One for the Road

Just a quick note to let everyone know that with Rutherford’s passing, some of the regular patrons of Rutherford Lawson’s Bar & Grill are serving up drinks and opinions at the blog Opinion On Tap.

Everyone and anyone, and I do mean that literally, is welcome to stop by and join the debate.  It’s the way Rutherford would have wanted it.

Russia and the US Presidential Elections

The country is abuzz over the recently-released de-classified version of the Intelligence Community (IC) report on “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections“.  The report, a compilation of CIA, FBI, and ODNI investigations, asserts that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election by various means.  To support such a claim, the report offers little more than circumstantial evidence.  The lack of substantial evidence, however, is the least of the problems that should be found with this report.  The greater issue, and one that will likely be ignored, is that Russia has been doing much of what the report claims, for years–including the 2012 US Presidential election.

While not getting deep into the methods used in the report, it is worth noting up front that all the public is permitted to see is the de-classified version.  The very first bit of writing in the report tells us that they cannot tell us everything because a lot of it is classified and part of national security secrets.  Of course, what is being kept secret is how they actually reached the conclusions in the report.

The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.

Thus, while the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods.

Were this an academic paper submitted by an undergraduate student, it would receive a failing grade and scathing comments in the margins about the lack of methodological data.

What we do know is that the so-called evidence of direct Russian involvement in the actual hacking of DNC computers did not stem from FBI or CIA analyses of those computers.  In fact, neither the FBI nor the CIA ever looked at those computers at all.  Instead, the computers were looked at by a private 3rd party group who gave its investigative conclusions to the IC.  Why didn’t anyone from the government look at those computers, and what methods did the 3rd party investigative team use?  Good questions.  The FBI alleges the DNC refused to let them look and the DNC alleges the FBI never asked to look.  What’s the truth?–who knows.  Again, were this a student research paper it would be returned rife with red ink.

The IC report offers a variety of “Key Judgments”, the first of which is that Russia has increased its “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order”.  Yet, while admitting this is a “longstanding” Russian policy, the report conveniently fails to mention just how far back that policy goes.  And we know that it goes back to at least the 2012 US Presidential elections, when Russia was asserting the elections were rigged.  Back then, the pro-government Russian group, Izvestia, claimed:

The procedure for the election of US President November 6, 2012 (prior to the day of voting) does not comply with the international principles of the organization of the electoral process. The principles of universal and equal suffrage, the authenticity and validity of the election, transparency and openness of elections provided by the US authorities is not satisfactory. (Translated using Google Translate)

In other words–your election doesn’t pass our smell test.  If that isn’t an attempt to “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order” then what is?

Part of the circumstantial evidence of Russian meddling is that it displayed clear favoritism in the outcome.

Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine. Putin publicly contrasted the President-elect’s approach to Russia with Secretary Clinton’s “aggressive rhetoric.”

The United States is inarguably the most powerful and influential nation on the planet with a long history of challenging Russian and Soviet hegemony.  Is there a time in recent history when Russia did not display a clear favorite in a US Presidential election?  It sure wasn’t in 2012, when Russian Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, exclaimed, “I am glad that the man who considers Russia the number one enemy will not be president. That’s ridiculous, some kind of paranoia. Obama is a known, predictable partner.”  To juxtapose just how different were the positions of 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney and sitting-President Barack Obama, the former went on record calling Russia our greatest geopolitical foe, while the latter was caught on a hot mic promising greater flexibility in pro-Russian policies after the election.

The most important portion of the 2017 IC report is also the least covered–while the computers of private election entities were infiltrated, official electronic election machines were not.  There is absolutely no proof, or claim, of Russian involvement in the voting or vote tallying process.  In fact, the report concludes, “DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.”  In the 25-page report, the word “tallying” appears a mere two times, both times in a single sentence twice repeated.  That’s it.

To be clear, there is little doubt that Russia did everything the IC report claims it did.  But what exactly did Russia do that it hasn’t done in the past?  The answer seems to be “very little”.  The IC report concludes that Russia will take what it learned in 2016 and apply it to future US elections.  But it has already done that, applying what it learned in 2012 to 2016.  Russia has displayed a history of questioning the legitimacy of US elections, yet this is the first time it’s being called subversive.  Russia has displayed a history of declaring its preferences in the outcome of US elections, yet this is the first time it’s being called subversive.  The only difference between 2012 and 2016 is the alleged cyber intrusion–a difference that is so minuscule that it is neither substantiated by actual IC investigation, nor is it said to have affected the actual electoral process.  In fact, the exact opposite is claimed.

If the proof of Russian meddling is in the pudding, it’s a sparse portion of a stale dessert that is several years old.  Donald Trump may well have benefitted from Russian influence in our 2016 election, but if this report is proof of that, then it must also be concluded that Barack Obama benefitted from it in 2012.

And there sure aren’t any Intelligence Community reports alleging that, are there?

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

*Related Update: Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.

Every once in a while a movie catches you completely by surprise.  You go in expecting perhaps nothing more than a mediocre couple hours, and possibly even a complete disappointment, and you walk out thinking “WOW! I really enjoyed that.”  That film, for me, was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

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Rogue One is the 2nd Star Wars offering from Disney since buying the franchise as part of a $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm.  What is essentially Star Wars Episode 3.5, Rogue One fills in the gap between 2005’s Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vadar, and Episode 4: A New Hope from 1977; what most of us old-timers would call “the original Star Wars.”  I’ll be honest, while I love the Star Wars franchise, I have not been completely interested in it since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  That could be due to my youth interests at the time, or could be due to the fact that every Star Wars film since then has been relatively weak in comparison.  The simple fact is Episodes 1, 2, 3, and 7 have over-told the story.  They try too hard to give story and character background, and just pile far too much onto the viewer.  And that doesn’t even begin to address the terrible acting featured in all four films.

But Rogue One is different.  It isn’t burdened with a huge backstory to tell because its time frame is very small.  The film tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance steals the plans for the Death Star and smuggles them to Princess Leia.  Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) stars as Jyn Erso–daughter of Galen Erso, the primary architect of the Death Star.  Jyn meets up with Rebel Alliance Captain, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna – Open Range), and his droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk – A Knight’s Tale), and together with members of “an estranged radical movement within the rebellion” (H/T commenter Dead Rabbit) and a renegade Imperial pilot, the pair cause a fury of chaos and destruction as they locate, penetrate, and raid the Empire base that holds the coveted Death Star plans.  No less than the full power of the Empire, including the notorious Darth Vader, stand in their way.

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Director Gareth Edwards, a relative newcomer, does a fantastic job bringing writer Chris Weitz’s story to life.  The sets were not overly expansive, but loaded with believable detail, even for a science fiction film. The special effects were of the quality one comes to expect from the masters at Disney and Lucasfilm, even bringing to believable CGI life the long-deceased Peter Cushing as the face of Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Carrie Fisher as the face of Princess Leia.

Rogue One has chases, shootouts, dogfights, and tense, palm-sweating drama and excitement that makes it one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in quite a while.  The film is rated PG-13, but that is probably because of its laser-blasted violence.  To be honest, I didn’t see anything that younger viewers would need to be sheltered from.  As a special treat, we watched it in 3D and had DBOX seats.  This did accent the experience but wasn’t worth the added cost.  The film stands on its own just fine without those extras. But, with that stated, seeing and hearing it in a theater environment is an absolute must, so don’t wait long, as it is already in its second week.