Book Review: The Plot to Hack America by Malcolm Nance

The Plot to Hack America Cover

Malcolm Nance, The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election (2016)

I just finished Malcolm Nance’s “The Plot to Hack America,” published just a few months before the 2016 election. Nance is a career intelligence officer, who has testified before congress. He now contributes to MSNBC.

The book is a deeply disturbing and credible analysis of the known unclassified data regarding the Russian hack of the U.S. 2016 Presidential election and KGB/FSB operational tactics that brought it about. After reading it, it is clear why 17 U.S. intelligence agencies all agree that Russia was behind the hacks and that the aim was to elect Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Nance cautions against the use of the word ‘treason.’  That word should not be uttered, Nance urges, not without an established link between Trump campaign and Moscow. (Who knows, one may yet be forthcoming.) Yet as Nance lays it out, collusion with the Trump campaign wouldn’t have even been necessary for the cyber attacks to be successful and Putin/Russia to achieve their aims. In fact, actually hacking into voting machines was not required to accomplish their aims. And we should have no doubt: Moscow’s goal was to instill Trump as President.

I found the sections of the book discussing Russian espionage operations, cyber or otherwise particularly enlightening. The behind the scenes strategy – the aims, goals and techniques that Russian spy organizations have employed for decades are essentially unchanged in the digital age. Only the tools employed and at their disposal are new with the Internet. That surprised me somewhat, though to hear Nance explain it, it also makes a good deal of sense. If it works, don’t fix it, right?

In essence, Nance posits that Russia PLAYED Trump. At the very least, Trump was an unwitting pawn. A Russian “asset.” Gift-wrapped. Vladamir Putin could not have dreamed up a better stooge than a narcissistic egomaniac like Trump, an unwitting, if eager, asset.

I will note that the book has some not insignificant flaws The citations are a train wreck, for example. Not the analysis, however. The analysis is solid.

Given the timing, there may have been a rush to publish before the 2016 election because of publishing business concerns about which I know very little. I do know or can readily surmise that the window of opportunity for marketing books about current events is necessarily shorter than for other categories of books. Current events books have to be topical, timely and they necessarily have a shorter shelf-life. Outside of historical analyses, such books need to be published in real time, nearly contemporaneously with, or in the immediate aftermath of the events under discussion.

That does not excuse the errors, but in their rush to market they seem to have neglected some key editing and cite-checking. Or maybe is was just shoddy editing, I don’t know.

In any event, citations in several chapters don’t match the reference number in the text. Some citations listed under a given chapter appear to be referencing other chapters entirely. This is all compounded by the fact that the publisher elected to use endnotes instead of footnotes. If the references were found at the bottom of the page (as with footnotes), citation errors would have been much easier to spot.

That may not matter to many readers. In my world, citations matter. So not surprisingly, I was anxious to look at each reference for the source material.

I eventually gave up trying to sort it out. Beginning in Chapter 3 or 4, the citation numbering is off by three or more numbers (e.g., what is cited as endnote 17 is really #13, etc.) Then some citations in the endnotes appear to be referring to different chapters entirely. Perhaps some references were omitted entirely, or the paragraphs that cited to them were. As I said, kind of a train wreck, and I gave up after a while. I tried to contact the author via Twitter, but I did not receive a response.

Regardless, the publishing glitches did not dampen or weaken the fundamental conclusions Nance reaches, nor his analysis leading to them. And his conclusions are grim.

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Malcolm Nance, The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election, p. 147 (2016)

“It may be worse than that.” That line has stuck in my head ever since I finished the book. Worse than the rise of fascism and the end of liberal democracy?! Oh fantastic.

Nance speculates at certain points, but doesn’t overreach. He draws inferences, drawing upon his years of experience and training to do so.

His explanations of the technical aspects of espionage tactics in an electronic age might be a challenge to some with limited computer/internet background, but I was able to follow along well enough. Somewhat surprisingly, the tactics employed to gain access to servers (where e.g., the DNC’s emails were stored) were not particularly sophisticated.

They hacking techniques were relatively crude in many instances, often relying on a targeted person to inadvertently click on a link in a spoofed email (one that appeared to be from a trusted source, but was in fact from the hacker). Specific ways of doing so included email or world wide web addresses that were slightly misspelled, thus appearing genuine, but when clicked up would send the person to a website the hacker designed to again, look genuine. Once the link is followed, malicious software can be installed on the users computer without their knowledge. In this way, the initial breach (the installing of malicious software, trojan horses, etc.) might well go undetected for some time.

Nance doesn’t claim to be a journalist, nor hold himself to journalistic standards re sources and confirmation. He shares insights from his years in the intelligence community, analyzing the threats as he would have as an intelligence officer.

Given that the book only relies on unclassified material, one might only imagine what additional information our government possesses to further confirm what is readily obvious from the unclassified data. Nonetheless, as Nance points out, the hackers didn’t seem to make much efforts to hide their tracks once they’d gained access to the targeted systems, leaving digital calling cards or fingerprints readily identifiable.

Ultimately, Nance presents the known facts, his analysis and conclusions that leave little room to doubt several key, deeply troubling realizations: The United States election was compromised by agents of a sovereign nation/state with the specific intent to disrupt public trust in our presidential election in general, and more chillingly, to specifically influence the outcome of the election in Donald Trump’s favor.

And it worked. History will likely record this as one of the greatest espionage operations in modern history. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States last week, leaving the rest of us to ponder exactly why Putin wanted Trump to be president instead of Hillary Clinton. One thing is for certain: whatever the reason(s), they are decidedly not in our national interests.

Sleep tight on that.

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