Election interference and Neolithic baskets

A look at the ODNI election report and what it means; some cool finds in the desert

Welcome back to the Hat Tip. Did you miss me?

This week—

  • Considering: The ODNI Foreign Election Report

  • Curious: Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient baskets


Considering: The ODNI Foreign Election Report

They thought it was Trump’s secret weapon

Back in 2018, under political pressure, Trump signed Executive Order 13848 on “Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election”. The EO created a process for assessing if there was foreign interference in a US election. It’d trigger a sanctions process against certain forms of interference, particularly those involving “election infrastructure”, but just report on other forms of interference like trying to influence voters.

This report, which by law had to be produced within 45 days of the 2020 election, was the source of much excitement and speculation by the MAGA/QAnon nexus after Trump lost the election. The report would show that China or Venezuela, Canada or possibly Italy (really!) stole the election and then Congress would of course immediately throw out the Electoral College votes and just make Trump president.

At one point in the few days after the election, this theory centred on Chris Krebs, who was Trump’s secret weapon who had secretly implemented a “QFS blockchain” that would expose the fake votes.

But then Trump fired Krebs for saying that the election was secure. So the theory just carried on without him. The election report was going to be the big one. Some said it would be presented to Congress on January 6 at the Joint Session.

In reality, the report was delayed, with rumours that Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, was trying to beef up claims that China meddled in the election while intel analysts resisted.

The final unclassified version of the report was released this Tuesday.

Putin directed, Team Trump played along

The strongest finding of the report was that Vladimir Putin “were aware of and probably directed” efforts to both help Trump and damage Biden.

The report says that the primary Russian effort in the election was to portray Joe Biden and his family as having corrupt ties to Ukraine. Of course, Donald Trump was trying exactly the same thing, and ultimately got himself impeached for trying to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Either Trump was Putin’s dupe or he was an accomplice.

One of the named figures in the report is Ukrainian politician Andriy Derkach. Derkach fed false information on Biden and his son, Hunter, to Rudi Giuliani. That information was used to undermine Trump’s impeachment and then later to smear the Bidens. Derkach had been sanctioned as a Russian spy back in September, but his influence lived on. Also highlighted in the report is Konstantin Kilimnik, Paul Manafort’s friend-slash-handler, another Russian spy who was indicted by the Mueller Inquiry.

According to the report, the Russian agents “made contact with established U.S. media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a U.S. television network in late January 2020”. This documentary is almost certainly Michael Caputo’s “The Ukraine Hoax: Impeachment, Biden Cash, and Mass Murder” which aired on OANN of course.

(Caputo would go on to join the Trump Administration’s Covid-19 communications response, where he worked to undermine the CDC’s scientists. He ultimately took medical leave after he started posting videos urging Trump supporters to buy ammo while attacking the CDC as anti-Trump seditionists.)

Also: yup, that Michael Caputo.

Basically everyone knew that the Ukraine attack on the Bidens was a Russian Intelligence job. But there’s still lots of unanswered questions. Like what really happened with Hunter Biden’s laptop(s)? The report doesn’t specifically mention that incident. Maybe one day we’ll get to the bottom of it.

China sat it out (probably)

The report didn’t give Trump supporters what they wanted; it said that China probably didn’t try to influence the election. The IC assessed that China decided it wasn’t worth the risk and that they could influence US policy via lobbying and economic pressure no matter who won.

That said, there was an intriguing minority dissent from the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber, who also coordinated the whole document. The NIO seemed mainly to challenge the definition of “election influence” rather than the facts, interpreting some of China’s campaigning as being an indirect attempt to influence the election result too.

Iran tried to hurt Trump

Iran has been trying to play the global cyber-influence game, and the US Presidential election is the big league. The IC report assessed that Iran wanted to hurt Trump but didn’t try and promote Biden, and that Ayatollah Khamenei was probably involved.

Probably Iran’s most high-profile intervention was the fake Proud Boys emails which were sent to some Americans threatening them unless they voted for Trump, an attempt to generate a backlash against Trump and his supporters. The US Government outed this attempt before the election, accusing Iran of the fake emails — at the same time, of course, as denying the Russian campaign was happening at all.

This particular influence op continued after the election, with Iran also setting up a website to help Trump supporters target election officials. This was also exposed by the FBI in December.

Lots of other players tried to get involved too

The report notes that Hezbollah and Cuba tried to influence the US election against Trump, and that Venezuela wanted to but couldn’t.

Nobody messed with the infrastructure

The report stresses over and over again that none of these countries compromised the election infrastructure for casting or counting the votes. This was a question raised in 2016, when Russia did try to target voting systems in all 50 states and managed to compromise voter rolls in several counties. This time, the Intelligence Community seems pretty confident that election infrastructure was secure.

Consequences

Joe Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Putin is a “killer” who would pay the price for meddling again in the election. That’s fighting talk.

As a result, Putin has recalled the Russian Ambassador to the US for consultations and tensions between the two countries are at a high since, well, before Trump was inaugurated. And given Russia’s aggressive impunity, maybe that’s where tensions should be. But right now I don’t see a simple or elegant way to de-escalate US-Russia tensions. Trump’s method, of just praising Putin and letting him do whatever he wanted, is unlikely to be Biden’s approach. I suspect we might see several more ratchets of tensions, sanctions and pressure before there’s any kind of resolution.


Curious: Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient baskets

I love archeology, and living in Israel archeology is everywhere. My house is on the line of the Roman aqueduct, and whenever I go for a walk I pick up the shards of Roman pottery that litter the ground like rubbish, much to my wife’s quiet dismay as our house accumulates more and more stuff someone threw out two millennia ago. Also it turns out that they sometimes used pot shards as toilet paper in those days. So yuk.

A few years ago, I heard a cryptic rumour of a big find, possibly more Dead Sea Scrolls. I asked a couple of people who told me there was something but they couldn’t talk about it.

So when I saw this week’s news that Israeli archeologists had discovered a new Dead Sea Scroll, albeit just a few shreds, I wondered if this was the rumour I’d heard. The books of Nahum and Zecharia, written in Greek but with God’s name in Hebrew, were found in the cheerily-named Cave of Horror near the Dead Sea.

Also in the cave was the world’s oldest complete woven basket, a huge Neolithic creation from ten thousand years ago that was excavated intact.

Looking forward to seeing these in a museum one day, now that museums have reopened.

Thanks for reading! Questions, comments and suggestions always welcome.