This is a reporter's mind on drugs, specifically the drug of boundless anti-Russian paranoia. But no matter how often the Times assures its readers that the Russians are out to get us, that they're messing with our democracy, that they sow "disorder and dissension" wherever they can because that's what Russians do -- actual evidence, the stuff that sober minds require before making a judgment, remains remarkably thin.
Take Russian manipulation of social media, the subject of last November's bizarre Moscow-style "show trial" in which attorneys for Facebook, Twitter, and Google were hauled before a congressional panel to confess their sins in allowing the Kremlin to use their platforms to subvert the state. But the subversive Facebook ads that the alleged Kremlin-linked St. Petersburg "troll factory" known as the Internet Research Agency purchased added up to just $46,000 worth by Election Day, a drop in the bucket compared to the $81 million spent by the Trump and Clinton campaigns.
Politically, moreover, the ads were all over the map, some leaning right, some leaning left, and in one case, a page featuring photos of cute puppies, leaning in no apparent direction at all. Last September, The Atlantic tried to figure out what the Internet Research Agency was up to. But after some 1,200 words of huffing and puffing, the best the magazine could come up with was that the ad campaign "was too small to seriously influence the election, but too big to be an afterthought."
In other words, no one knows. In a rare moment of journalistic sanity, Washington Post reporter Philip Bump observed that the ad buys were "often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts."
As for Twitter, Bump notes that the 2,700-plus accounts believed to be Russian-linked generated just 202,000 tweets between January 2011 and August 2017, a no-less-negligible sum next to the one billion election-related tweets sent out during the 14 months prior to Election Day.
Even if all this shows the secret hand of the Kremlin at work, the effort pales in comparison to that of Israel (AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is among the most powerful lobbies in Washington); the Arab gulf states (which finance virtually every major think tank in DC); Ukraine (which has proved surprisingly effective in swinging official opinion), and so forth.
It barely merits a four-graph story on page A16. Then there is the alleged Kremlin hack of the Democratic National Committee, the ur-crime that triggered the anti-Russian storm in the first place.
The January 2017 formal assessment by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper contained nothing by way of evidence that a break-in had occurred or that Russian intelligence was responsible. (WikiLeaks, the recipient of the purloined emails, continues to insist that it was an inside leak.) Even the Times conceded that the report was "unlikely to convince skeptics."
Since the FBI never inspected the DNC's computers first-hand, the only evidence comes from an Irvine, California, cyber-security firm known as CrowdStrike whose chief technical officer, Dmitri Alperovitch, a well-known Putin-phobe, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank that is also vehemently anti-Russian as well as a close Hillary Clinton ally.
Thus, Putin-basher Clinton hired Putin-basher Alperovitch to investigate an alleged electronic heist, and to absolutely no one's surprise, his company concluded that guilty party was " Vladimir Putin. Amazing! Since then, a small army of internet critics has chipped away at CrowdStrike for praising the hackers as among the best in the business yet declaring in the same breath that they gave themselves away by uploading a document in the name of "Felix Edmundovich," i.e. Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police.
As noted cyber-security expert Jeffrey Carr observed with regard to Russia's two main intelligence agencies: "Raise your hand if you think that a GRU or FSB officer would add Iron Felix's name to the metadata of a stolen document before he released it to the world while pretending to be a Romanian hacker. Someone clearly had a wicked sense of humor."
None of this proves that Russian intelligence didn't hack the DNC, merely that a lot more evidence is needed before accepting the word of professional CIA disinformation experts. But the Times lives in an evidence-free world in which Russians are guilty regardless of what they do. Whether they're pro-Trump or anti, out to discredit the Mueller investigation or bolster it, the only thing that matters is that they're intent on sowing discord -- and that U.S. intelligence agencies are blameless upholders of the rule of law.
The reduction ad absurdum occurred a few days later when CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and other heavyweights testified before Congress that Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections is already underway.
"Throughout the entire [intelligence] community," declared Coats, "we have not seen any evidence of any significant change from last year" -- which, loosely translated, means that evidence that Russia is on the warpath is as sparse today as it was previously. Since "President Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role," a Times editorial concluded, the possibility that "he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections ... can no longer be dismissed out of hand."
All that was needed was for Editorial Page Editor James Bennet to hold up a list of 205 known Communists toiling away in the State Department. Trump is a reactionary, a con man, a bully, and much else besides. But with remarkable accuracy, liberals are obsessively zeroing in on the one thing he's not: a Russian agent.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).