On Thursday, December 29, the Obama administration announced its decision to expel thirty-five Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and impose sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services, the Federal Security Services (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
According to various U.S. media outlets, the measures are retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. The U.S. government has accused Russia of hacking the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. The U.S. government claims two hacking groups known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, which the Americans respectively refer to as APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) 28 and 29, are responsible for the cyber attacks and providing the stolen information to Wikileaks, with the aim of discrediting Clinton and aiding Donald J. Trump in his presidential bid.
In these “unprecedented steps to punish Russia,” the Kremlin sees a “manifestation of the unpredictable and aggressive foreign policy [of] the Obama administration,” as reported by RT. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the sanctions as “unjustified and illegal under international law.”
As the U.S. government confronts one of its most powerful rivals, U.S. tech reporters and cyber security experts have argued that the evidence of Russian hacking released so far falls short of incontrovertible proof. On December 29, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a “blockbuster” report “detailing the ways Russia had acted to influence the American election through cyberespionage.” The report included fourteen pages detailing how the hacking had been carried out, as well as recommendations on strengthening cyber security measures. The report did not, however, contain any specific evidence establishing a solid connection between the hacking groups and the Russian government.
In his recent piece for The Intercept titled “Here is the public evidence Russia hacked the DNC – it’s not enough,” reporter Sam Biddle argued that most of the evidence provided to the American people can be easily disproved. Pointing to part of this evidence, the registering of domains that closely resemble those of legitimate organizations, Biddle observed that it “isn’t a Russian technique any more than using a computer is a Russian technique — misspelled domains are a cornerstone of phishing attacks all over the world.” Biddle also argued that the fact that some of the phishing emails were sent from Yandex, an email provider based in Russia, does not mean the Russian government was behind the attack. “Anyone who claimed a hacker must be a CIA agent because they used a Gmail account would be laughed off the internet,” Biddle wrote. Finally, some of the private cyber security firms that have been investigating the attack, such as SecureWorks and CrowdStrike (the latter was contracted by the DNC in June 2016) have a solid financial interest “in making the internet seem as scary as possible,” Biddle wrote.
The U.S. government has said it would issue a more detailed report on Russia’s role in the hacking scandal in the next three weeks, “though much of the detail — especially evidence collected from ‘implants’ in Russian computer systems, tapped conversations and spies — is expected to remain classified,” The New York Times reported.
Despite all this, leading American media outlets continue to report on the government’s allegations, as if they were hard and true facts.
Numerous articles published daily by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets have relied on “secret CIA assessments” and anonymous senior officials, who “allege” with “high confidence” or “moderate confidence” that Russia was behind the attacks.
This is not enough. Rather than keeping this evidence classified, the U.S. government must disclose this information to the public. The American people have the right to see concrete proof that a foreign power has interfered in their election. The U.S. media must push the government to release this critical information, instead of blindly and unquestioningly publishing its version of events. Journalists cannot do their job without verified information – by publishing speculative allegations as fact, they risk undermining their own credibility and the trustworthiness of their profession.
Last but not least, releasing evidence will make it harder for the Kremlin to accuse the United States of creating “fake news and propaganda” – a spin on the events, which the Kremlin is using to strengthen anti-American rhetoric at home and abroad.