Last week, the Washington Post ran a chilling story: Russian hackers, it reported, had infiltrated a utility system in Vermont. This raised portentous questions. Could Moscow penetrate our national power grid? Could it hobble our utilities and endanger American lives?
The answers turned out to be “no” and for a very simple reason: the Post‘s story was complete hogwash. While a single laptop that contained Russian-made malware was located on the Vermont grid, there was no evidence that Russian hackers were in any way involved, as Glenn Greenwald meticulously documented at The Intercept. The erroneous report was later retracted by the Post.
Were that this were an isolated incident. Our most august newspapers have been rife with fabulism lately. There was the Wall Street Journal piece by Edward Jay Epstein portraying famed whistleblower Edward Snowden as a Russian patsy, thoroughly debunked by reporter and surveillance expert Barton Gellman. There was the write-up in The Guardian about Wikileaks proprietor Julian Assange that claimed he “has long had a close relationship with the Putin regime,” later heavily amended thanks to inaccuracies.
The common denominator underneath all this yellow journalism is the portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a ubiquitous and all-powerful menace whose tendrils extend across the cyber-world. This misinformation then quickly proliferates on Twitter, fueling an anti-Russian blaze that the truth, tardy and tedious, can’t hope to douse.
It’s fake news and it’s far more dangerous than the right’s delusions over “Pizzagate,” chiefly because, as students of history will tell you, fabrications over pizza parlor sex rings generally don’t start wars. In fact, I’d go even further: our political climate right now is more paranoid and vulnerable than at any time since the prelude to the Iraq war back in 2002.
We all remember how that turned out.
Let’s begin with what we actually know about L’affaire Putin. Our intelligence agencies have concluded that John Podesta fell victim to a Russian-linked hacking attempt when he cluelessly clicked on a phishing scam and that the Democratic National Committee was hacked by the Russians.
Problem is, security experts say the CIA and DHS have yet to produce “forensic proof” to back up those rather unremarkable conclusions. And even if Russia’s role is confirmed, it does not verify any of the drunken extrapolations that have been made since: that Russia’s intervention was decisive in electing Trump, that Trump is a patsy of a foreign power, that Trump’s desire for rapprochement with Russia is a sinister scheme to advance Putin’s interests. Each of those is a logical leap wholly unsupported by substantive evidence.
Yet in the mad anti-Russian climate that’s prevailed, those suppositions have entered the zeitgeist, while those who ask questions and seek corroboration are brushed away as extremists. A recent Fox News segment featuring Greenwald and anchor Tucker Carlson that spotlighted reasonable skepticism over Russia’s involvement in the election was snidely dismissed. Irresponsible shorthand has entered our vernacular: Russia “tampered with the election,” Russia “hacked the election,” none of which is true.
Back on Twitter, a visible Republican strategist casually states that Trump supporters’ “allegiance is to Putin.” A prominent liberal commentator agrees, accusing some on his own side of “running interference for Putin.” Trump is alternatively painted as a dimwitted Russian dupe and a grandmaster Russian collaborator. The variegated complexities of foreign policy are siphoned into two shades, black and white, either with us or with our enemy. The word “treason” is tossed around with increasing facility, towards Trump, anyone who voted for him, anyone who seeks improved relations with Moscow. Lazy insinuations over one’s motives trump careful scrutinizing of evidence.
Does this sound familiar? The indispensable few who questioned the case against Saddam Hussein were similarly maligned. Talk radio hosts gleefully labeled as traitors anyone skeptical over the impending war with Iraq. The CIA’s “slam dunk” went largely unexamined. The idea that Saddam didn’t have any active WMDs was dismissed as a fringe delusion right up until it was proven to be true.
It’s unlikely our current spasm of unreason will lead to a war with Russia, both because such a conflict would be devastatingly costly and because Trump is determined to polish America’s relationship with Putin once he’s in office. But this climate, and its ability to inflame, is alarming nonetheless. Who’d have thought the most insane reaction to the 2016 election would come from somewhere other than Donald Trump’s Twitter account?