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The evidence that Sharyl Attkisson got her laptop hacked seems weak

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CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson
CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson
Sharyl Attkisson

If former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson was really targeted by a government surveillance agency in the way she describes in her new book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, it would be a big scandal. The problem is that, at least judging from a summary of the book in the Washington Post, there's not much reason to trust her conclusion that she was hacked.

It's not crazy to think a US government agency might hack a journalist's laptop. The agency certainly has the technical ability to hack peoples' computers (though I don't know of any cases of American journalists being targeted). But the larger problem with Attkisson's story is that she doesn't seem able to distinguish evidence of hacking from the kind of routine technical glitches that everyone suffers.

Hacking often gets embellished for dramatic effect in the movies, but in the real world it rarely produce effects that are visible to a user. Hacking a computer usually doesn't cause it to emit a "reeeeeeeeeee" sound, as Attkisson says two of her computers did. There's no particular reason why having your home network hacked would cause your digital television to "spontaneously jitter, mute, and freeze-frame," as she said happened to her. And there's not much reason to think the extraneous cable she found attached to her FiOS box was placed there by a US intelligence agency. If the NSA did hack her laptop, they would be able to send back data over her normal internet connection, so it's not clear what the point would be of adding an extra cable.

Of course, none of this proves she wasn't hacked. US intelligence agencies do make clumsy mistakes sometimes; maybe the team that hacked her computer did so in a way that produced all the issues she describes. Or the technical expert she consulted could have found other evidence that she didn't do a good job of summarizing in her book.

But it seems more likely that she suffered from garden variety technical glitches that had nothing to do with government surveillance. And strangely, the security expert Attkisson says confirmed her allegations has refused to talk to the Washington Post about it, citing a confidentiality agreement. This doesn't inspire confidence.