Obama to Trump on Election Integrity: Do As I Say Not As I Say?

President Obama had some harsh words for Donald Trump after Trump suggested the election might be rigged.

Which was awkward because, well, President Obama’s government has suggested the exact same thing.

In particular, here’s what President Obama said at a campaign rally last Thursday (emphasis added):

When you suggest rigging or fraud without a shred of evidence, when last night at the debate, Trump becomes the first major party nominee in American history to suggest that he will not concede despite losing the vote, and then says today that he will accept the results if he wins? That is not a joking matter,

He’s right. That does sound pretty bad.

The trouble is that suggesting “rigging or fraud without a shred of evidence” is precisely what the US government has done with respect to Russia and its alleged hacking of high-ranking Democratic email accounts. This quote is from the US government’s formal accusation of the Russian government, which Hillary Clinton cited in Wednesday’s debate (emphasis added):

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.

Okay, so the US government, under President Obama’s leadership, has also alleged interference in the election process and pinned the blame on Russia. The same document also reports apparent efforts of trying to probe or hack election systems directly, but falls just short of blaming those on the Russian government.

In other words, the US government has also raised the possibility of fraud in the election process, just like Donald Trump. Odd. Perhaps it’s okay when the US government does it because they actually have evidence?

Sadly no. The quote above offers some insight into how the US government reached the conclusion that the Russians were behind it. Note that it says the hacks are consistent with the “motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” There is a good bit of question begging going on here.

It works like this:

  • Assumption: The Russians would prefer that Donald Trump becomes president over Hillary Clinton.
  • Fact: The email hacks and leaks would tend to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and thereby benefit Donald Trump.
  • Conclusion: The hacks are consistent with the “motivations of Russian-directed efforts” and thus, the Russians are behind it.

See how easy that is? It’s great fun. Though, arguably, it’s not the kind of evidence one wants to rely on when ratcheting up tensions between two nuclear-armed powers. I’m no expert though–just a guy that lives too close to a major city to be immune to a nuclear war.

So the “motivations” argument is nonsense, but maybe the “methods” analysis yielded some legitimate evidence against Russia?

Unfortunately, again the answer is no. The nature of cyber-warfare makes it nearly impossible to definitively prove culpability. If the attackers have any degree of sophistication–as any Russian government entity surely would–they can readily disguise the attack and/or plant false clues. Moreover, since no government is going to admit its responsibility, the accusations are never really proved or disproved.

The end result is an interesting paradox–and it makes it very unlikely that the US government has any legitimate evidence that Russia is behind the hacks. The logic is as follows:

Scenario 1: If the attackers were not sophisticated, then they might have accidentally left behind enough evidence to be identified definitively. But this would also make it unlikely that the guilty party was the Russian government, or any other state actor.

Scenario 2: If the attackers were sophisticated, then it will be all but impossible to establish a definitive culprit.

The upshot is that the US government doesn’t have real evidence that the Russians are trying to hack the US election. So we are left to assume they are promoting this conspiracy theory for political purposes. Just like Donald Trump.

And President Obama is right: It’s no joking matter.

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