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Joshua Scheer:

My guest is Malcolm Nance. He’s a career cryptologist, senior petty officer, author, scholar, and media analyst on terrorism, intelligence, and torture. The book we’re discussing today is The Plot to Hack America, How Putin’s Cyber-Spies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election. Thanks for joining me.

Malcom Nance:

It’s my pleasure to be here.

Joshua Scheer:

Let’s talk about this. It’s almost like you’ve written a spy thriller. I don’t know the better place to start. When was your interest in this? We’ll get into Nance’s Law and the Ian Fleming thing about coincidence and hacks. How did this all start for you?

Malcom Nance:

Certainly, I’m a retired navy cryptologist and intelligence officer. Not only did my career begin almost 3 decades ago, but it’s funny, because it’s almost come full circle. I started out originally as a Russian student in foreign languages. I have a flair for foreign languages. Ended up in Arabic, but throughout the entirety of my time in training in the 1980s, we had a very respectful, how can I put it, view of the Soviet Union and the Russian intelligence agency, the KGB. That being said, even though I worked principally in the Middle East, we had this saying over there, “Beware of the bears. The bears are everywhere.” It was true. The Russians worked with all of their client states, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, all these other places, and Iraq, selling them weapons and equipment. Everywhere, there was Soviet agents and officers of the KGB.


Come full circle, my career in naval intelligence ended after 20 years, and then I became an intelligence contractor and scholar. I worked principally in counterterrorism. With regards to the most recent hack and how this book came about, I was following cyber operations since the late 1990s, when I was involved in it a little bit. Then, when the DNC was hacked, I started following it very closely. By the time the revelations came at the beginning of the Democratic convention, it became very clear that I’d recognized this pattern before. I’d seen this pattern of operation.


It wasn’t just some 400-pound kid, like Donald Trump said, sitting on a bed. This was a scripted, rigid, formatted intelligence operation that was being used to political effect by the successor agency of the KGB, the FSB. Based on its scale, it was being run by the spymaster in chief himself, the former director of the FSB/KGB, Vladimir Putin.

Joshua Scheer:

You write a lot obviously about Putin. You call him the spymaster in chief. You go back in history to his time in East Germany. He was very successful at recruiting assets. Let’s talk about that a little bit, the idea that he’s been recruiting Donald Trump for some time as a possible asset.

Malcom Nance:

A lot has been said about this. One of the former acting directors of the CIA, Deputy Director of the CIA Mike Morell, earlier this year used the term that Donald Trump was an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence. That’s not correct. An agent is someone who is actually working for an agency and understands his role within it. However, somebody who is being used … Any of us, at any time, could be used by somebody or some foreign entity, and you are not an agent of that foreign power. You are an asset. As an asset, you may be doing things which are in the interest of another nation, which of course you may not even know that you have invisible strings all over you and people around you who are steering you into that position.


That being said, my thesis here, and you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of this book is about how the KGB/FSB recruit people into becoming assets, and how in this instance they would have organized and team recruited people who were in the Trump camp, and made it in Trump’s interest to become an asset for Russia as opposed to maintaining the norms that we’ve seen in the Republican platform for decades, almost 70 years.

Joshua Scheer:

The book, as you mentioned, is The Plot to Hack America, How Putin’s Cyber-Spies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election. You mentioned Yuri Bezmenov. You can watch his videos on YouTube about finding assets, asset recruitment, honey traps, and the perfect asset is an egocentric person who lacks moral principles, either too greedy or suffered exaggerated self-importance. It seems to fit Trump to a tee, right?

Malcom Nance:

There’s a lot more to it, but yes, in short. Yuri Bezmenov was a former propaganda officer who belonged in the active measures organization of the KGB, their version of our CIA’s Clandestine Service. Those briefings used to be classified, that you can now find on YouTube. You can watch him describe the process of how they recruit individuals.


Contrary to what people believe, the KGB and the Russians, they do not like leftists. They don’t like socialists, and they don’t like communists. As they say, those people, once they feel they’ve been betrayed, can become your worst enemy. For decades, the people that they were … That image, by the way, of communist sympathizers and useful idiots comes from the 1930s, the Cambridge 5, the agents who went into British intelligence during World War 2 and the Cold War that were KGB plants. The KGB changed that strategy in the 1960s. They preferred conservatives and people who wouldn’t be called into question.


Like Bezmenov said, the individuals that they want are people who are egotists, people who need constant care and feeding, people who are motivated … As I’ve put in the book, there’s a recruitment strategy that’s used by every intelligence agency called MICE, which is money, ideology, co-option or coercion, and ego. When you have those 4 factors, you can bring somebody to do what you want them to do.


They didn’t try to go after liberals, as a lot of people think. They went after people who wouldn’t be questioned, but as he said, people who were egotistical, narcissistic. Another question that he said was, “People who could look you in the eye and lie to your face.” Those were the people that you could co-opt, either through money but most of the time not the ideology that you want them to follow, and then you could bring them in and use them as you saw fit.

Joshua Scheer:

In 2008, China hacked the McCain and Obama campaigns. This foreign hacking is obviously something that’s not new, but there’s a difference in the Russian tack. The reason you talk about this steal the plot for the election, explain that. There’s an idea of storage of this information, but then there’s the release, and specifically targeting the release, I believe the hack was in April and then the release was at the DNC, right around that time of the conventions.

Malcom Nance:

A little earlier, in June, but the Chinese intelligence agencies and the FSB and the groups that I call their cyber bears, which is Russian military intelligence, Russian intelligence itself, the FSB, and then there’s subcontractors, which are criminal cyber and people who just love Russia. We call them militia bears, because they’re like militiamen who come to the aid of the nation. China doesn’t have that. China is top-down oriented, straight from their intelligence agencies, and they take things that benefit them.


In the 2008 election, both John McCain and Barack Obama had their campaigns hacked by the Chinese. In one instance, John McCain had written a letter critical of China and supporting the United States’ position to sell weapons to Taiwan. China was so quick on the hack in response that their ambassador actually gave a press release response to a letter that was still sitting in McCain’s computer. He hadn’t even issued that letter yet. It just showed that the Chinese, they go after things which benefit their national policies and their interests.


Russia, on the other hand, carries out what we call hybrid warfare operations. That’s a melange of political warfare, where they go after their enemies politically, special operations, where they use special operations forces and soft warfare and infiltration, and then they combine all of that with cyber-warfare, where they gain information, where they carry out these Watergate 2.0 operations. Watergate without getting caught, so to speak, because you do it through electronically.


All of this is put together, and they use it in a form of political operation called [comprimat 09:38]. They do this in their own country, where they compromise the principles of an individual by showing them something embarrassing or releasing information that they’ve stolen through cyber operations in order to intimidate them to get what they want.


You see that there are 2 entirely different strategies. China will steal it and keep it quiet until it’s politically expedient, then they will hit you. China’s like cyber snipers. The FSB, I keep saying KGB because they’re essentially the same thing, and Russia’s [comprimat 10:12], they intend to use it like a sledgehammer and smash you with it.


The DNC hack, and if you notice, it’s only the Democratic Party that has been hacked, with the exception of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Colin Powell, all people who oppose Russia and the strategy in the Ukraine. Every other component of the Democratic arm has been hacked. No other component of the Republican National Committee or the Trump campaign has been hacked. All of the releases were scheduled and released to the benefit of the Trump campaign by this fake Russian organization. They call themselves Guccifer 2.0. That mythical person passed it onto Wikileaks, and Julian Assange, who believes Hillary Clinton put him in the Ecuadorian embassy, gladly released all of this in hopes to do the maximum damage.

Joshua Scheer:

Guccifer, as you write, is a Romanian hacker. The Guccifer 2.0 was very lazy and sloppy.

Malcom Nance:

Yeah, Guccifer was a Ukrainian hacker who went around and did it for fun. He’s in a U.S. prison now. He has already shown all of his techniques to the FBI.


Then, a month after he gets put into prison in the United States, this Guccifer 2.0 character shows up. All of the hallmarks of it, all the fingerprints from the cyber-security company, say it originates in the person. The front person is Russian, for Russian intelligence.

Joshua Scheer:

The book is The Plot to Hack America, How Putin’s Cyber-Spies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the Election. My guest is Malcolm Nance. He’s a career cryptologist, senior petty officer, author, scholar, and expert on terrorism, intelligence, and torture.


I want to ask about Assange a little bit, because I share some of his views about Clinton, but just in the fact that the Obama administration has been incredibly hard on whistle-blowers. She also has made very strong statements, and also this idea of endless war and things like that. Obviously, he has an ax to grind, why they’re a releasing organization, but could they have known that this was going to be the candidate? Do you think there’s a guide that allowed them … Hillary has had so many unfavorable ratings and everything else. Is this something that became the perfect fit, because she was nominated, and that Trump ended up through the primaries? This was something that you obviously were guesstimating here, but the Russians didn’t organize Hillary becoming the nominee, right? The only reason Trump has any kind of hope at all would be that Hillary is also … Her unfavorables are quite high.

Malcom Nance:

I think that you should look at it the other way around. Russia follows American politics very deeply on a strategic scale. Everything that we do impacts them one way or the other. Since Putin came back into power in 2012, he has been exercising strategic power politics. He wants Russia to once again be one of the pre-eminent superpowers in the world, even though their gross domestic product places them on par with India. The only thing they really have is oil and atomic weapons.


That being said, Russia would clearly know Clinton was going to be the nominee. Everybody knew that years ago. It was actually the rise of Donald Trump. I believe that in 2012, when he was there for Miss Universe, and he was surrounded with oligarchs. An oligarch is a real billionaire. This is a class of people that actually run a society. In Russia, you cannot be an oligarch unless you are, as they say in Russia, under the roof of Vladimir Putin. Once you’re under his roof, he will allow you to do whatever you want, so long of course as he gets his cut. This has been going on for some time.


Oligarchs are not like our billionaires. These are people who are little mini-czars to themselves. When Donald Trump went to Miss Universe, he met really rich people, people who were worth $100, $200 billion, and who could buy and sell him a thousand times over. This is where it’s believed that he picked up his philosophy about why Putin is such a great guy, why Russia is a nation of power politics, and why that strength is admirable. Also, he was just imbued by these people with all of the complaints of Russia about the United States. He took these on.


That being said, it would be very easy to put invisible strings on a person like Donald Trump using the money, ideology, co-option, coercion, and ego strategy that intelligence officers use now, especially when you have the spymaster in chief, Vladimir Putin, and the entire FSB organization at your disposal.


Julian Assange, on the other hand, his personal complaint is about Clinton, Clinton policy. He stopped running Wikileaks the way that he had always run it, which was to be this repository of secret information that would be sunlighted from whistle-blowers around the world. This became deeply personal with him. Some of the statements that he made about how he intended to “harm Hillary Clinton in this campaign,” how he accepted all of these Guccifer 2.0 documents and files, which now the cyber-security industry experts are now saying are full of FSB spyware.


Everyone who is downloading these mass dumps of the DNC leaks are actually having their phones and having their computers infiltrated with spyware. You don’t have to believe me about that. Just go to Mediant and Strikeforce and all the other major security companies. There are warnings about these downloads, and that they all originate in Russia from Russian intelligence, because they have the fingerprints that have been seen over the decades.


Julian Assange, for whatever reason he intended to do by being a whistle-blower, he has now become quite partisan. As he said, he blames the fact that Hillary Clinton and her State Department cornered him in that embassy, the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This, he believes, is his revenge. I think he’s done his shot.

Joshua Scheer:

I want to ask this. Again, the book is The Plot to Hack America, Putin’s Cyber-Spies and Wikileaks That Tried to Steal the 2016 Election. It’s by Malcolm Nance, who’s an expert on all things. He’s an analyst, a career cryptographer, senior petty officer, author, scholar, and expert on all things terrorism, intelligence, and torture.


I want to ask you this as a journalist because we saw this again with the Sony hack, which was the North Koreans who were upset about the movie. They released all this data. This sort of hack, as a journalist, and I knew that we can talk about this a little bit, the info wars and the use of journalists as foils and maybe useful idiots. For me, when you have this hacked information, we do have to end up using it. Obviously, that’s the point, is to embarrass it. Certainly, in the Sony hack, when the president of Sony is being racist, or in this situation with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, what’s the responsibility of these organizations to try to be above board themselves? There’s this line of, yes, it’s an intelligence dump, but as a reporter, how do you report on this when Debbie Wasserman Schultz should have been removed from office for the malfeasance she did?

Malcom Nance:

A lot of people write to me and they say, “It doesn’t matter who got me this information. I’m just concerned about what was in it.” I’ve read the DNC emails. I’ve spoken to people related to the DNC. If you read what’s in there, with the exception of maybe 1 or 2 emails, the information that’s really in the DNC leaks are just the things that are in every office. I want you to just imagine wherever press office you work with, or any of your associates, just finding everything you’ve ever written while at work. Anything could be turned into a weapon, and the Russians know this very well.


However, all of this is a mask for what the real hack was about. The real hack … There were actually 2 major hacks. One was done by Russian military intelligence, the GRU. They carried out the information collection against the DNC for the emails and the voicemails and things like that. Really, there was nothing in there that was explosive. It fizzled out the first morning of the DNC. That’s as dramatic as it got.


The real hack was carried out by the FSB in March of this year. That was the hack where they stole the opposition research folder on Donald Trump. That information was taken out, it was covered up with this character Guccifer 2.0. Gawker received a copy of it and printed the entire opposition research folder. That comes straight from the Karl Rove playbook. Get anything bad out early. It showed everything that the Democratic Party knew about Donald Trump, and gave Donald Trump 2 months to prepare responses.


If you were to look at it, it was nothing in there. Why would a Russian intelligence agency specifically go into hacking that specific file? Because they were working for that person’s interest, and knowing that that information was out and released would nullify any of its impact later on.

Joshua Scheer:

Malcolm, I agree with most of your statements. I would tell you as a person, this should be information that everyone uses about using things as a weapon. My mother was a journalist. She told me a long time ago, “If you say to anybody, if you send in an email, you always have to think that the person you’re talking about will actually read it one day.” That piece of advice, there’s not a lot of weapons … I’m a little bit more paranoid, and I would not write some of the emails that some of these people do write. I think that would be something that I would tell, if I was a cyber-security expert. I would be like, “You have to remember that these things now are all not fair game, but fair game in that they could be hacked at any time by China and North Korea.”

Malcom Nance:

Let me make a quick comment on that. First off, I am not concerned about the internal politics between the Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters. I set the alarm on this on the day before the DNC convention started, when I realized this was not just a normal hack, that this was a scripted intelligence operation. By the time I got the third release of information, you could see that there was an actual script going on here. Trump would say this, Putin would say that, and this information was hacked. It was being released. You read the Guccifer 2.0 files.


My concern is simply this. The United States, as a nation, was attacked by a foreign nation. That attack was designed to damage, and quite possibly irreparably damage, American democracy. The electoral process of the United States, they used basic information found within the servers of any political organization, was designed by a foreign agency to break the Democratic Party in half and to elect Donald Trump President.


I don’t care whether it was Trump or anyone else. When a hostile nation does that to us using essentially the exact same strategy on the exact same anniversary of Watergate, only this one is successful, then we need to stand up as a democracy and take note that no matter what party you belong to, this is wrong and requires a response.

Joshua Scheer:

You’re not allowed to do calls of action, but the book is The Plot to Hack America, How Putin’s Cyber-Spies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election. Incredibly well-researched. My guest has been Malcolm Nance. He’s a cryptologist, senior petty officer, a lifelong author, scholar, and media expert on terrorism, intelligence, and torture. Again, the book is available everywhere. Thank you so much for joining me.

Malcom Nance:

My pleasure.

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