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Tomgram: William deBuys, How to Hijack an Election

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In case you hadn't noticed, someone recently loosed a satirist in American politics. Let me give you an example. You remember FBI Director James Comey, who gained a certain notoriety by stepping into the limelight 11 days before the recent presidential election via a very publicly dispatched letter to the Congressional leadership. It focused on an FBI investigation into emails from Hillary Clinton believed to be on a computer that disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner shared with his wife and Clinton aide Huma Abedin. As Comey admitted three days before the election, when it came to that investigation, there was no there there. This seeming non-event about an investigation of no significance would, in fact, prove historic. It represented the first intervention by the national security state, that ever more powerful fourth branch of our government, in an American election campaign and might well have played a role in putting Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (Just last week, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General announced that it would look into the FBI's investigation of Clinton's email and, in particular, whether Comey's late-in-the-day intervention "violated policy or procedure when he sent Congress notification about new evidence his department had discovered.")

You may by now be wondering where the promised satire is, but be patient. Comey made his first public appearance since his pre-election dramatics at a recent Senate hearing and was asked whether the FBI might be investigating possible ties between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. In response, he offered this: "I would never comment on investigations -- whether we have one or not -- in an open forum like this, so I can't answer one way or another."

Of course he wouldn't! As Senator Angus King of Maine responded (in an understated but tickle-your-ribs fashion that would have been quite suitable for Saturday Night Live), "The irony of your making that statement, I cannot avoid."

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Indeed, who could? In the Trump era, we now clearly live in a world created expressly for SNL. But instead of belaboring the point, let me turn you over to TomDispatch regular William deBuys so he can outline the series of absurdist events that gave us our new huckster-in-chief, our very own billionaire in the Oval Office in what can only be termed the most improbable election of the 1% era of American politics or perhaps any era at all. Tom

New From Trump University
Election Rigging 101
By William deBuys

Donald Trump was right. The election was rigged. What Trump got wrong (and, boy, does he get things wrong) is that the rigging worked in his favor. The manipulations took three monumental forms: Russian cyber-sabotage; FBI meddling; and systematic Republican efforts, especially in swing states, to prevent minority citizens from casting votes. The cumulative effect was more than sufficient to shift the outcome in Trump's favor and put the least qualified major-party candidate in the history of the republic into the White House.

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Trumpist internet trolls and Trump himself dismiss such concerns as sour grapes, but for anyone who takes seriously the importance of operating a democracy these assaults on the nation's core political process constitute threats to the country's very being. Let's look at each of these areas of electoral interference in detail.

Gone Phishing: The Drone of Info Warfare

Suppose one morning you receive an email from your Internet service provider telling you a security breach has put your data at risk. You are instructed to reset your password immediately. In keeping with the urgency of the situation, the email that delivers the warning provides a link to the page where your new password can be entered. Anxiously you do as instructed, hoping you've acted soon enough to prevent a disaster.

Congratulations: you have successfully reset your password. Unfortunately, you have also provided it to the hackers who sent the original, entirely bogus warning about a breach of security. This kind of ploy is called phishing. It's exactly how the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, was penetrated. His assistants fell for the ruse.

Alternatively, a phisher might send dozens of intriguing offers to employees of a certain organization over the course of weeks. Each message provides a link for more information, and as soon as someone in a moment of boredom or confusion clicks on it, presto change-o, the hacker is inside that person's computer, free to worm through the network to which it's connected. This is how hackers got into the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and downloaded not just emails but strategic planning documents and other confidential information.

At this point no one aside from Trump die-hards and maybe Trump himself -- he has said so many contradictory things on the subject, it's difficult to tell what he actually believes -- denies that the hackers were Russian and acted under some kind of official instruction, even possibly from the highest levels of Kremlin authority, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, it's clear that the harvest of stolen material was used to help Trump and hurt Clinton. This is the unambiguous conclusion of a National Intelligence Community report released on January 6th and representing the shared conclusions of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, which stated: "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments."

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None of the meddling was as blatantly subversive as taking electronic control of voting machines and altering vote counts. Nor did the Russian hackers disable vote-tallying computers, as they did in Ukraine in 2014, but they achieved the next best thing. In our information-drenched world, the drumbeat of background noise can be as powerful as what one hears in the foreground. The Russians and their allies, in part through WikiLeaks, parceled out the juiciest tidbits from the stolen material over the course of the summer and fall, and the news media ate it up.

The Democratic dirty laundry they aired showed that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. In the ensuing flap, Wasserman Schultz resigned and the public was left with the message that the DNC was both untrustworthy and in disarray -- and indeed, following the chair's departure, the disarray couldn't have been more real. When other emails were released in which Podesta and various colleagues second-guessed Mrs. Clinton's decisions, the message that lingered in the public mind was that even her closest associates had doubts about her, never mind that candid, water-cooler criticism is normal in any undertaking.

The Russians did more than merely steal computer information. They also planted false news stories, both with state sanction (according to the national intelligence report), and without it. One of the upshots of the faux-news business is that, amid intense click-bait competition for advertisers, only sites and articles pandering to the far right make money. Disseminating made-up stories favorable to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders returned nothing to the bottom line of the freelance hackers operating in what has become one of the Russian-speaking world's newest cottage industries. Evidently a suspension of critical thinking -- or its complete absence -- is easier to exploit among those disposed to hate liberals and love Trump.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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