Oct 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The hazy line between politics and influence campaigns

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The recent firestorm over the New York Post’s publication of stories relying on data from a hard drive allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden shows the increasingly hazy line between domestic political “dirty tricks” and a foreign-sponsored disinformation operation.

Why it matters: This haziness could give determined actors cover to conduct influence operations aimed at undermining U.S. democracy through channels that just look like old-fashioned hard-nosed politics.

Catch up quick: The stories by the Post, which were dogged by controversy within the newspaper itself, have focused on Hunter Biden’s international business dealings as well as raw tabloid exposés of his personal life.

  • The most serious Ukraine-related allegation — the recycled claim that Joe Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to fire a prosecutor because the then-vice president wanted to kill an investigation into energy giant Burisma, where the younger Biden sat on the board — has been extensively debunked as false. (Hunter Biden’s business activities abroad while his father was in office do nevertheless raise potential conflict-of-interest questions.)

Possibly more consequential than the data trove itself are the unusual circumstances surrounding its discovery and dissemination.

  • According to the Post, Hunter Biden dropped a waterlogged laptop off at a computer repair shop in Delaware — though the repairman says he never actually saw the person who left it — where it languished for over a year.
  • The repairman eventually contacted an associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who passed the contents of the laptop’s hard drive on to the New York Post. (Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon also somehow obtained a copy.)

Between the lines: It’s a byzantine account, and the chain-of-custody issues alone raise many questions. It would be easy for anyone along that chain to, for instance, mix in forged documents or content that's otherwise particularly damning.

  • Russian intelligence services have a long history of doing just that, a technique they employed as recently as in a hack-and-leak campaign during the 2017 French elections.
  • Although administration allies like Giuliani — and, unusually, even DNI director John Ratcliffe — have pushed back against allegations that the cache may be part of a Russian disinformation campaign, the FBI is reportedly investigating precisely this possibility.
  • No clear evidence has yet emerged to settle the matter either way.

Our thought bubble: Questionable sourcing doesn’t necessarily negate the newsworthiness of genuine leaked communications. (Forgeries are another matter, and the legitimacy of the documents behind the Post story remains an open question.)

  • Just because it was the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, that hacked the DNC’s emails and passed them to WikiLeaks doesn’t automatically mean mainstream outlets shouldn’t have covered them.

Yes, but: Understanding where leaked documents and similar material come from helps us grasp if there are larger forces at work so that we don't miss the forest for the trees.

  • In 2016, the “trees” were the internal squabbles and maneuvering within the DNC, as revealed in the leaked emails.
  • The “forest” was that Russian intelligence services had launched an unprecedented covert-action campaign against the United States aimed in part at tilting the scale toward their preferred presidential candidate.

Be smart: We don’t have that kind of clarity right now about Hunter Biden’s hard drive. Giuliani may indeed have obtained it through some kind of highly fortuitous domestic legerdemain.

  • But the potential for foreign skulduggery is also impossible to ignore, particularly given Giuliani's role as President Trump's point man in Ukraine, working to dig up Biden dirt in close collaboration with Ukrainian officials — including one the Treasury Department identified as a known "active Russian agent for over a decade."
  • Trump and some White House staffers reportedly received warnings last year that Giuliani was entangled with Russian assets in Ukraine.

The bottom line: We can’t ignore the larger context of Giuliani’s actions. We may not be able to see through the entire forest of the 2020 elections yet, but that doesn’t mean we are required to only gaze at solitary trees, either.

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