It didn’t take even 48 hours for an online conspiracy theory to make its way from the reply section of the WikiLeaks Twitter account to the prime-time airwaves on Fox News and top conservative radio programs.
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks released a batch of apparent CIA documents describing the agency’s extensive cybersecurity and hacking capabilities, which appear to allow agents to hack into a variety of smart, internet-collected devices.
And as WikiLeaks began promoting its most interesting documents, a conspiracy theory was born.
The theory appeared to emerge first on WikiLeaks’ Twitter account about an hour after the group released the Vault 7 documents. WikiLeaks highlighted the alleged abilities for CIA hackers to leave behind trails that resemble other hackers.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) March 7, 2017
Readers jumped on the tweet, leaping to the conclusion that perhaps the CIA could be responsible for the hack and release of private emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair John Podesta’s email account.
— Currie Dobson (@Ventuckyspaz) March 7, 2017
— more proofs pls (@red__square) March 7, 2017
There are reports in media outlets from The New York Times to Fox News showing in detail Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, including the hack and release of DNC and Podesta emails. Numerous US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have all also blamed Russia for the hacks.
Further, The Intercept on Wednesday reported that the CIA program – called UMBRAGE – seems primarily used a as a shortcut tool for writing code, and does not mention any ways to create a “false flag” operation. Instead, the Intercept reported, the tools for the CIA to hide their tracks appear to be routine security procedures that would be well-known by professional hackers.
But this information didn’t stop the theory from picking up steam among many prominent online supporters of President Donald Trump, including social-media figures like radio host Bill Mitchell and Ann Coulter.
Russia said they hacked nothing. Assange said Russia didn’t provide the emails. Now we learn CIA can make a hack “look” like Russia.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) March 7, 2017
Wikileaks docs show CIA hacking can leave Russian fingerprints. Say…you’d don’t think…
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) March 9, 2017
The theory spread so fast conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh had time to tout it on his show on March 7, when he denied Trump had any Russian campaign ties to Russia.
“The CIA has the ability to hack anybody they want and make it look like the Russians are doing it or make it look like the ChiComs are doing it or make it look like the Israelis are doing it,” Limbaugh said, using a slang term for Chinese communists.
He continued: “They have the ability to mask and mock various other state actors and make it look like – so I think because of everything that we’re learning here, the danger that Donald Trump has faced ever since he won the election is greater than we’ve ever known. And it is obvious to me that this whole business – well, I say obvious, I’m leaning toward being near certain that this entire pretext of Trump working with the Russians to affect the outcome of the election, folks, it is so ridiculous.”
Right-wing sites weren’t the only ones spreading the theory.
It was picked up by Russian state-sponsored English media outlets like Sputnik, which gleefully mocked “evidence-free” accusations that Russia hacked the election, linking to tweets “chock-full of sarcasm and memes” about the CIA’s capabilities.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov again denied Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election hacking, pointing to the WikiLeaks documents on Thursday and noting “the CIA could get access to such ‘fingerprints’ and then use them.”
- Rob Kim/Getty
“The CIA, according to these WikiLeaks leaks, uses stolen malware to attribute cyberattacks to nations like Russia,” Hannity told radio listeners. “In other words, what they’re saying is the CIA can actually blame Russia for an attack on an American, because they’ll put their fingerprints all over the attack. Meanwhile it came from within.”
He added: “Well, did that happen in this case or do you think Hannity’s really paranoid right now, losing his you-know-what? Maybe I’m not so paranoid.”
Despite Fox News’ previous reporting that Russia hacked the DNC, Tuesday’s theory made its television debut during Hannity’s primetime Fox News show on Wednesday, when Hannity asked several guests about the theory, citing a Breitbart piece titled “WikiLeaks: CIA Uses ‘Stolen’ Malware To ‘Attribute’ Cyberattacks To Nations Like Russia.”
Former National Security Agency whistleblower William Binney, who quit the NSA over a decade ago amid distaste with the agency’s surveillance program, said it was possible for the CIA to carry out the act described by conspiracy theorists, but cited little evidence to support his claim.
Retired Army Lietenant Colonel Anthony Schaffer, a torture advocate who has floated Benghazi and 9-11 conspiracy theories in the past, took it a step further, claiming he had unnamed sources described the conspiracy to him.
“Sean, we did it. Not me, but our guys, former members of NSA, retired intelligence officers used these tools to break in there and get the information out. That’s what the Democrats don’t want to talk about because it doesn’t fit their narrative,” Shaffer said.
“You’re telling me this whole Russian story that the media has been running with for months and months and months – that it was our people that did it, and they put the fingerprints of the Russians on it?” Hannity asked.
“That’s right,” Shaffer said.
“Do you have proof of that?” Hannity asked.
“I don’t have proof of that,” Shaffer replied.
For now, it seems commentators feel confident supporting the theory, even if there’s no evidence to support the charges.
“I consider the idea the CIA faked Russian evidence to be MORE plausible than a sophisticated state-sponsor of cyber-warfare using an off the shelf and easily detected dimestore hack, don’t you?” Mitchell asked Business Insider when asked about the lack of concrete evidence on Thursday.
He added: “The whole concept of ‘evidence’ can be misleading. Clearly, if the CIA did this, they would be careful not to leave “evidence.” Regardless, thoughtful men could look at the facts we do know and consider their ‘planting drugs in Russia’s trunk’ on the DNC hack to be plausible.”
Hannity, who did not immediately return a request for comment, mocked critics on his Thursday radio show: “‘Hannity you’ve become a conspiracy theorist!’ No, I’ve become a realist,” he said.
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Attempts by top former campaign figures to downplay the campaign’s relationship with Russia have raised suspicion among intelligence officials about the nature of the ties.
As law enforcement officials continue to probe Russia’s involvement in the election, Trump associates like national security representative JD Gordon, advisor Carter Page, counselor Michael Cohen, and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions have all altered their stories about contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
Indeed, top US national security figures have noted the argumentative consistency on numerous topics between Russian state-sponsored media outlets and right-leaning US sources like Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and Hannity.
“There are powerful parallels between the Russian narrative and things being said,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Business Insider in an interview this week.
The spectre of last summer’s leaks still hangs over many current and former DNC staffers.
The hack embarrassed many top staffers, exposing some staffers’ distaste for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and forcing resignation of many top staffers.
Many of the remaining staffers felt targeted, saying they experienced death-threats following the incident.
“It was a campaign that I’ve never experienced before, and I have seven presidential campaigns under my belt. When I assumed the chair role, I assumed, ‘Well, this will only take a couple months out of my life, and I’ll go back to being Donna.’ But it transformed me,” former DNC chair Donna Brazile told Business Insider.
“I’ve never gone up against a foreign military intelligence unit,” Brazile said. “I don’t think no campaign manager, no one in my position has ever had to fight the weaponization of misinformation, to have your files corrupted and then to be used as a form of weaponization to sew discord.”
This isn’t the first time that WikiLeaks has inspired and stoked a conspiracy theory about the DNC hacks.
Last August, the organization offered a bouty for information about Seth Rich, a DNC staffer shot while walking home last July. While online conspiracy theorists speculated that his death was connected to the DNC hack, Washington’s MPD spokesperson told Business Insider at the time that there was no evidence connecting Rich’s death to his work at the DNC.