Ger­man elec­tion mys­tery: Where’s Rus­sia?

Sunday Express - - INTERNATIONAL -

CHAN­CEL­LOR An­gela Merkel’s sum­mons to Germany’s top cabi­net min­is­ters and se­nior mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials for a meet­ing of the Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Council sig­naled trou­ble. Such gath­er­ings are rare, typ­i­cally oc­cur­ring only when the coun­try faces a grave threat like a ter­ror­ist attack.

There was just one item on the agenda that day last spring: how to pro­tect Germany’s up­com­ing par­lia­men­tary elec­tions from Rus­sian cy­ber at­tacks. At the time, it seemed al­most in­evitable that Germany would suf­fer the same fate as France and the United States, where, of­fi­cials say, the Krem­lin at­tempted to al­ter the re­sults of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions with “fake news” and spear phish­ing at­tacks.

But on the eve of Sun­day’s elec­tions, the Rus­sians have done some­thing few ex­pected: they have largely dis­ap­peared. The trolls who spread dis­torted and fal­si­fied in­for­ma­tion be­fore ear­lier elec­tions have failed to make much of a splash here. The web­sites of the cam­paigns and ma­jor news me­dia out­lets are op­er­at­ing like nor­mal.

Ger­mans, ac­cord­ing to San­dro Gay­cken, the di­rec­tor of the Digital So­ci­ety In­sti­tute in Berlin, which has been mon­i­tor­ing for Rus­sian med­dling, are “al­most dis­ap­pointed that noth­ing is hap­pen­ing.”

“We don’t see any ver­i­fied at­tacks,” he said. “We’re not re­ally ex­pect­ing any Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence.”

In some re­spects, ex­perts say, Ger­man elec­tions are insulated from out­side in­ter­fer­ence in ways those in the United States are not. The coun­try’s pol­i­tics are not as po­lar­ized as they are in the United States, where par­ti­san en­mity pro­vided fer­tile ground for Rus­sian ef­forts to sow con­fu­sion with dis­torted and fal­si­fied in­for­ma­tion am­pli­fied by Rus­sian-con­trolled Twit­ter bots and Face­book accounts.

In a move that would seem unimag­in­able in the United States, the cam­paigns for the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties en­tered into a “gen­tle­man’s agree­ment” this year not to ex­ploit any in­for­ma­tion that might be leaked as a re­sult of a cy­ber attack.

Ger­mans also still largely trust their main­stream, tra­di­tional news me­dia sources and, un­like Amer­i­cans, tend to be wary of in­for­ma­tion dis­sem­i­nated on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Of­fi­cials warn that there is still a chance that some 16 gi­ga­bytes of sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion stolen two years ago by Krem­lin-backed hackers from Germany’s Par­lia­ment, the Bun­destag, could sur­face, much like emails taken from the cam­paign of Emanuel Macron were dumped days be­fore the elec­tion in France.

In Jan­uary, some­one reg­is­tered two web­sites, btleaks.info and btleaks.org, which rem­i­nis­cent of the DCLeaks web­site that served as a repos­i­tory for doc­u­ments stolen from the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee last year. Staffers from Germany’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency have been as­signed to check those web­sites hourly.

But few think the in­for­ma­tion if leaked would make much dif­fer­ence at this point. The lat­est polls show Ms. Merkel in a com­fort­able lead ahead of her chief rivals, mak­ing it likely that she will se­cure a fourth term as chan­cel­lor.

So why has Rus­sia held back?

After fail­ing to de­feat Mr. Macron or so far ob­tain any pos­i­tive div­i­dends from its sup­port of the Trump cam­paign, it is pos­si­ble, ex­perts say, that the Krem­lin has de­cided to re­think its ap­proach.

Rus­sian in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions, or ac­tive mea­sures as they are known, tend to work only if no one is ex­pect­ing them. Un­like the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which chose to re­main silent about Rus­sia’s med­dling for months be­fore the elec­tion last Novem­ber, Ger­man of­fi­cials can­not seem to stop talk­ing about the threat.

Weeks after the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, the BND, warned of cy­ber at­tacks aimed at “dele­git­imiz­ing the demo­cratic process” in Germany. Ms. Merkel her­self has is­sued sim­i­lar warn­ings.

“It makes ab­so­lutely no sense to con­duct cy­ber ops be­cause ev­ery­one is wait­ing for it,” Dr. Gay­cken said. “It would al­most make more sense for the C.I.A. to leak fake news to make it seem like the Rus­sians did it.”

— NY Times

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