Erik Wemple | Opinion
August 15, 2017 at 7:48 PM
There is some discontent in the Nation.
Staffers and contributors at the storied lefty magazine have raised concerns about an Aug. 9 piece by contributing writer Patrick Lawrence under the headline, "A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year's DNC Hack." Based on technical evaluations, the article called into question the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies that the email disclosures last year from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — which assisted the campaign of Donald Trump — were the work of Russian actors. The whole thing could have been the work of an internal leaker, notes the article.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation's editor and publisher (and the writer of a weekly online column for The Post), tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Lawrence's piece is undergoing a post-publication editorial review. "We're doing the review as we speak, and I don't want to rush to say anything," said vanden Heuvel. Part of that review is an assessment of the technical feasibility of the points in Lawrence's article.
That's a critical consideration, because the piece relies to a significant degree on a finding that hackers working remotely couldn't possibly have downloaded all the information that they allegedly secured and passed along to WikiLeaks. Though Lawrence's writing on this topic is impenetrable, he cites a number of researchers and groups — including Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) — who have examined the official case for a DNC hack. Among the key actors is someone known as the "Forensicator," an independent researcher of unknown identity. Here's how Lawrence frames this individual's contributions:
Forensicator's first decisive findings, made public in the paper dated July 9, concerned the volume of the supposedly hacked material and what is called the transfer rate—the time a remote hack would require. The metadata established several facts in this regard with granular precision: On the evening of July 5, 2016, 1,976 megabytes of data were downloaded from the DNC's server. The operation took 87 seconds. This yields a transfer rate of 22.7 megabytes per second.
These statistics are matters of record and essential to disproving the hack theory. No Internet service provider, such as a hacker would have had to use in mid-2016, was capable of downloading data at this speed. Compounding this contradiction, Guccifer claimed to have run his hack from Romania, which, for numerous reasons technically called delivery overheads, would slow down the speed of a hack even further from maximum achievable speeds.
Maybe the Nation should have done the technical patdown prior to publication. "Most households don't get internet speeds that high, but enterprise operations, like the DNC — or, uh, the [Russian] FSB — would have access to a higher but certainly not unattainable speed like that," wrote Brian Feldman in a debunking in New York Magazine.
Such skepticism didn't surface in this Breitbart piece glorifying Lawrence's story. "A bombshell report published Wednesday by avowedly liberal news magazine The Nation may have put the last nail in the coffin of the 'Russian hack' narrative that has dominated the mainstream media's coverage for the last year," wrote Breitbart's Ian Mason. Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Breitbart's endorsement of The Nation.
The Nation doesn't seek such approbation. "I hate that Breitbart considers anything we do comforting," said vanden Heuvel, who correctly notes that the magazine has consistently opposed Trump policies. Yet occasionally drawing plaudits from far-right websites is a pitfall of the magazine's intellectual free-for-all, says the editor-cum-publisher. "The Nation … has always been a big tent on the progressive side. We've never enforced a line." More: "I am proud of the work we've done in spurring debates about U.S.-Russia. The coverage of Russia has been, I think, in the spirit of The Nation … and I want to maintain that spirit and not let one article change that."
A complicating consideration: Lawrence tweeted last week in support of the conspirator's notion that Seth Rich — a former DNC staffer who was murdered in what police believe was a botched robbery attempt — may have been behind the leak.
Asked about that flourish, vanden Heuvel said, "That appalled me. Seth Rich has nothing to do with this story. … It was dispiriting because someone wants an article to stand on its own terms."
The editorial review of Lawrence's article should conclude by week's end, said vanden Heuvel.
Dissension over the Lawrence story comes at a time of heated debate within the Nation over its coverage of allegations that the 2016 Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia. A January report from the U.S. intelligence community found that Russia had indeed mounted a campaign to influence the election, and numerous investigations — under the purview of the Justice Department and Congress — are now probing whether Trump associates worked with the regime of Vladimir Putin. Through it all, the Nation has published columns taking a skeptical view of the connection. The magazine is "out of sync" with liberals on this matter, said vanden Heuvel, as well as its view that it's perilous to escalate tensions with Russia. "I've seen the danger for progressives when Cold War comes," she said.
In June, a group of Nation writers penned a letter to vanden Heuvel expressing concerns about the tone of the magazine's coverage. Two key paragraphs:
Donald Trump is now facing what may be an irreversible crisis. The full extent of Trump's ties to the Russian government is unknown, but what we know so far – his comments to Russian officials in the Oval Office, in the immediate aftermath of the Comey firing; the conduct of current and former officials in his administration – raises serious questions about his competence. The revelation that Trump pressed James Comey to end the investigation of Michael Flynn before firing Comey indicates an egregious attempt to obstruct justice that has rightly drawn comparisons to Watergate. We now have the extraordinary spectacle of an "American-firster" who has leaked intelligence to a foreign government that meddled in the election that catapulted him into power, and who seems to have been absolutely comfortable in hiring a national security adviser he knew to be a) under investigation; and b) a paid consultant to foreign powers.
We understand that anxiety about foreign – especially Russian – influence is a familiar trope in American politics, and has been used in the past to suppress internal dissent. But to emphasize this particular angle in Nation coverage over the conduct of the Trump administration is a dereliction of our responsibility as progressive journalists. Last week, for example, the magazine ran a piece casting doubt on the motivation of the officials behind the White House leaks, one of several it has published in recent months that have implied the real threat to national security is not Trump's conduct but rather the attacks on him. As longtime associates of The Nation, we are deeply concerned that by making these editorial emphases and by likening calls for investigations into the Russia connection to "red baiting," the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions. We have noted, too, with dismay, that Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter and other far-right adversaries have taken comfort in the writings of other Nation writers on the current crisis.
The dissenters appealed for a change in position: "We believe The Nation occupies a unique position in the ecology of American journalism, and precisely because of this position, it's all the more important that the magazine get on the right side of this story as it develops." In late June, vanden Heuvel met with the letter's signers; she notes that an editorial board meeting in March had already addressed disagreements on Russia coverage.
Katha Pollitt, a columnist who signed the letter, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that her worries about the issue go beyond alleged Russia collusion. "I just felt that for some reason, we are too heavily invested in the defense of Putin and all his works," she said. And she can't abide too much more applause for Nation content from certain quarters. "These are our friends now? The Washington Times, Breitbart, Seth Rich truthers and Donald Trump Jr.? Give me a break. It's very upsetting to me. It's embarrassing."