history,” carried out by Chinese hackers. In response to this hack, which was indeed unprecedented, the US government soberly announced it would withdraw personnel from China for their own protection. We did not see the White House or the intelligence community publicly weave a plot of aggression on the part of the Chinese state, or build a confrontational and Sinophobic fervor among the American people, as the Clinton camp and media are doing now with Russia. It goes without saying that Xi Jinping has dismal name recognition among Americans, in comparison to bogeyman Vladimir Putin.
In none of these instances did the news media parade out FBI or other intelligence agency findings for the purpose of stoking fear or distrust of the hackers’ home country, nor did they trot out official declarations to retaliate against the originating nation. Rather, the media convention in the previous Russian hacks was to hold the companies who were hacked accountable for their own failure to safeguard the sensitive information they held.
Yet here we are in the 2016 election where the most powerful political machine in modern US history, the likely soon-to-be Clinton Administration, is being held to a lower standard of accountability for its security practices than Target and Home Depot stores. The Clinton team will be expected to manage the safeguarding of information pertaining to the national security interests of the United States. But in a striking departure from all prior reporting conventions on major Russian and Chinese hacks alike, the DNC and Clinton Campaign are portrayed as victims who bear no public accountability for their security failings.
Top Clinton policy aide Neera Tanden, currently the President and CEO of think tank Center for American Progress (and likely future White House Chief-of-Staff) recently took to Twitter to justify the confrontational anti-Russian posturing in terms that would equally apply to both the Target and Home Depot hacks: “@TyHealey no one wants war with Russia, but if they sent military over here to steal property, would you see US as aggressor or them?”
In no uncertain terms, Russian hackers stole massive volumes of valuable data from both companies, and in fact posted the compromised credit card data for sale online on the dark web, the internet’s criminal underbelly. If Tanden believes the Democratic party hacks meet the standard set out in this tweet, so must the Target and Home Depot hacks.
But the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and their allies in the current administration as well as the media have turned just this particular Russian hack into an international confrontation with another nuclear power, where no previous Russian (or Chinese) hack of comparable (or greater!) criminality elicited such a response.
The DNC and Clinton campaign naturally wants to distract from the fact that they failed to safeguard their donors’ and their own sensitive information. After all, their team will assume control of the most powerful executive branch on earth and understandably, do not want the public to doubt their competence in handling information regarding national security — any more than they already do, given Clinton’s long-running email server scandal (key phrase: “extremely careless”).
The mainstream media is now in the extraordinary position of demanding less accountability from the Clinton team, as well the DNC, than it demanded of Target and Home Depot retail chains.
Of course, the Clinton campaign rejoinder is that WikiLeaks is working to alter the outcome of the November election––while simultaneously claiming that nothing “earth shattering” or “shocking” is being revealed. Publishing the inner workings and deliberations of the campaign, while perhaps embarrassing, can only truly threaten to alter the election outcome if something highly damaging is revealed, such as proof of a cover up of criminal intent in the email server saga, or something illegal about the intermingled operations of the State Department and the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State.
If the Clinton campaign’s alarms of election-altering intent on the part of WikiLeaks is credible, then the aggressive anti-Russian posturing must be taken as a signal that truly damaging evidence is yet to be released.
If nothing so consequential is in store, we are forced to consider the disturbing possibility that fomenting escalated conflict and maybe even direct war with Russia may itself be a foreign policy aim of an incoming Clinton administration. This is an extreme scenario, but a foreseeable one given the fact that a no-fly zone in Syria (which Clinton has repeatedly endorsed) entails war with Russia. This is in addition to the reported aims of the cyberattack, which are “harassing” and “embarrassing” Russian leadership, when Putin is already paranoid about Clinton’s penchant for regime change.
Elements of both is certainly a possible explanation; which is to say, escalated conflict with Russia may serve as a very cynical and destructive distraction from criminal revelations yet to be published through WikiLeaks. A two-birds-with-one-stone strategy, as it were.
In June, when news initially broke of the DNC and Clinton Foundation hacks, Democrats explained that the Red Scare narrative would in fact be their deflection strategy:
If the Democrats can show the hidden hand of Russian intelligence agencies, they believe that voter outrage will probably outweigh any embarrassing revelations, a person familiar with the party’s thinking said.
The Democrats have by now gone much further than showing a Russian hand in the hacks. The record shows that such public militating against Russia (or China for that matter) has no precedent as a response to a comparable hack, theft, and publication of private US information.
One must wonder whether these extraordinary and potentially dangerous escalations are designed either to distract from more than just “embarrassing revelations”––or to set the stage for a ramp-up in US anti-Russian aggression.
Keith Binkly is a financial analyst at a venture-backed Los Angeles start up, and graduated magna cum laude from the economics program at University of Southern California. After studying abroad at the London School of Economics during the Arab Spring, he become an obsessive observer of foreign policy and politics — follow Keith on twitter @screenslaver, contact by email at email@example.com