Disappointed Daily Beast Bemoan Lack of Russian Interference in 2018 US Midterms

© Flickr / Sunny RipertRussian hacker bear
Russian hacker bear - Sputnik International
All is not well at the headquarters of The Daily Beast - in an article published October 8, Contributing Editor Kevin Poulsen and National Security Correspondent Spencer Ackerman write despairingly of "an elephant in the room - or, more accurately, a bear that isn’t" in the run-up to the 2018 US elections.

In essence, with a mere 28 days to go before the midterms, "no evidence of direct Russian interference in 2018's races" has been detected — by anyone. While "by the first week of October 2016, Russia's paw-prints were all over the presidential race", this year's election campaign cycle has produced "crickets".

Absence is Evidence

This simply won't do for Poulsen and Ackerman, and in search of answers as to why their prejudices and paranoid conspiracy theorizing are yet to be confirmed, the pair contacted over a dozen officials in Western governments "who've worked on the issue of election interference" in recent years. However, "none could provide specific examples of Russian operations" in the 2018 elections.

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Still, the organ is evidently delighted to report other 'experts' aren't "sounding the all-clear" on the midterms. A number of individuals are then quoted, offering a variety of often bizarre rationalisations for why no evidence of Russian meddling has thus far been detected by anyone.

For instance, former Justice Department prosecutor Christopher Ott claimed Russia may still be interfering — or primed to interfere — in the election, except in new, undetected and unprecedentedly dangerous ways, such as "[staging] municipal attacks to interfere with people getting to the polls" by "messing with electricity, or traffic lights, or mass transit". Alternatively, he suggested, the Kremlin's interference experts may instead simply be laying low, "[rethinking] tactics" before plying their updated deviltry in an election campaign elsewhere, some other indeterminate time.

The Daily Beast strugglingly offers a few substitute explanations of its own for why Russia is seemingly "sitting out the 2018 midterms entirely" — such as the "potential gains" being "murkier" in 2018 than before, or Putin "[preferring] to keep his powder dry" for European elections in 2019 or the 2020 US Presidential race, or the Kremlin "[losing] the advantage of surprise".

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John Hultquist, threat intelligence manager at cybersecurity firm FireEye, apparently concurs with this analysis, arguing the non-presence of Russian interference may stem from "the rewards of steering Congressional outcomes" being outweighed by "the risk of further solidifying opposition to Russia", and Western public awareness of Russian meddling "[entering] the Russian calculus" — in other words, the Russians know people are onto them, so are playing it safe for the time being.

Andrew Grotto, who oversaw cybersecurity issues for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump's National Security Council, likewise believes the dastardly Russians are "[adjusting] their tradecraft and [figuring] out other ways" to interfere, "without being so obviously Russian". After all, he claimed, hacking congressional elections risked jeopardizing "whatever they might be planning for Europe next spring". What that may be went unasked, unelaborated and even unspeculated.

Elsewhere, Ryan Fox, former NSA official-turned Chief Operating Officer of New Knowledge, a company that "protects brands from social media disinformation", attributes the lack of Russian meddling to the Kremlin "probably" not needing to "implement dramatic measures", as its work in the US is done.

Similarly, Robert Johnston, who led the forensic investigation into the DNC breach in 2016 while working at Crowdstrike, the firm which produced an utterly discredited 2016 report claiming Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Convention, tries to downplay expectations of "shock and awe" this year.

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"[The Russians] don't need that today. Putin views the US as something to be dealt with, but Europe as the threat. So they're going to be focused there," he explained.

That no Russian interference has been detected because none has happened, will happen or was ever intended were apparently not explanations that occurred to any of the 'experts' quizzed by Poulsen and Ackerman, or the authors themselves.

Fiddlers on a Roof

It's not the first time the mainstream media has expressed bafflement at the lack of Russian interference in an election. Germany's 2017 federal election, for instance, transpired without even the vaguest hint of Russian meddling, despite much breathless speculation in the year leading up to it, and numerous declarations by Western politicians and journalists that Kremlin-directed interference in the vote was a certainty.

In a September 21 New York Times article, titled 'German Election Mystery: Why No Russian Meddling?', alleged investigative reporter Michael Schwirtz lamented while it "seemed inevitable" Russians would attempt to influence the results of the election, they have instead somewhat irritatingly "disappeared" from the campaign radar.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during a joint news conference in Moscow - Sputnik International
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Sandro Gaycken, Director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin, which had been determinedly hunting for evidence Russian meddling, was said to be "almost disappointed" that "nothing" was happening — his organization were "not really expecting any Russian interference" and had detected no "verified attacks". He was even quoted as suggesting "it would make more sense for the CIA to leak fake news to make it seem like the Russians did it".

While Schwirtz still suggested there was "still a chance" around 16 gigabytes of sensitive information allegedly stolen by hackers from the Bundestag in 2015 could be released, he was forced to concede the data if leaked "[wouldn't] make much difference" — and it never did surface in any event.

Given the apparent certainty of Russian interference in European elections next year, expect self-avowed cyber and national security experts — such as those quoted by The Daily Beast — to make extensive pronouncements and predictions of where, when and how the Kremlin's omnipresent hidden hand will strike in the months, weeks and days prior to key votes. Similarly, when these forecasts again come to nothing, expect much conjecture and theorizing as to why they didn't.

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