Blaming the Russians

See updates through March 14, 2018, at bottom of post.

Democrats have been blaming everyone but themselves for their election defeat last month, a behavior ought to be disqualifying. They are unwilling to accept that they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves for having chosen to nominate such a terrible candidate. So now they’re blaming Russia[1] and Juan Cole, who has commented on the Democrats’ defeat previously,[2] is back with a needed corrective.[3]

I have one small niggle with Cole’s latest. Cole doesn’t

doubt that the Russian Federation employs hackers and PR people to influence public opinion and even election outcomes in other countries. So does the United States of America. But I am skeptical that anything the Russians did caused Donald Trump to be president.[4]

It isn’t that Cole is wrong. I just think he should be a bit more skeptical of the evidence.

The trouble here is that the claim that Russia interfered with the U.S. election is based on a classified report.[5] We should immediately recall that evidence we don’t get to look at is the same sort of evidence that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And no, we don’t get to say this time is different: The new cold war with the Russians began on Democratic President Barack Obama’s watch and these claims serve to delegitimize results in which a Democratic candidate was defeated. Just as then-President George W. Bush was looking for an excuse to attack Iraq, Obama could be seeking an excuse to justify his stance toward the Russians.

But the problem actually runs deeper and in fact implicates the use of classified information generally. The scientific standard for conclusions requires that researchers publish articles detailing their methodology and reasoning. Before an article is published it is reviewed by peers (“peer review”). Yes, there are serious problems with peer review, but the idea actually reaches to an older and an entirely noble notion that experiments should be publicly witnessed.[6] In this way, the public gains the benefits of new knowledge and it knows how that knowledge was obtained. Such knowledge is an entirely creditable basis for policy-making.

As the Bush administration fixed classified evidence to support an invasion of Iraq,[7] we know that classified information may be manipulated and we cannot assess for ourselves the methodology used to obtain that information or the reasoning used to reach conclusions. This is a deeply dubious basis for policy-making.

And no, I’m not interested in hearing claims about how there’s no alternative. When we’re killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, it’s way past time for an alternative.

But even this is not the only problem with blaming Russia for the election result. No one has satisfactorily explained what President Vladimir Putin’s motive would be for such a dastardly deed.

I see a motive for Obama in excusing the loss of a successor who would presumably build upon and preserve his legacy. I see a motive for Hillary Clinton in trying to explain away her own defeat. I see motives for the mainstream political class in a need to demonize an ‘other’ to divert attention from its own failings and in a historic rivalry with Russia as the successor state to the Soviet Union.

But I don’t see a plausible, compelling motive for Putin and I don’t see evidence I can rely on.

Update, December 13, 2016: Six former intelligence agency employees have written an open letter offering substantive reason to doubt claims that Russians hacked into Democratic National Committee systems. In essence, they point out that “a key mystery is why U.S. intelligence would rely on ‘circumstantial evidence’ when it has the capability for hard evidence.”[8] In addition, while I barely allude to the original Cold War in what follows, the history of that Cold War and the propaganda that was integral to it offers additional considerable reason for doubt.[9] Given all this, it seems more likely than not that the accusations being made against Russia are substantively false.

Update, December 15, 2016: In what follows, I question not only the use of classified evidence—which remains deeply problematic—but the apparent absence of a motive for Russian President Vladmir Putin to interfere in U.S. elections. It turns out that Fiona Hill covered the question of Putin’s motive in Vox in July.[10] I have been distrustful of Vox in recent months on anything having to do with the U.S. presidential election because, like other outlets, it appeared to have degenerated to functioning as a propaganda organ for Hillary Clinton’s campaign,[11] and I am dissatisfied with some of Hill’s evidence, how she pulls it together, and with her reliance on innuendo with regard to Putin “still think[ing] and act[ing] like a KGB operative,”[12] but there is substance here. Is this substance compelling? I take this question on here.

Update, December 17, 2016: In what follows, I point out that classified information and the conclusions drawn from that information cannot be scrutinized. We do not know how this information was gotten because cannot know the methodology (and its strengths and weaknesses). We do not know the argumentation used to support these conclusions. George Beebe explores in magnitudes of order more depth that I ever could just what this means.[13] Meanwhile, Juan Cole notices a resemblance between the demonization of Putin and old Cold War techniques.[14]

Update, March 14, 2018: I have previously expressed deep skepticism regarding accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump.[15] While proof for these claims remains yet to be had, it is much less reasonable[16] to think that Rex Tillerson’s termination[17] is unconnected to his comments on Russia’s culpability in a nerve agent attack in Britain.[18] I am now compelled to accept as probable the worst suspicions about Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia which, by the way, do not necessarily involve voluntary collusion, but may rather entail collusion under duress. And because Trump is so shameless, I’m now deeply suspicious that this involves something rather more serious than “golden showers.”[19]Greg Myre, “A Russian Word Americans Need To Know: ‘Kompromat,'” National Public Radio, January 11, 2017,; Jeff Stein, “Trump, Russian Spies and the Infamous ‘Golden Shower Memos,’” Newsweek, January 10, 2017,

  1. [1]Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller, “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House,” Washington Post, December 9, 2016,
  2. [2]Juan Cole, “Why the White Working Class Rebelled: Neoliberalism Is Killing Them (Literally),” Truthdig, November 9, 2016,
  3. [3]Juan Cole, “No, America, It Wasn’t Russia: You Did This to Yourself,” Truthdig, December 10, 2016,
  4. [4]Juan Cole, “No, America, It Wasn’t Russia: You Did This to Yourself,” Truthdig, December 10, 2016,
  5. [5]Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller, “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House,” Washington Post, December 9, 2016,
  6. [6]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  7. [7]Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History (New York: New York Review, 2006).
  8. [8]William Binney, et al., “US Intel Vets Dispute Russia Hacking Claims,” Consortium News, December 12, 2016,
  9. [9]Andrew Cockburn, “The New Red Scare: Reviving the art of threat inflation,” Harper’s, December, 2016,
  10. [10]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016,
  11. [11]Thomas Frank, “Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there,” Guardian, November 9, 2016,
  12. [12]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016,
  13. [13]George Beebe, “Russia’s Role in the US Elections: The Case for Caution,” National Interest, December 16, 2016,
  14. [14]Juan Cole, “Demonization of Putin as ‘Personally’ behind Clinton Hack is old Propaganda Technique,” Informed Comment, December 16, 2016,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Blaming the Russians,” Not Housebroken, December 17, 2016,; David Benfell, “Vladimir Putin’s motives,” Not Housebroken, December 17, 2016,
  16. [16]John Cassidy, “Rex Tillerson Gets Fired the Day After He Criticized Russia,” New Yorker, March 13, 2018,; Jonathan Chait, “Trump Denies Russian Guilt in Murder. Tillerson Admits It, Is Fired. Hmm,” New York, March 13, 2018,
  17. [17]Ashley Parker et al., “Trump ousts Tillerson, will replace him as secretary of state with CIA chief Pompeo,” Washington Post, March 13, 2018,
  18. [18]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Russian spy: UK to expel 23 Russian diplomats,” March 14, 2018,
  19. [19]