Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery Sliver Blaze, the curious incident was the dog that didn’t bark. When Russian hackers broke into Hillary Clinton’s campaign, they released thousands of embarrassing emails. But emails weren’t all they stole. What happened to the material they didn’t publish?
Last Friday’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller uncovers a much more serious crime. The emails themselves were a smokescreen for a much more important Russian state hacking operation.
While the political class picked over the emails, the hackers had wormed their way into the Democrats’ servers. They gained access to some computers set up in the cloud rented to host the Democrats analytics operation. The “Conspirators,” the indictment reads, “gathered data by creating backups or ‘snapshots’ of the DNC’s cloud-based systems using the cloud provider’s own technology. The Conspirators then moved the snapshots to cloud-based accounts they had registered with the same service thereby stealing the data from the DNC.”
Data – where your voters are, what messages they respond to and how they can be motivated to vote – are the core practice of any political campaign. Getting your opponents’ data, finding out who they believe their supporters to be, and persuading them to stay at home: that is the performance enhancing drug.
Trump eked out tiny winning margins in Wisconsin and Pennyslvania because black and Hispanic turnout was far lower for Clinton than for Obama. Black turnout in Wisconsin fell from 80 per cent to under 50 percent. Black and Hispanic turnout in Florida fell by six points. Meanwhile, turnout of white men without college degrees went up, but by only a single percentage point. Trump did win uneducated white voters by substantial margins – 66 per cent to 29 per cent – but did not succeed in driving up their turnout.
His highly targeted campaign managed to assemble a minority victory dominated by white voters without a college degree that just happened to live in the states he needed to win. Eleven thousand votes in Michigan, 22,000 in Wisconsin 50,000 in Pennsylvania and 100,000 in Florida (twice the size of Pennsylvania). He won the electoral college, but lost the popular vote by more than two million votes.
This improbable feat was as unlikely South Korea’s victory over Germany in the recent world cup. Though helped by Hillary Clinton’s many mistakes, Trump’s technical victory was nevertheless a hugely surprising achievement. Mueller’s inquiry is getting close to finding out how he pulled this off.
Thanks to Mueller, we know (and the indictment reiterates) that Russians released the contents of emails that embarrassed Hilary Clinton. We also know that they hacked into their analytics operation. We know, as well, that the Trump campaign maintained very close contact with Russian intelligence services. We also know, from Trump and Putin’s press conference in Helsinki, that Putin boasted that he helped Trump win the election — and Trump didn’t deny it.
So embarrassed was the White House by this admission, that they doctored their official transcript to try and hide it, by making it appear that Putin answered a different question.
We don’t yet know what the Russian intelligence hackers did with this analytics. But we do know which presidential campaign they were in touch with; which campaign has had its staffers prosecuted; and which campaign has its officials under Mueller’s investigation. Are we to believe that the Russians, having obtained this information, and already being in touch with a campaign willing to collude with a foreign power, sat on their discoveries and kept this valuable information to themselves?
The charge sheet is being formed. It is that Trump’s presidential campaign allegedly conspired with Russian intelligence to hack into the Democrats’ computers and steal their election data. Unlike in Watergate, where Nixon used his own goons to burgle the Democratic HQ, this time agents of a hostile foreign power are involved. Trump asks us to believe Putin’s denial that Russian military intelligence did the job for him. And who wouldn’t believe those two honest men?
An electronic Watergate burglary, organised by Russian Spies might have passed muster as the plot for a remake of the Manchurian Candidate. As a real-life conspiracy, it would have been laughed out of town.
But, as Holmes would say: “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”