“These are baseless allegations substantiated with nothing, done on a rather amateurish, emotional level,” Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists on Monday. “We still don’t know what data is really being used by those who present such unfounded accusations.”
US intelligence agencies released the joint report on Friday, a day after a Senate armed forces committee hearing on foreign cyberthreats, convened over fears of Moscow’s interference in the election. The report assessed that the Russian president had ordered a multifaceted campaign to influence the election, with a clear preference for a Donald Trump victory.
“We are growing rather tired of these accusations. It is becoming a full-on witch-hunt,” Peskov said, in an echo of Trump’s own assessment and disparagement of the US intelligence agencies.
Friday’s report was a declassified version of a top-secret paper. A disclaimer printed on the public version said its conclusions were “identical to those in the highly classified assessment, but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign”.
The declassified version does not give examples of the kind of evidence that has been collected, but relies on claims that at times appear thin. In Russia, even Kremlin critics have reacted with surprise to the contents of the report and the uncritical way its findings were presented in much of the US media.
“The unclassified report is insulting to the knowledge of anyone who covers Russia either from the outside or the inside,” said Alexey Kovalev, who runs a website devoted to debunking Russian propaganda.
The report appears to be based on reading the tea leaves of Russian open-source publications and media reports, and includes pro-Trump quotes from figures such as the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky as an indicator of Kremlin intentions. Zhirinovsky has, on various occasions in the past, suggested sinking the US with gravitational weapons and dropping a nuclear bomb on Istanbul.
Much of the report is made up of an annex about the Kremlin-funded television station Russia Today, which was written in 2012 and has little relevance to the most recent election cycle. RT was accused of being part of a subversion and disinformation campaign aimed at “fuelling discontent” in the US.
The part of the report about RT also contains numerous basic factual errors. A repeatedly referenced article from the Russian press is given as published on 4 July, when it actually was from 7 April. Dates in Russia are written day/month, not month/day as in the US. Such errors, while minor, do not appear to reflect a careful and accurate intelligence operation.
The report makes the “high confidence” judgments that Russia intervened in the electoral process, and that its GRU military intelligence agency hacked the Democratic party’s email servers and handed the material to WikiLeaks.
It goes on to state, however, that “high confidence in a judgment does not imply that the assessment is a fact or a certainty; such judgments may be wrong”.
Tech firms such as CrowdStrike have said a group known as Fancy Bear, APT29 or Sofacy hacked the Democrats, and a number of analysts have said there is strong evidence that the trail the hackers left and their previous targets strongly aligns with Russian intelligence. Trump and Putin have repeatedly expressed admiration for each other, both during the campaign and since Trump’s victory.
The intelligence report’s lack of even hints at the kind of evidence collected make it difficult to assess the claims, and its weakness gave Russian officials ample opportunity to poke fun.
The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote on Facebook on Monday: “If ‘Russian hackers’ managed to hack anything in America, it’s two things: Obama’s brain and, of course, the report itself.”
Author: Shaun Walker