Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

The dangerous and irresistible GOP conspiracy theory that explains away Trump’s Russia problem

By Aaron Blake

March 10, 2017 at 11:27 AM

Sean Hannity of Fox News has hinted the CIA might be responsible for making it seem like Russia hacked Democratic emails during the election. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The best/worst thing about conspiracy theories is that they only need to rely on a shred of evidence, but they can instantly confirm all of your preconceived notions.

Such is the case with a new conspiracy theory making the rounds among conservative talkers. It's the idea that the CIA has made it appear as though the 2016 election hacking was conducted by Russians even though it wasn't — or even that the CIA hacked the Democrats itself.

The theory is based off that big WikiLeaks dump of purported CIA hacking documents, which suggested a program that was able to “misdirect attribution” of cyberattacks. Sean Hannity hinted at it Thursday:

As did Ann Coulter:

And here's what Rush Limbaugh said earlier this week, after WikiLeaks documents first came out:

Apparently the CIA has the ability to mimic Russian hackers. In other words, the CIA has the ability to hack anybody they want and make it look like the Russians are doing it or make it look like the [Chinese communists] are doing it or make it look like the Israelis are doing it.
They have the ability to do this. They have the ability to mask and mock various other state actors and make it look like — so I think because of everything that we’re learning here, the danger that Donald Trump has faced ever since he won the election is greater than we’ve ever known. And it is obvious to me that this whole business — well, I say obvious, I’m leaning toward being near certain that this entire pretext of Trump working with the Russians to affect the outcome of the election, folks — it is so ridiculous.

The program described here is called “UMBRAGE,” according to the documents released by WikiLeaks, which say the program “collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques ‘stolen’ from malware produced in other states.”

Hannity, Coulter and Limbaugh are kind of dancing around it here, but the subtext is clear: This could explain why all that intelligence is pointing to the Russians — because the CIA made it appear so. Of course, this theory is also based on nothing more than an alleged CIA capability. And that's an alleged capability being pushed by someone with a clear interest in making it look like Russia wasn't involved in the hacking. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has long denied working with Russia to release the Democrats' hacked emails, so he's clearly got an agenda here.

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"The CIA lost control of its entire cyber weapons arsenal," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a news conference on March 9 about the trove of CIA hacking tools the organization uncovered. (Video: WikiLeaks / Photo: AP)

Harvard fellow Ben Buchanan threw a wet blanket on this theory Thursday in The Washington Post, saying the evidence pointing to Russia goes well beyond what this capability would explain: “The reality of attributing cyber attacks is more complex than the conspiracy theories suggest. Instead of undercutting the attribution of previous hacks, a closer look at UMBRAGE and its limits underscores the strength of the evidence in the DNC hack investigation.”

Related: Opinion: WikiLeaks doesn’t raise doubts about who hacked the DNC. We still know it was Russia.

Importantly, the conspiracy theory also involves accusing the country's intelligence apparatus of conspiring against the president of the United States — a scandal that, if true, would be without parallel in American history. But that democracy-shaking potential scandal is kind of beside the point for these talking heads; what's more important to them is that this theory has the benefit of, in one fell swoop, explaining away the myriad pieces of evidence pointing toward Russia hacking to interfere in the 2016 election.

And don't be surprised if this catches on and furthers skepticism of the intelligence community's conclusions. Today's Republican Party is a very receptive audience for this kind of theory; polls continue to show the GOP is skeptical not only that Russia worked to help Trump — as the intelligence community has said — but that it was even behind the hacking.

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Several different types of investigations have been, or could be, launched into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

A Quinnipiac poll in January showed 64 percent of Republicans said Russia didn't attempt to influence the 2016 election through hacking, with just 29 percent agreeing with that basic conclusion of the intelligence community. And among that small group that thought Russia at least was behind the hacking, less than half believed it was a concerted effort to benefit Trump. So basically just 1 in 8 Republicans agreed with the idea that Russia hacked to help Trump.

After that poll was conducted, Trump finally seemed to acknowledge it was Russia that did the hacking. But a Q poll conducted later that month still showed huge skepticism. Just 15 percent of Republicans agreed that “the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election.” And an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed just 22 percent thought Russia interfered.

Given Trump's inclination toward such conspiracy theories and the GOP base's long-standing tendency to side with him — and against the intelligence community's assessments — it's doubtful we've heard the last of this.


Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix.

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