Former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson has become something of a hero among segments of the right ever since she was pushed out from the network this spring over concerns that her reporting had taken an anti-Obama bias. In the view of Attkisson and her supporters, CBS had silenced her for telling the truth on Benghazi and other scandals. (She also drew heat for reporting a link between vaccines and autism, an idea that has been widely debunked.)
On Tuesday, Attkisson will publish her book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington. It reiterates her criticisms of the Obama administration and alleges a campaign to silence such dissent.
The book is in the news this week because it details what Attkisson describes as hacking attacks on her computer. She presents the evidence in such a way as to strongly imply that the Obama administration ordered her computer hacked as retribution for her critical reporting. On Friday, Attkisson released a video of the central allegation in her book. But it turns out that what the video actually appears to show is not sophisticated US government hacking, but a stuck delete key, and a former reporter with breathtakingly poor computer literacy.
Sharyl Attkisson's video is being presented as showing the US government hacking her in real-time
The video has taken the right-leaning web by storm, and is widely seen as proof of Attkisson's unstated-but-clear implication. The Blaze called the video "what could be evidence of the government taking over her computer." TownHall ran it with the headline: "Watch Someone in The Government Take Over Sharyl Attkisson's Computer." Fox News columnist Howard Kurtz called it "highly sophisticated hacking" and "chilling stuff." Breitbart News deemed it "More Evidence the Government Hacked Sharyl Attkisson's Computer."
But it turns out, based on Attkisson's own video, that the computer may not have been hacked at all. It turns out that not only does this bear none of the hallmarks of anything remotely resembling hacking but, based on all available evidence, it looks like what actually happened is probably that her delete key got stuck.
Let's look at what Attkisson claims. There are a number of incidents, all of which seem like perfectly anodyne technology glitches. The book opens with her computer's hard drive making a whining sound ("Reeeeeeeeeee" is the very first word). Attkisson breathlessly recounts how her digital TV would "spontaneously jitter, mute, and freeze-frame." She finds a stray cable dangling out of the Verizon box on the back of her house, something that would in fact be necessary for hacking had the Internet never been invented.
The key hacking incident, which Attkisson very strongly suggests was political retribution
But the incident that's being portrayed as the real slam-duck evidence is this scene, in which text is mysteriously deleted on her screen as she's writing. The scene comes just after she's learned that White House officials Jay Carney and Eric Schultz had complained to the White House about her Benghazi reporting:
That very night, with Schultz, Carney, and company freshly steaming over my Benghazi reporting, I'm home doing final research and crafting questions for the next day's interview with [Thomas] Pickering. Suddenly data in my computer file begins wiping at hyperspeed before my eyes. Deleted line by line in a split second: it's gone, gone, gone. I press the mouse pad and keyboard to try to stop it, but I have no control. The only time I've seen anything like this is in those movies where the protagonist desperately tries to copy crucial files faster than the antagonist can remotely wipe them.
What a coincidence: just hours after the White House is "fuming" over her hard-hitting reporting, her computer is attacked. In another scene, she meets with an anonymous "government source" she calls Number One — the book seems to often turn on strange meetings with unnamed sources who may or may not be actual experts — who all but confirms that it was hacked by the US government in an act of intimidation.
Attkisson was hacked, Number One says, by a "sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that's proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency." Number One adds, "This is outrageous. Worse than anything Nixon ever did. I wouldn't have believed something like this could happen in the United States of America."
Then she released the video, and it looked like she hadn't been hacked at all
On Friday, Attkisson released her video of the alleged hack, which she claims shows the incident in which "my computer files begins wiping at hyperspeed before my eyes" and which right-wing sites have presented as unassailable evidence of government hacking:
Here's what the video actually shows: text being deleted from whichever Word document Attkisson happens to have her cursor on, at about the rate it would delete if someone got their delete key stuck.
"From what we looked at and what we were able to replicate, from that piece of video we don't see what we would call evidence of hacking," Brad Moore, an employee with the Ohio-based firm Interhack Corp, told Media Matters. "There are multiple explanations and we were able to demonstrate quickly and easily one possibil[ity], the backspace key."
"A key can get stuck, sometimes dirt can get under a keyboard and a key will inadvertently be held down," Matthew Brothers-McGrew, also of Interhack, said, describing an incident that every computer-owner on Earth has encountered. This can also happen because of a glitch; in either case, "if you have Word open it will continually backspace text at about the same rate we are seeing in the video."
Vox's own Timothy B. Lee expressed skepticism as well when the Attkisson charges first surfaced, a few days before she released the video. "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," he wrote.
Remotely opening up a Word document on someone's computer and manually deleting text is just not how hacking — especially NSA hacking — works. "The way to do it wouldn't be to hold down the delete key," an expert at Syntax Technical Computer Forensics also told Media Matters.
The remaining evidence is Attkisson's bizarre anonymous sources, who provide little actual information
For anyone who has even the remotest computer literacy, it's just extremely difficult to watch this video of text deleting from a Word document (and listen to Attkisson's dumbfounded commentary) and conclude anything other than the delete key got stuck. It is even more difficult to look at this video, which shows a problem that will be readily familiar to anyone who works with computers, and conclude it must be the work of nefarious government hackers.
That leaves us to rely on Attkisson's many anonymous sources, who puzzlingly present no evidence or credentials for their repeated and often quite heated claims of slam-dunk proof of a massive government conspiracy.
"I see evidence that shows a deliberate and skilled attempt to clean the log files of activity," says another of Attkisson's anonymous sources, whom she names as Jerry Patel. The work, he claims, is "far beyond the the abilities of even the best nongovernment hackers."
Maybe "Jerry Patel" and "Number One" really do have concrete evidence proving that the Obama administration turned the world's most powerful spy agency on Sharyl Attkisson to punish her for her critical reporting on Benghazi by deleting some lines from one of her Word documents. But the only evidence that we can see at this point suggests that what likely actually happened is that her delete key got stuck.