The dying days of Obamatime can be said to have begun about seventy-two hours after the outgoing president’s inauguration, when he ordered two lethal drone strikes on villagers in Pakistan. They continued with undulant brutality until the end of 2016, in which year everyone’s favourite Nobel Peace Prize winner dropped at least 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim-majority nations, a slight increase on the year before.
But let’s not be facetious. The dying days — in the strictly temporal sense — of Barack Obama’s tenure have been defined by and will be remembered for an apparently sharp escalation of tensions with Russia. On December 29, Obama moved to expel 35 Russian diplomats from the United States in response to alleged interference by the Kremlin in the U.S. presidential election. This after the slow burn of more than two years of U.S. sanctions against Russia; a U.S.-led military exercise involving tens of thousands of Nato troops in eastern Europe, the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War; and later the accelerated deployment of U.S. armed forces to Poland, the three Baltic states and Romania.
On January 5, the aggressively Russophobic mood in establishment circles worsened further, when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report on ‘Russian activities and intentions’ during last year’s electoral circus. Many assumed the report provided proof that Putin himself had procured victory for Donald Trump, and the corporate press has been doubling down ever since on its belief that this fascist strongman has U.S. ‘democracy’ on a string. In other words, then — specifically those of that distinguished hack Dônnnald Bethl’hem — it appears that ‘[t]he stretched twig of peace is at melting point.’
The two most frequently levelled claims in respect of the Russian ‘influence campaign’ are (i) that Moscow had a decisive impact on the outcome of the contest, and (ii) that it hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well as the personal Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, before presenting its booty of compromising emails to Wikileaks, which of course went on to publish them. (The latter claim first surfaced last summer, after the DNC hired a private security firm, CrowdStrike, to undertake an investigation.)
There are a number of problems with these claims and the media’s hysterical and unquestioning repetition of them. The first, fatal problem is that not a scintilla of hard evidence has yet materialised in support of either allegation, nor indeed does any appear to be forthcoming. The preamble to the intelligence report begins by stating that ‘[this] declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods’, meaning that its 25 pages consist merely of assertion after unsubstantiated assertion, not one of them conveying anything new. Meanwhile, the standard of proof employed by journalists has been laughably limp: interviewing the former CIA director James Woolsey on January 6, Newsnight anchor Emily Maitlis delivered the following, watertight pronouncement of guilt: ‘[w]e understand there were reports of senior Russian officials celebrating [Trump’s] victory. We know that Trump himself seems to be very friendly with Russia. He’s refused to point the finger at [Russia] himself. What more evidence do you need?’ As journalism this is risible stuff.
One suspects that the falsity of the claims might go some way towards explaining the dearth of credible evidence for them. The report may not in fact have concerned itself with the outcome of the election, but both Woolsey and the outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have stressed that the ‘influence campaign’ — such as it was — had no effect on the final result. Indeed, Woolsey stated in the foregoing interview that ‘no one I know has charged that it had an effect on the outcome. I don’t believe that either the intelligence organisations or the FBI or anything I’ve read suggests there was any effect.’
Perhaps more importantly, the notion that Russian hackers were the source of the emails turned over to Wikileaks has been definitively scotched by both the founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange (‘We can say, we have said, repeatedly over the last two months that our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party’) and his associate the ex-diplomat Craig Murray, who wrote that
a little simple logic demolishes the CIA’s claims. The CIA claim they “know the individuals” involved. Yet under Obama the USA has been absolutely ruthless in its persecution of whistleblowers, and its pursuit of foreign hackers through extradition. We are supposed to believe that in the most vital instance imaginable, an attempt by a foreign power to destabilise a US election, even though the CIA knows who the individuals are, nobody is going to be arrested or extradited, or (if in Russia) made subject to yet more banking and other restrictions against Russian individuals? Plainly it stinks.
Murray went on to say of the leaks ‘that they are not hacks, they are insider leaks,’ there being ‘a major difference’ between the two things. And Murray should know: he and Assange are among the ‘[v]ery, very few people [who] can be said to definitely have access to the source of the leak’, reputedly a ‘disgusted’ whistleblower from within the Democratic Party. ‘[T]he DNC and Podesta emails,’ stated Murray elsewhere, ‘were leaked by Washington insiders, to my certain knowledge. I repeat that, to my certain knowledge.’
So not only were the allegations ‘essentially paid for by the DNC’, but they have also been echoed ad nauseam, without a shred of evidence, by stenographers of power who ‘lack access to the information’ they claim to possess and who have abandoned all pretence of adhering to journalistic standards in their coverage of this and related issues. Until such time, then, as clear and convincing evidence emerges to properly incriminate the Kremlin, we must regard the allegations against it as amounting to no more than a politically motivated conspiracy theory. Concomitantly, we must accept Murray’s account as the more persuasive.
The second problem lies in the rank hypocrisy of the U.S. establishment’s response to the claims. It is outraged that ‘democratic’ structures and processes in its own society appear to have been undermined by a foreign power, but is unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. has been the world leader in such meddling (and worse) since its incorporation. In his magisterial A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn cited a U.S. State Department document that lists 103 interventions by the U.S. government in the affairs of other countries between the years 1798 and 1895. Between 1900 and 1933, in Latin America alone, ‘the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times.’ William Blum’s famous ‘master list’ notes 59 instances since the end of World War II of the U.S. overthrowing or attempting to overthrow a foreign government. And Dov Levin, an academic at Carnegie-Mellon University, has calculated that the U.S. tried to influence the outcome of another sovereign country’s election on more than 80 occasions between 1946 and 2000 (excluding coups like those that toppled Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala, and as against 36 such transgressions committed by the U.S.S.R. and its successor state Russia during the same period). The new millennium has seen no let-up in this regard, with Hillary Clinton — Putin’s putative victim — herself assisting in the deposition of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 among other more violent instances. And lest we forget — as many clearly have — it hasn’t been all that long since the U.S. interfered directly and successfully to secure the election of a Russian premier (Boris Yeltsin in 1996, towards the end of Bill Clinton’s first term in office).
Evidently, ‘[m]eddling in foreign democracies [sic] only becomes a problem when the U.S. is [sic] on the receiving end’. One could plausibly suggest, then, that the outrage over the last few weeks stems from and betrays the ugly solipsistic exceptionalism that has always constituted the ‘inner heart of American ideology’, and that it seems cheaper and all the more phony as a result. But there is surely a more elementary truth at play: the forceful propagation of this conspiracy theory is simply the mad partisan howling of a hitherto dominant sector of the power elite that is pissed off things didn’t — for once — go its way.
The third and final problem turns on the content of some of the leaked emails themselves, which have conveniently escaped public scrutiny amid the allegations of Russian misbehaviour. Among other things, they confirm that the Democratic presidential primaries were all but rigged in Clinton’s favour. As early as December 2015, the Clinton campaign had a ‘unity event with [Bernie] Sanders’ pencilled into its diary. An email from May 2015 implies that Sanders had been forced into a non-aggression pact by Clinton’s team, which sought to use its ‘leverage’ to enforce the agreement when Sanders committed the unspeakable sin of mentioning the Clintons’ immense personal wealth. In July 2016, as evidence of the DNC’s bias against Sanders began to appear and accumulate, its chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was urged to resign from her position and eventually did. Her interim successor, of course, happens to be the moderator sacked by CNN for feeding advance information about topics and at least two questions to Clinton before a televised debate with Sanders last March. The leaks also establish that the Clinton campaign fixed the debate schedule itself, and that it asked for primaries to be moved in such a way as to maximally benefit its candidate. All the while the DNC never ceased to cook up smears and connive against Sanders, towards whom it was supposed to be neutral.
The leaked emails span a range of other matters, from the shady dealings of the Clinton Foundation to Clinton’s concerns about the role played by U.S. allies in arming Daesh to the paid speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs, in which she more or less swore fealty to Wall Street and pithily captured the essence of politics (‘you need both a public and a private position’). But perhaps most disturbing of all was the revelation that the Clinton campaign intentionally acted from the outset to ‘elevate’ the extreme right-wingers in the Republican field in order to increase Clinton’s chances of winding up in the White House. ‘We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are the leaders of the pack,’ her staff wrote in an April 2015 memo to the DNC, ‘and tell the press to [take] them seriously.’ The so-called Pied Piper candidates, the memo continued, ‘can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right.’ Eighteen months later, the unabashedly racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic Donald Trump stands on the verge of inauguration.
Of course the emails, damning as they are, have largely been minimised or ignored by the corporate media. But they tell us two things. First, that a goodly portion of the blame for Trump’s ascension lies with the DNC and — or should it be a.k.a. — the Clinton campaign. As Jeffrey St. Clair wrote soon after Election Day, Clinton ‘had the ground game, she had the money, she had the press, she had the advertising, she had the polls.’ Her success in the primaries had been preordained, and in the election itself she was up against the nastiest, most vulgar demagogue and bigot it is possible to imagine. She ought to have won but didn’t, and it is dishonest or downright delusional to seek to offload responsibility for her loss and her toxicity to Moscow or anywhere else. Second, the leaks emphatically reaffirm what at least 45% of the U.S. population already knows: that the ‘democratic process’ in their country is little more than a farce, whether or not it is subverted by a foreign power. The unbreakable Republicrat duopoly, its directors on K Street, racialised voter suppression and the Electoral College attest to that.
Thus we can say that the allegations, slung forth without the slightest evidence and turbo-charged by hypocritical rage, have served to conceal the real ways in which the political system in the United States is ‘rigged’ against the public good. Clogged with corporate cash and beholden to corporate power even at the best of times, it operates anti- and pseudo-democratically to protect and advance the interests of a small economic elite that counts among its members the proprietors of most of our media and employs as its servant the whole of the political class. The ‘Russian influence campaign’ is the latest substanceless distraction from all this.
Why else might such patently absurd claims been pushed so aggressively by the deep state and its stooges in the press? Some say that the ultimate aim is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a president-elect whose only virtue is his willingness to de-escalate tensions with Moscow. Given that the re-assertion of U.S. global hegemony, the expansion of Nato and therefore the profits of the arms industry all depend in no small part on continued confrontation with Russia, it is no surprise that Trump’s relatively peaceable stance towards the Kremlin is being cited as evidence that he is the ‘Siberian candidate’.
In any case, the unanimity with which the ‘free’ press on both sides of the Atlantic has parroted and amplified the allegations is nothing short of scandalous, especially in this post-truth age of Fake News. The moral panic about Fake News was of course created and propagated in the first place by the corporate media, which wanted (i) to arrest the shrinkage of its revenues and readerships, (ii) to repair public trust in its ‘fearlessness’ and general credibility, and (iii) to restore public faith in the capitalist system of which it is an outgrowth by yanking people back towards the sinkhole where the centre-ground used to be. What the hoo-ha over Russian hacking reminds us, though, is that ‘those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News… are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.’
In conclusion, it is both possible and necessary to criticise the conduct of the Russian state in certain spheres whilst taking a sceptical view of groundless allegations levelled against it in others. Neither Moscow’s systematic commission of war crimes in Syria nor its human rights abuses inside Russia imply its decisive interference in the U.S. presidential election. The notion that it did so interfere must be seen for what it is: a conspiracy theory, and a potentially dangerous one at that.