This volume delivers on its promise to pull back the curtain and show readers the shadowy world of cyberespionage in action before, during, and since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It is an excellent primer for readers who know about “Russian hackers” broadly and want a detailed look at what happened and what evidence points to Russia and the Kremlin. Close followers of this story, however, are unlikely to learn new information.
Pegues supplements his retelling of the hacking of DNC email servers—the “33,000 emails” Trump famously dared “someone” to find during the campaign—with numerous expert and insider interviews. The story of a system slow to react to a new and unfamiliar threat is reminiscent of the many journalistic accounts of the intelligence and security community’s attempt to raise alarms about al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. A key takeaway is the inability or refusal of the campaigns and government officials to recognize the breadth and seriousness of the hacking problem until significant damage had already been done. In this sense, the book reveals how dispiritingly little decision makers have learned from experience. The strong reporting does not, however, lead to new ground being broken. Readers who have followed this long-running story closely will find no new bombshells. The interviews mostly add color and depth—for example, a former FBI investigative specialist describes WikiLeaks as “the fast food of spying”—rather than revelations. The book is a strong and compact summary of the problem, the actors behind it, and its significance; in that sense, it is good journalism and good reporting. What it is not is an exposé. The author and publisher are careful not to overpromise, though, and the book is presented honestly as what it is: a look behind the curtain.
Though thorough, it has two shortcomings. One is the confusion over a key element of the narrative: what was or is Russia’s goal? At points Pegues presents evidence that it is a larger Russian effort to undermine American democracy, sow dissent, and damage the credibility of American elections. At other points it is suggested that the Russian agenda, driven by Putin’s strong dislike for Hillary Clinton, was partisan and designed specifically to harm her campaign and benefit Trump. Evidence exists to support both interpretations, and the conflict between these two narratives is not resolved.
Second, the chapters on the measures being taken to prevent similar cyberattacks in 2018 are not persuasive. Certainly any measures known to reporters are unlikely to be effective against hackers who, throughout this story, are depicted as being multiple steps ahead of any attempts to thwart them. What’s missing is an analysis of whether the goal of undermining American democracy is succeeding, or how Trump and House Republicans have advanced that goal by claiming electoral fraud, discrediting the Justice Department and intelligence communities, and more.
This account succeeds as reporting on what happened in 2016, but should be approached with realistic expectations, offering neither new revelations nor conclusive insight on Russian motives.
Ed Burmila is an assistant professor of political science at Bradley University and has written on American elections and politics for Rolling Stone, The Nation, and other publications.
Release date: 07/10/2018