CNN Wants to Believe: White House ‘Russian Hackers’ Go From Suspects to Perps

CNN (4/8/15) ran a story about “Russian hackers” getting into the White House computer system that needed to get out of the White House PR system.

The story, by Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz, began with:

Russian hackers behind the damaging cyber intrusion of the State Department in recent months used that perch to penetrate sensitive parts of the White House computer system, according to US officials briefed on the investigation.

The phrasing implies that the responsibility of said hackers from Russia for an earlier “cyber intrusion” is proven fact, and what the “US officials” (the main source for the news in this piece, along with “investigators”) are adding is their culpability in a second security breach.

But if you follow the link in that lead, you find another CNN story (3/10/15) written last month by the same writers, and here’s  its complete presentation of the evidence for the “Russian hackers” involvement:

Russian hackers, likely working for the Russian government, are suspected in the State Department hack.

I was going to ask what new evidence in the past month changed the Russians from suspects to convicted criminals, but it actually happened in the space of just eight words, because that much further down in that same piece from last month, there’s a new paragraph that begins:

In part because of the Russian attack on State….

A similar rush from allegation to fact happens in the more recent piece. The evidence, again, could hardly be more cursory:

The intrusion was routed through computers around the world, as hackers often do to hide their tracks, but investigators found tell-tale codes and other markers that they believe point to hackers working for the Russian government.

Unnamed “investigators”–who may come from the “FBI, Secret Service [or] US intelligence agencies,” we learn earlier in the piece–“believe” there are “tell-tale codes and other markers” that “point to” Russian government employees–how much fuzzier does evidence get? Yet immediately CNN is talking about the “Russian hack” as though it’s proven fact:

National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh didn’t confirm the Russian hack, but he did say that “any such activity is something we take very seriously.”

“The Russian hack”–the definite article is called “definite” for a reason; the sentence would read much differently if it referred to “a Russian hack.”

The Russians reappear as certain culprits in the State Department caper:

The State Department computer system has been bedeviled by signs that despite efforts to lock them out, the Russian hackers have been able to reenter the system.

And the certainty of Russian guilt is a jumping off point for observations about the geopolitical scene:

The ferocity of the Russian intrusions in recent months caught US officials by surprise, leading to a reassessment of the cybersecurity threat as the US and Russia increasingly confront each other over issues ranging from the Russian aggression in Ukraine to the US military operations in Syria.

(Note that in the CNN stylebook, Russia commits “aggression” whereas the US carries out “military operations.”)

A similar lack of skepticism is evident as the article ties the alleged hacking into electoral politics (“The Russian breach is believed to have come after [Hillary] Clinton departed State”) and domestic law-making:

Sen. Susan Collins said the revelations of the Russian hack “are troubling and further expose that our nation’s defenses against cyber-attacks are dangerously inadequate.”

The word “revelations” means that something actual has been revealed–whereas not only doesn’t CNN know for a fact that Russians hacked anything, it doesn’t even claim that the US government is certain about Russian guilt. (The story says investigators say they have evidence they “believe point[s] to” Moscow’s involvement.) That’s why you use a word like “accusations” or “allegations”–or, better yet in this case, “suspicions.”

I do want to commend CNN editors for one decision, namely changing the article’s headline. Here’s the piece’s original title, as preserved by Google (also visible in the article’s Web tab and URL):

CNN: Russians Hacked the White HouseThere’s now a new version of the headline, which appropriately inserts a source for the claim of Russian hacking:

USA Today: How US Thinks Russians Hacked the White House

Now, I’m glad they changed the headline; headlines, as the most-read text of a piece, are important. But they didn’t change it fast enough to prevent USA Today (4/7/15) from picking up the story and giving it this headline:

USA Today: CNN: Russians hacked White House computersUnless CNN has its own experts on cybersecurity who are independently evaluating the evidence, the network is really not in a position to be making charges in its own voice about international computer espionage. By attributing the claim, USA Today‘s headline did it right, while at the same time pointing up how CNN was doing it wrong.

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