Blaming Document Dumps on Russia Won’t Cut It

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If it’s true that the leak of trade negotiation readouts between the U.K. and the U.S. was part of a Russian influence operation, it’s the third such document dump ahead of a major nation's election in as many years. This has created a new knee-jerk reaction among affected politicians: Blame the Russians to dismiss the leak. 

It would be more responsible on the part of political leaders to deal with the substance of the documents — especially since none of the three dumps has been particularly damaging. It goes without saying in today’s almost borderless world that foreign powers will have favorites in important countries’ elections. Democratic countries may try to subtly influence the vote through statements, winks and nudges; Russia seems to take a different approach. In this case, voters may have at least been given more information about their choice than the government was prepared to share. 

At the weekend, Reddit, the discussion website, said it believed that a post from a month ago, containing links to the trade negotiation documents, “was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.” The tortured phrasing reflects the difficulty of proving something like this. Researchers can only rely on similarities with previous campaigns. In the case of the Reddit post by a user going by the moniker Gregoratior, the connections first were made by Ben Nimmo, director of investigations for the social network analysis firm Graphika, in a report published earlier this month. 

Nimmo wrote that the post was amplified, using disposable “burner accounts,” on a number of German- and English-language sites also used in an operation discovered by Facebook earlier this year, dubbed Secondary Infektion. It involved planting and boosting false stories meant to sow discord in Western societies: anti-immigrant ones, those pitting Germany or the U.K. against the U.S., those stoking religious tensions in Ireland. As during that effort, linked to Russia because of typical English grammar errors and alignment with Russian geopolitical interests, links to the Reddit post were tweeted directly at journalists and politicians to get the leak noticed.

The timing of the U.K. document dump, just before a U.K. national election, brings to mind two other leaks also attributed to Russian intelligence services: The Wikileaks publication of emails stolen from John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, and the dissemination of emails lifted from Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election campaign in France through the 4chan message board popular with the U.S. alt-right. Both have been linked to Russia — the U.S. one, ultimately, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the French one by cybersecurity firms. 

It makes sense that Russia should be stoking tensions ahead of the U.K. election. Its propaganda machine and troll armies have agitated for Brexit; indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suppressed a parliamentary report on Russian interference in U.K. politics until after the election, possibly because it could reveal embarrassing links between Brexiters and Russia. But now that Johnson’s Conservatives lead in the polls, making Brexit likely to happen, it benefits Russia to add fuel to the U.K. domestic political fire by weighing in on the other side — that of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an advocate of a less adversarial relationship with Russia. Corbyn, indeed, has embraced the leaked documents, saying they show the U.K.’s vaunted National Health Service will be “for sale” to Americans after Brexit as part of a one-sided trade deal. 

In the U.S., the Clinton campaign’s response to the Podesta emails consisted of blaming Russia and refusing to comment on individual emails. In France, the email dump was released just 24 hours before the election, so nobody had the time to delve into their contents. The Macron campaign commented that the dump was an attempt at “democratic destabilization, like that seen during the last presidential campaign in the United States.” Johnson’s response? A promise to investigate the leak while broadly dismissing its substance.

Drawing attention to leaked documents’ provenance is a cop-out. It’s the duty of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to investigate leaks and work out why sensitive data weren’t protected. And it’s up to experts to thrash out whether Russian intelligence actually stole the documents or Russian trolls merely helped get them noticed. The two situations require different security responses. On another level, it’s worth discussing what goals the Kremlin might be pursuing in either case and whether some sort of policy or diplomatic response is needed.

But ultimately, when the documents are genuine and not tampered with, as both the Podesta emails and the U.K. trade documents appear to be, the politicians on the receiving end of the damaging material must react to its substance — or be seen as dishonest.

The Clinton campaign should have figured out how deal with the revelations from the emails so that Donald Trump couldn’t turn his campaign into an anti-corruption one. Blaming Russia didn’t really help. Johnson, for his part, should be able to reassure British voters that he’s not about to pull the country into some kind of common market with the U.S. on American terms — that he’s not about to lower food safety standards, for example, or privatize the U.K. health care system to let U.S. pharmaceutical companies sell medication to Britons at higher prices. He’s repeatedly denied these things on the campaign trail, but brushing them off as akin to photos purporting to show a UFO isn’t engaging with the substance.  

Clinton probably thought she could dodge the issues and still win. Johnson’s poll lead likely gives him similar ideas, though he has been more conscious of the way claims about compromising the NHS cut through to voters. He may well have done enough to assuage concerns for now. But at the end of the day, political opponents and the public never quite forget revelations left unanswered, and the questions will not go away even if he manages to sweep them under the rug and come out on top this time.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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