After an extensive review, the Nation has issued an editor’s note concerning an Aug. 9 article that raised questions regarding a consensus finding of the U.S. intelligence community that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was hacked by Russian actors seeking to tilt the playing field in the 2016 presidential election. “Former NSA experts say it wasn’t a hack at all, but a leak—an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system,” reads the subhead on the story, which was written by Patrick Lawrence, a contributing writer for the magazine.
In her note to readers, which now sits atop the Lawrence piece, Nation Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel writes, “We believe it is important to challenge questionable conventional wisdom and to foster debate—not police it. Focusing on unreported or inadequately reported issues of major importance and raising questions that are not being asked have always been a central part of our work.” (Disclosure: Katrina vanden Heuvel is an op-ed columnist for The Post).
An understanding of the rest of vanden Heuvel’s note requires a bit more detail on the story she was annotating. The lack of publicly disclosed hard evidence of the DNC hack provided the starting point for Lawrence’s efforts: “Lost in a year that often appeared to veer into our peculiarly American kind of hysteria is the absence of any credible evidence of what happened last year and who was responsible for it. It is tiresome to note, but none has been made available,” wrote Lawrence. In January, the U.S. intelligence community issued a report expressing “high confidence” that Russian intelligence authorities “relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks” — though the declassified document excluded the “full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods.”
WikiLeaks released tranches of emails at key points in the Trump-Clinton campaign. And media outlets, including the Erik Wemple Blog, found a great many of the emails newsworthy.
According to Lawrence, the conclusions of the intelligence community are vulnerable. “Forensic investigators, intelligence analysts, system designers, program architects, and computer scientists of long experience and strongly credentialed are now producing evidence disproving the official version of key events last year,” he wrote. His article cited the work of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of former intel officials who distinguished themselves by debunking bogus claims leading up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. A July 24 VIPS memo on the DNC hack has been published at this site and Lawrence inventoried efforts to further the debunking operation. Part of that undertaking is the work of someone known as “Forensicator,” who in early July came up with some findings about the plausibility of the “hack” allegations: “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,” noted Lawrence in regard to the work of “Forensicator.” “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.”
The editor’s note addresses the use of technical language in Lawrence’s reporting: “The article was indeed fact-checked to ensure that Patrick Lawrence, a regular Nation contributor, accurately reported the VIPS analysis and conclusions, which he did,” notes vanden Heuvel. “As part of the editing process, however, we should have made certain that several of the article’s conclusions were presented as possibilities, not as certainties. And given the technical complexity of the material, we would have benefited from bringing on an independent expert to conduct a rigorous review of the VIPS technical claims.”
The Nation’s top editor concludes her note on this note: “In presenting this follow up, The Nation hopes to encourage further inquiry into the crucial questions of how, why and by whom the DNC emails were made public—a matter that continues to roil our politics. We especially hope that other people with special expertise or knowledge will come forward.”
Further inquiry has already taken place, as it turns out. Via the magazine’s review of the Lawrence piece, it has published pieces from two VIPS groups — one from the folks on whom Lawrence relied for his hack-debunking piece, and another from a band of dissenters. “A number of VIPS members did not sign this problematic memo because of troubling questions about its conclusions, and others who did sign it have raised key concerns since its publication,” reads the piece from the dissenters. They continue: “The implications of this leap-to-conclusions analysis of the VIPS memo—which centers on claiming as an unassailable and immutable fact that the DNC ‘hack’ was committed by an insider with direct access to the DNC server, who then deliberately doctored data and documents to look like a Russian or Russia-affiliated actor was involved, and therefore no hack occurred (consequently, ipso facto, the Russians did not do it)—are contingent on a fallacy,” they write.
As for the VIPS personnel who Lawrence sourced for his column — they write, in part, “In recent years we have seen ‘false-flag’ attacks carried out to undergird a political narrative and objective—to blame the Syrian government for chemical attacks, for example. Forensic evidence suggests that this tried-and-tested technique (in this instance, simply pasting in a Russian template with ‘telltale signs’) may have been used to ‘show’ that Russia hacked into the DNC computers last June.”
There’s more! The Nation commissioned its own, independent technical review of the Lawrence piece. Performed by Nathanial Freitas, this document takes tremendous pains to assess the minutiae in Lawrence’s story, before reaching this conclusion:
Good-faith efforts to parse the available data to provide insight into the unlawful extraction of documents from the DNC in 2016 are admirable and necessary. All parties, however, must exercise much greater care in separating out statements backed by available digital metadata from thoughtful insights and educated guesses. Walking nontechnical readers down any narrative path that cannot be directly supported by evidence must be avoided. At this point, given the limited available data, certainty about only a very small number of things can be achieved.
By way of background: Intramural dissent greeted Lawrence’s attempt at Russiagate debunking, and vanden Heuvel herself concedes in her editor’s note that staffers had expressed concerns about the process that preceded publication of Lawrence’s work. “I just felt that for some reason, we are too heavily invested in the defense of Putin and all his works,” columnist Katha Pollitt told the Erik Wemple Blog in response to the Lawrence piece. Various Trump supporters found solace in the magazine’s embrace of a DNC leak, which didn’t sit well with Pollitt: “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.” Pollitt and several other members of the Nation community sent a letter to vanden Heuvel in June to express their misgivings about Russia coverage. “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,” wrote these folks, who later met with vanden Heuvel about the coverage.
As vanden Heuvel is quick to note, the Nation houses many different views on Russia. The soft-glove treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin is a specialty of Stephen F. Cohen, a Nation contributing editor and the husband of vanden Heuvel. In a February piece, Cohen wrote of the intelligence community’s assessment: “A summary of these ‘facts’ was presented in a declassified report released by the ‘intelligence community’ and widely discussed in January,” wrote Cohen. “Though it quickly became axiomatic proof for Trump’s political and media enemies, almost nothing in the report is persuasive. About half are ‘assessments’ based on surmised motivations, not factual evidence of an actual Kremlin operation on Trump’s behalf.” The column was essentially a harbinger of Lawrence’s story: “Indeed, the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity believes that the DNC documents were not hacked but rather leaked by an insider,” wrote Cohen.
There’s an inventory of Cohen’s views on Russia on the Nation’s site; it’s a series in which he summarizes his discussions with radio host John Batchelor. He refers to himself in these summaries in the third person (much like the Erik Wemple Blog), as in this passage reacting to a new set of Russia sanctions: “Pointless and recklessly irresponsible new sanctions recently adopted almost unanimously by Congress against Russia are, as Cohen has long argued, evidence that the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor. Still worse, the sanctions, inspired more by unverified ‘Russiagate’ allegations against Trump than by anything Moscow has actually done recently, further prevent him from seeking cooperation instead of conflict with the Kremlin, as previous presidents did and indeed as President Trump has tried to do. “He writes them up as if they were dispatches,” said vanden Heuvel about Cohen’s radio write-ups. “They find their audience.”
A charitable approach to Russia colors the Nation’s review of the Lawrence piece. As opposed to actually weighing the evidence carefully and reaching a firm conclusion, the Nation has opted to assign more homework to its readers.
There’s an echo from a relatively recent precedent in the Russia-Trump oeuvre. A week before the presidential election, Slate magazine, under the byline of Franklin Foer, published a long investigative piece with this headline: “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” After the story was ripped by other news outlets, Foer wrote a lengthy reply that evaluated the criticisms and ended with this: “Hopefully my story and the debate that has followed will move us closer to a fuller understanding.”
Nationites long frustrated by the magazine’s Russia tilt are unlikely to find satisfaction in vanden Heuvel’s response. “This article was flat-out wrong and a tremendous disservice to honest discourse,” says contributor editor Bob Dreyfuss. “The review by Nathan Freitas says that the article simply doesn’t prove what it says it proves.” A full retraction, says Dreyfuss, is in order.
Pollitt, likewise, blasted the handling of the story: “Patrick Lawrence published claims that accorded with his own views and presented them as conclusive,” writes Pollitt in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog. “He didn’t even bother to learn that members of VIPS dissented from the report. Nor, apparently, did he consult anyone who knows more about computers than he does, which turns out to be a lot of people. He’s a crackpot and a terrible writer, and I’ve never understood why he was hired in the first place. Katrina should have fired him. Anything less is allowing him much more credence than he deserves, which is no credence at all.”
Asked to comment on such charges, vanden Heuvel told this blog, “I think the editor’s note stands as a clarification and a followup.” But how does the magazine justify a simple “clarification” in light of a damning independent review? “I think that in presenting the independent review, we did a service,” said vanden Heuvel, adding that the review found scenarios in which the DNC could have, indeed, been hacked as well as betrayed by a leaker. Will Lawrence’s standing at the Nation change as a result of the review? “No,” replies vanden Heuvel.