Week ahead in cyber: SEC in spotlight after breach
The Nation adds lengthy editor's note to story questioning DNC hack
The Nation magazine acknowledged on Friday that an article claiming it would have been "impossible based on the data" for Russia-backed hackers to be behind the leak of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails was not supported by its own evidence.
The article, penned by reporter Patrick Lawrence and published in early August, hinged on technical claims roundly disputed by technical experts - including the expert brought in by The Nation in its review of the article.
"As part of the editing process, however, we should have made certain that several of the article's conclusions were presented as possibilities, not as certainties," The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in a lengthy editor's note added to the article.
Lawrence claimed that it would be impossible for a remote hacker - including one in Russia - to have downloaded leaked DNC documents at the high speeds implied by metadata contained in the files. Therefore, Lawrence reasoned, it would only be possible for the files to be downloaded directly from a DNC terminal to a USB drive, suggesting that the emails were taken by an internal leaker instead of hackers.
That claim was based on metadata showing that the documents had, at one point, been copied at a speed of about 23 megabytes-per-second, a rate faster than home internet services allow.
But experts note that commercial internet services used by businesses can reach speeds more than five times as fast as 23 megabytes-per-second. And, even if the data had showed that a USB drive was used at one point, there would be no reason to believe that it wasn't used to transport the documents from one Russian system to another.
Lawrence's article presented evidence from two major sources. A pseudonymous blogger known as "The Forensicator" and a public letter by a group known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), an organization composed of former intelligence agents.
After publication, vanden Heuvel wrote, the magazine learned that the letter was controversial within VIPS.
"We have also learned since publication, from longtime VIPS member Thomas Drake, that there is a dispute among VIPS members themselves about the July 24 memo. This is not the first time a VIPS report has been internally disputed, but it is the first time one has been released over the substantive objections of several VIPS members," she wrote.
Despite acknowledging that the article's central arguments that Russia could not have hacked the DNC are only "possibilities," the magazine has not withdrawn the original article.
"The most recent VIPS memo, released on July 24, whatever its technical merits, contributes to a much-needed critical discussion. Despite all the media coverage taking the veracity of the [intelligence-community assessment] for granted, even now we have only the uncorroborated assertion of intelligence officials to go on," wrote vanden Heuvel.
The Nation has, however, printed reports from its own technical expert, Nathan Freitas of the Guardian Project, a response by the members of VIPS who disputed the original memo and a follow-up letter by other members of VIPS defending their original work.