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Obama's expulsion of Russian 'spies' from the U.S. is deeply ironic

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In the lead-up to the expulsion yesterday by President Barack Obama of 35 suspected Russian "intelligence operatives" from the United States for their government's effort to influence the recent U.S. presidential election, a strenuous attempt has been made by many North American news organizations to leave the impression the 'hacking" in question involved manipulating the actual ballot count to give the election to Republican Donald Trump.

This kind of spin is likely to continue in mainstream news coverage of this story, which is deeply ironic in several ways. Indeed, things will probably become quite feverish on this topic in the next few days and weeks, and I imagine not a few Parliamentary backbenchers will demand that we Canadians expel some Russians too.

Naturally, Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have known about and approved the entire thing … and maybe hacked the computers personally, possibly without even putting on his shirt.

All this said, anyone who has been following this story closely understands that there is no actual suggestion, even by the proponents of this storyline who are attempting to leave this impression, that the Russians or anyone else hacked the actual vote count.

Indeed, state-run counting of federal election ballots in the country next door to us is simply too disorganized, too technologically chaotic, and too heavily influenced by partisan state governments with agendas of their own, for the Russians to have been able to hack it in a meaningful way even if they wished to do so -- which remains an open question.

So whether it was corrupt Republican governors and their staffs, a deeply politicized Federal Bureau of Investigation, angry redneck men or some other factor such as Russian spies that tipped the election to Trump in the states that matter remains a suitable topic for debate.

So does the question of whether the Russians Obama has just expelled were "intelligence operatives,” or merely diplomats, as the Russian media terms them. We can argue about this too, as long as we understand the ironic reality that all diplomats from all countries are intelligence operates to one degree or another, at least if they are doing their jobs properly.

There is, of course, an allegation of actual computer hacking by Russians. However, it is not hacking of the presidential election per se, but of email accounts used by the Democratic Party presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and some of her aides.

Whoever did that hacking then selectively spilled the beans about what they found to the media, which no longer does much investigative reporting on its own. Reporters in turn published things that really were said in the emails that hurt Clinton's chances, perhaps enough in a couple of key states to ensure her Republican rival's victory.

So while computer hacking is illegal almost everywhere, it seems like the real problem from the perspective of the outgoing Democratic Party Administration, and not a few members of the Republican establishment as well, was the leak to the remnants of a properly functioning news media, not the hack itself regardless of whether it was done by the Russians, the Republicans or disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party.

This too is ironic, although not as deeply ironic as the fact that what everyone is shouting about is the Russians acting for all the world like a group of people we used to call journalists, back when such people still existed.

The mighty Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye, the GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of, at various times, the armed forces of the Russian Crown, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, did what? They investigated what Clinton was doing and broke the story to the U.S. electorate!

Holy cow! Hold Page One! That’s certainly not the GRU we knew and feared back in the Cold War!

The GRU allegedly behaved, in other words, like a reporter and camera crew from 60 Minutes, circa 1974!

But this is different, you might say, from Morley Safer and Dan Rather, because those two weren't trying to influence the outcome of an election. (If you're thinking they were, just take off your tinfoil hat right now.)

But what exactly is wrong about governments or citizens of one country trying to influence the outcomes of elections and policy decisions in others? Lots of Canadians traipse across the border to campaign for one U.S. candidate or another all the time. (Rob Anders! C'mon down!) Our previous Prime Minister made it pretty clear he'd be happier working with Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate back in 2012, than Obama. And the government of Israel, quite famously, is not afraid to try to influence election outcomes in other countries, including the United States.

In light of this irony, it's worth asking: What's different about Russia? That is, what's different about Russia that makes it a threat when it does exactly the same thing Canada or Israel or Saudi Arabia tries from time to time?

Because we don't hack people's computers? Are you sure we don’t? Are you sure they did?

Most ironic of all, of course, is that the United States is certainly no virgin when it comes to influencing elections in other countries, and often by using means considerably more distasteful than merely hacking computers and selectively leaking the results to the media.

In no particular order of time or alphabet, Syria, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Italy, Germany, Nicaragua, Chile, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, France, Ukraine, Bolivia, Brazil, Congo, Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Congo, Afghanistan, Argentina, Turkey, Indonesia, Laos, Grenada, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and, of course, Russia, are just a few of the places American "intelligence operatives," some of them diplomats, are known to have intervened since the end of World War II to circumvent democracy -- and in some cases completely dismantle it.

Given what happened yesterday, this is a profound irony indeed.

In addition, of course, U.S. corporations try in a variety of ways to influence elections in other countries -- including this one. Consider the bags of money trucked across the border to help our Canadian right-wing think tanks produce fatuous "studies" on how markets are always better than government regulations.

So the Russians stand accused -- on as yet unpersuasive evidence -- of acting like journalists, and like Canadians and Israelis, and like Republican state governors, and, worst of all, like Americans! No wonder our American cousins are in a full-blown swivet.

Believe me, Donald Trump is going to be a spectacularly terrible president. It's going to be ugly. Bigly ugly.

And there are a lot of people who share the blame for this -- including the Democrats for running a candidate as egregiously bad as Clinton. 

But the Russians? Seriously?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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