Why, in the days before an election fraught with political squabbling over Russia and computer hacking, would the Justice Department weigh in on Monday with indictments of six Russian state hackers? The hackers in question are officers in the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate. They are not, we can all agree, friends of America. But the threat they pose is hardly new: One of the GRU officers freshly indicted – Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev -- has already been under indictment for years, He was charged along with a couple of dozen of his colleagues two years ago. Adding a new set of indictments doesn’t bring the Russians closer to justice in a U.S. court, but it does color an election already tinted and tainted by the question of Russian hacking.
The explanations that couldn’t possibly be correct actually illuminate the issue, so let’s start with those:
- The Russians had to be exposed at this late date in the presidential election because otherwise they would flee and escape the law. This couldn’t possibly be the reason. Consider the Russians’ confreres, indicted as part of the Mueller festivities. There is no reason to think any of them have left Russia or otherwise put themselves at any risk of extradition. If the goal is to capture these bad actors, announcing who they are and what they’ve done will be of no help whatsoever.
- The Russians posed an imminent threat. Not likely. There’s nothing in the indictment that even hints at a crime in progress. The Russians, for example, are accused of hacking computers at the Winter Olympics in South Korea (2018); defacing Georgian government websites (2018); spear phishing a British defense lab that was gathering evidence of Russia’s use of poisons (2018). They allegedly interfered with French elections in 2017. They supposedly targeted Ukraine’s power grid in 2016 and 2015. None of these deeds happened within the last two years. That doesn’t mean they ought to be ignored. But it does argue there was no reason to take action in the weeks ahead of a national election.
Now let’s consider some answers that could be correct, if one is willing to entertain cynical possibilities:
- The recommended response to the New York Post’s scoop involving Hunter Biden’s laptop has been to dismiss it as the product of Russian hackery. The story involves a computer and events in Ukraine, thus making it easy for Joe Biden’s defenders to dismiss the damaging emails as made in Moscow. Bring indictments against Russian hackers and you bolster the narrative that to ask questions about Hunter is to be complicit in a Russian plot.
- Perhaps the FBI and Justice Department are just doing Big Tech a solid. The bureau -- and this goes triple for the DoJ -- lacks the kind of computer skills necessary to track and trace the tiny binary footprints of the cyber-Bear. You might recall that just a few weeks ago it was revealed a large number of the attorneys and agents working on the Mueller investigation accidentally wiped their government-issued smartphones clean of all data. Not on purpose, of course. That would be illegal. No, it was an accident. Every man Jack of them kept putting in the wrong password until, hours into the process, all their phones achieved doorstop status. Who knew such things could happen? We will take their word for it that they didn’t. But that doesn’t say much for the computer bona-fides of DoJ investigators. How surpassingly odd, then, that fellow prosecutors and agents should be so tech-savvy that they can expose the identities and activities of the neo-Soviets’ crack malware squad. That’s where Big Tech comes in: In a Monday press release, the Department of Justice expressed its gratitude to Google, Cisco, Facebook, and Twitter “for the assistance they provided in this investigation.” Could it be that the indictments were announced now because Facebook and Twitter needed some good press before facing senators on the ugly question of digital censorship?
Whatever the reason – and who knows, perhaps there is a perfectly innocent explanation for it – the Department of Justice ought not to be hyping Russian hacking just ahead of an election. It can only create the impression on all sides that the election lacks legitimacy. As others have noted time and again, that only does the Russians’ work for them.
But it does suggest that this year’s October Surprises may just be reruns. So far, the month has brought us stories of Biden family corruption and suggestions of Russian election tampering. Can tales of urinary fetishes be far off?