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BBC becomes the go-to source for tinfoil hat conspiracy theories

Image: Christiaan Colen

It used to be that if you wanted to hear conspiracy theories you would tune into Alex Jones or the alien abduction channels in the far recesses of YouTube.  These days, however, you need only watch/listen to the BBC uncritically trotting out the latest conspiracy theories concerning Jeremy Corbyn, Syrian chemical weapons or evil Russians lurking around every corner.  So it is that today we learn from the BBC that:

“The UK government has accused Russia’s military intelligence service of being behind four high-profile cyber attacks.”

Among these “cyber attacks” is one of the greatest conspiracy theories of our age:

“The Democratic National Committee in 2016, when emails and chats were obtained and subsequently published online. The US authorities have already linked this to Russia.”

Given that this allegation is part of an ongoing FBI investigation that has failed to turn up any evidence of Russian interference or collusion; we might expect the BBC to be a bit more critical.  Not least because the Minister behind the story is Jeremy Hunt – the man who last year attempted to blame Russian cyber attacks for a malware attack on his antiquated NHS computer system  that turned out to be the result of his schoolboy error of “saving money” by not paying for antivirus updates.

There is an even more obvious reason to be cautious about any story of this kind just a month before Chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn budget.  It is something of a British tradition for government agencies whose budgets are likely to be cut to publicise all kinds of horrors that might befall us unless they get a pay rise.  In this instance, the agency responsible for UK cyber security – the National Cyber Security Centre – were very precise in stating that the attacks were “almost certainly” conducted by Russia.  We have seen this type of precise use of language before.  When the BBC reported that the Skripals were poisoned by a Russian military grade nerve agent they were lying.  Experts at the Porton Down chemical weapons facility could not confirm that the poison used was Russian.  As Craig Murray reported at the time:

“I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve agent as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation ‘of a type developed by Russia’ after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation…

“The exact formulation ‘of a type developed by Russia’was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, ‘of a type developed by Russia’ is the precise phrase used in the joint communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday.”

“Almost certainly” is not the same as “definitely;” and the BBC – were they not in the business of regurgitating government propaganda – should have questioned this wording.  Not least because the latest revelations in the US senate hearings into the now infamous dodgy dossier (fabricated by former British spy Christopher Steele on behalf of the DNC) implicate British intelligence in meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election.  Indeed, among the phone calls received by Donald Trump last month was a desperate request from the British government that he refrain from declassifying the “Russiagate” documents requested by Congress as this is likely to expose collusion between UK officials and the Clinton campaign in the run up to the 2016 election.

The DNC emails were hugely embarrassing to the Clinton campaign because they demonstrated that the DNC had rigged the Democrat primaries to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination – reason alone for treating with a degree of scepticism DNC claims that “it woz Russia wot did it.”  However, the biggest problem with the attempt to blame Russia is the lack of evidence.  In effect, the Russiagate allegations are a classic conspiracy theory on a par with those from people who think that the moon landings did not happen or that space aliens control the world’s central banks; they are based solely on unevidenced assertions.

Evidence, however, exists to strongly suggest that Russia did not hack the DNC emails.  That evidence comes from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) – a group of former US intelligence officers with decades of experience working within the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and other agencies, which previously produced some of the most credible—and critical—analyses of the Bush administration’s mishandling of intelligence data in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In July 2017, VIPS produced a memo to the President outlining the results of a forensic examination of the alleged hack on the DNC computers and concluded that it was an inside job that had nothing to do with Russia:

“Key among the findings of the independent forensic investigations is the conclusion that the DNC data was copied onto a storage device at a speed that far exceeds an Internet capability for a remote hack. Of equal importance, the forensics show that the copying was performed on the East coast of the U.S…

“The forensics reflect what seems to have been a desperate effort to ‘blame the Russians’ for publishing highly embarrassing DNC emails three days before the Democratic convention last July. Since the content of the DNC emails reeked of pro-Clinton bias, her campaign saw an overriding need to divert attention from content to provenance – as in, who ‘hacked’ those DNC emails? The campaign was enthusiastically supported by compliant ‘mainstream’ media; they are still on a roll.” (my emphasis)

The BBC has consistently echoed the pro-Clinton media claims without clarifying to British viewers/listeners that US media outlets are not governed by the same impartiality rules as those in the UK.  To all intents and purposes, US TV networks operate like British newspapers in reflecting the partisan views of their proprietors.  In the USA, it just happens that five of the six major news networks are staunch Clinton-Democrat supporters.

Of course, the fact that the DNC emails were most likely leaked by a DNC insider is not conclusive evidence that the Russians were not behind the leak.  As a discussion article in The Nation points out, even within VIPS there are detractors who disagree with the VIPS conclusion.  The key point made by VIPS however, is that the “it woz Russia wot did it” line is the Clinton campaign’s story and that as such it is for the Clinton campaign to produce evidence to back it up.  So far, however, the DNC has refused to turn over its servers to investigators, preferring instead to obfuscate:

“the dissent injects uncertainty about what the words ‘cyber operation’ might include in a way that clearly implies that the Russians could have gotten the DNC e-mails in some way other than through an Internet hack—a very key point. Yes, the January 6 report does use the phrase ‘cyber operation,’ but President Obama’s intelligence chiefs, including former FBI director James Comey, have testified under oath that they accept CrowdStrike’s analysis regarding a ‘hack.’ Moreover, intelligence officials have briefed The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major news outlets about the alleged Russian role in a hack. In this light, focusing on the phrase ‘cyber operation’ amounts to a word game.

“Moreover, does the dissent have proof that the ‘Guccifer 2.0’ ‘claim’ is not fake news? Is the writer of the post at ‘Guccifer 2.0’ actually the person(s) responsible for the data heist? The intelligence-community assessment was not backed up with facts; we cannot believe what it says until technical evidence is provided to prove it.”

In the end, the technical data is clear – not just from the metadata but from independent technical tests:

“Recent data analysis gives additional support to our key finding—namely, that the speed of the data transfer from the DNC server (22.7 megabytes per second) far exceeded the capability of the Internet in early July 2016. We have now learned that the 22.7-megabytes-per-second speed was merely the average rate for the duration of the data transfer, and that a peak rate of 38 megabytes per second was reached during that transfer. A copy to a thumb drive could handle that peak speed; an Internet hack attempted from abroad could not.”

The Wikileaks revelations – the veracity of which nobody has questioned – were severely damaging to the Clinton campaign in the run up to the 2016 election.  The news that the primary election had been fixed to prevent the left wing populist Bernie Sanders from becoming the Democrat presidential candidate undoubtedly caused large numbers of former Democrat supporters to stay at home on Election Day.  Indeed, in some of the “rustbelt” states that unexpectedly voted for Trump, it is very likely that many former Sanders supporters turned out to vote for Trump.  That said, the emails were hardly the only reason for this.  The failure to campaign in rustbelt seats, the close sucking up to her Wall Street backers and the inane claim the “America is already great” were just a few of the reasons why Hillary was just about the worst candidate the Democrat party could field; and most likely the only one who could lose to Donald Trump.

In an increasingly polarised USA, none of this information is new.  There is inevitably heated partisan disagreement around the issues raised.  But only the most ardent of anti-Trump Democrat insiders now accept the Russian hacking narrative at face value.  And that’s the point.  The BBC is presenting a DNC conspiracy theory as if it was established fact while failing to inform its UK viewers/listeners that there are serious questions to be answered about the Russian hacking claims.

No doubt Russian state agencies really do interfere with the governing of other countries.  No doubt the UK and USA government agencies do too.  But that is not reason to take at face value every government press release; especially when it gives the BBC audience the entirely false impression that a highly disputed conspiracy theory is established fact.

It is possible – though unlikely – that Hunt – on behalf of the UK government – is actively seeking to bolster a Clinton/Democrat position that is unravelling fast as various Congressional oversight committees have uncovered a growing body of evidence of concerted high level attempts to use the Russian hacking claim to overturn the 2016 election result (one result of which already is the exceptional number of resignations and firings at the highest level in the US Department of Justice).  More likely, however, is that Hunt is merely attempting to divert attention away from the sheer incompetence of his own party as it runs the UK economy over a cliff even before its self-inflicted Brexit farce comes to its inevitable destructive conclusion.  Understandably, those security agencies that make their living from counter-intelligence activities are happy to go along with Hunt if it puts a few extra millions into their budgets.  But we should expect better from a BBC that is supposed to be accountable to its license fee payers.

As you made it to the end…

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