In a Friday January 6 report, the US Intelligence Community (USIC) claimed that after its analysts—using phrases such as “we assess” or “we judge” to simply convey analytic assessments or judgments about “Russian leads”—have come away with concrete evidence that Russia indeed hacked the 2016 US presidential elections. As to whether this “hack” also swayed the Republican (RNC) and Democratic (DNC) primaries in favor of Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton respectively, remains to be ascertained.
The report has been lauded by US media giants although the evidence provided on Russian hacking of the US elections remains tenuous. How did the US Intelligence Community conclude that Russia hacked the elections?
Well, the answer invariable must lie in deducing the charge from the premise: the “constantly growing knowledge base of previous events and known malicious actors, and their knowledge of how these malicious actors work and the tools that they use.” Out of this data, one would think that USIC’s analysts actually found pieces of information that traced operations back to their source, and thus concluded that it was actually Russia.
But no. This is not what happened. At least, the report they’ve provided to the public does not entail concrete proof that such information was actually found and traced to a Russian source. Part of the difficulty is not necessarily the issue with finding the unique evidence that points to Russia or any other country for that matter; or themselves. More, the problem has to do with the very nature of cyberspace itself. Attribution of information to a unique source is an exceedingly difficult task, if not well-nigh impossible, especially when it involves sophisticated actors.
Which altogether mean that while every kind of cyber operation—malicious or not—leaves a trail, it is difficult to pin it on a unique source. This is where the issue gets muddy when the US Intelligence Community analysts insist that they have found evidence that Russia hacked the DNC and its key leaders. Why would Russian be so motivated? To air the Clinton’s dirty linens in public in a bid to garner disdain for Hillary Clinton and hence boost Donald J. Trump’s chances of winning. In a nutshell, this is the nature of the “hack.” Since it was Trump who managed against the odds to force Hillary Clinton to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory the issue has generated much interest from the left.
It is also important to note that the report does not provide any evidence to the effect that Russia actually “hacked” into the voting machines and tampered with the accounting protocols. Nor does the report entail an explanation of why the Russian government favors Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton for president of the US. All the report provides is the analysts’ conclusion on who “hacked” the DNC and key leaders in the party.
To this bold point USIC analysts claim that they have done “a critical job” of providing evidence that Russia indeed hacked the US elections. On the one hand this evidence is the point of the report released to the public. On the other, the US intelligence community seems to also admit that the critical part of this judgment comprised uncertainties based on “the quality and quantity of the information” and the complexity thereof.
What USIC claims to be a deduction from the premises of known facts turns out to be value judgments—an assessment of attribution of not “who conducted an operation [into the DNC emails], but rather a series of judgments that describe (1) whether it was an isolated incident, (2) who was the likely perpetrator, (3) the perpetrator’s possible motivations, and (4) whether a foreign government had a role in ordering or leading the operation.”
Put together, a value judgment is an assessment that reveals the values of the person making the assessment rather than the objective realities of what is being assessed. Take for instance that a high probability of 99 percent is assigned to each of the various categories of (1), (2), (3) and (4) above. Even within this highly confident spurious space of the USIC analyst, one wonders how he comes away with the certainty—since a simple model provides only a probability of 96 percent from the premises—of a Russian government actor. Is this even enough to warrant that 35 Russian diplomats be evicted from the US by the US government in a diplomatic standoff?
What this also means is that the phrases “we assess” or “we judge” has no basis in certainty, except in conjecture – guess work. Now, this guess work includes “two important elements [according to the USIC itself]: judgments of how likely it is that something has happened or will happen (using terms such as “likely” or “unlikely”) and confidence levels in those judgments (low, moderate, and high).”
Yet, according to the US Intelligence Community, the conclusion from the value judgments on the likelihood that Russia picked Trump to win the elections over Hillary Clinton via the DNC emails and the value judgment on the confidence on this likelihood somehow results in the certainty that the Russian government likes Trump and in fact hacked the DNC email server. Few logicians would waste precious time on this gross misrepresentation of data in the name of what the USIC calls “rigorous” calculation gleaned from “evidentiary basis, logic and reasoning, and precedents.”
But of course, the USIC has a track record for such value judgments in certainty! The same “evidentiary basis, logic and reasoning, and precedents” underpinned a conjecture that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, which forced the world’s richest military into open war with one of the poorest militaries in the world. Of course it turned out the USIC was wrong. Dead wrong. There were no WMDs. That value judgment still haunts the world at large today. Hence a value judgment that evicts 35 Russian diplomats from the same country that went to war with Iraq over spurious allegations without evidence should be examined within this backdrop.
In short, the analytic judgments of US Intel in this report are simply based on value judgments or on previous value judgments. But for some reason, these judgments once they are put together and pushed through the matrix of a convoluted algorithm of “evidentiary basis, logic and reasoning, and precedents,” these value judgments come out as evidence, as solid as it can ever get again in the US Intelligence Community, that Russia indeed hacked the DNC. Now you ask, how can certain conclusion derive from uncertain building blocks? How can one glean objective information from value judgments?
For the US Intelligence Community “rigorous analysis” is every bit about value judgments. Nothing more.