Why MSNBC host Joy Reid's hacking claims don't add up

Remove the technical complexities from the equation, and MSNBC host Joy Reid's claim that homophobic posts on her blo...

Posted: Apr 29, 2018 9:49 AM
Updated: Apr 29, 2018 9:49 AM

Remove the technical complexities from the equation, and MSNBC host Joy Reid's claim that homophobic posts on her blog were the result of a hacking requires one simple leap of faith.

Reid's claim rests on the idea that a hacker was tampering with her blog not years after the fact, but contemporaneously -- sometimes within days or even hours of the events that were the subject of the posts -- and that she never noticed.

Reid finds herself in hot water now over homophobic posts to her blog more than a decade ago. It is not the first time such posts have caused controversy. Last year, others were brought to light by an anonymous Twitter user; she acknowledged she had written them, and apologized.

But in the background, Reid employed a cybersecurity consultant and a lawyer to make a case that her blog had been hacked. Then, after the same anonymous Twitter user brought new posts to light last week, she made the hacking claim public, and on her behalf MSNBC sent reporters a statement from one of the cybersecurity consultants as well as two letters that her lawyer sent last year in which he discussed the alleged hacking. The lawyer has since said that the FBI is also investigating.

Parts of the case made thus far by Reid, her lawyer and one of the cybersecurity consultants she hired -- that someone obtained her password for the blog and then made changes to it -- are plausible from a technological perspective.

The explanation does not require any hack of an external site, like the Internet Archive, on which copies of the posts Reid disputes were once available.

But it does require a belief in several shifting and sometimes contradictory arguments -- despite evidence offered to the contrary by outlets like The Daily Beast -- and a belief that Reid was completely unaware of something going on right under her nose.

Related: MSNBC pushes findings that support Joy Reid's hacking claim

A central part of Reid's claim, as advanced in the two letters sent by her lawyer, revolves around two dates: January 10 and 11, 2006, when much of her blogging was focused on the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, and when several posts on the blog purportedly written by Reid suggest that Sen. Orrin Hatch's questions to Alito were the equivalent of performing oral sex on him.

A review of an archived version of the blog through the Library of Congress casts serious doubt on whether that material was indeed fraudulent, at least assuming that the archived version was itself not hacked, and Reid's team says it is not claiming that.

Jonathan Nichols, the cybersecurity consultant hired by Reid, has said he believes her now-shuttered blog was infiltrated by someone who created the fraudulent posts.

"We are not making the claim that Archive.org or any other archival website was hacked," Nichols told CNNMoney in a phone interview on Wednesday. "We are claiming that Joy Reid's blog was hacked, and that anybody who archived it has the fraudulent post on their website."

The page containing those posts was archived on January 11, 2006 at 5:17 p.m. ET. Reid's final post that day, which Reid and her team have not suggested was hacked, came at 4:51 p.m. The post commented on the edition of Wolf Blitzer's show that was on the air at that same time.

If the narrative pushed by Reid and her team is true, the hacker had 26 minutes between the first moment Reid could have logged out of the blog and the page's capture by the Wayback Machine to create the fraudulent material. During that time, the hacker would have had to add from scratch a fraudulent post containing five photographs and also manipulate another post in order to add to it a link to a separate hacked post from the day before. Or the hacker would have had to work during the day, adding things to the blog that Reid could have seen in multiple places on the site, without her noticing even when she went back to the blog.

And that's assuming Reid also didn't see the extensive work that the hacker would have had to do the day before.

There is no archive in the Wayback Machine captured on January 10, so it's impossible to know the exact timeframe in which the alleged hacking that day took place. But it's clear there would have had to be a lot of it.

Related: Joy Reid's attorney says FBI has opened investigation into hacking claim

In the two letters Reid's attorney, John H. Reichman, sent last year -- one to Google, which owned the platform that hosted the blog, and one to the Internet Archive -- he disputed a headline on Reid's blog from January 10, 2006, "Brokeback Committee Room," saying it and several other things "were not posted or written by Ms. Reid."

Reid's lawyer does not dispute that most of the post under that headline -- a rolling commentary on the Alito confirmation hearings -- was hers, or that it was originally published by her. That suggests a potential problem with his claim about the headline. "Brokeback Committee Room" was more than just the headline on the site; it was also the URL of the post. And Blogger, the platform Reid was using at the time, generated the URLs for posts based on the headline at the time they were published.

It is theoretically possible that the hacker could have changed the URL. And there is at least one odd thing related to the post. Reid's first entry on that rolling post is listed as having been written at 10:18 a.m. on January 10, with the last entry coming at 5:19 p.m. Reichman said in the letters that there were two fraudulent entries on the post, at 10:40 a.m. and 11:10 a.m. Blogger's timestamp for the post says 2:56 p.m., which at least raises the possibility that the hacker changed the headline and URL for the post at that time. But Reid continued to make her own additions to the post after that. Did she simply overlook that the headline and URL of the post had been changed when she did so?

Asked if the hacker could have manipulated the URL, Nichols said those findings were made independent of him. Recihman's letters refer to a security consultant named Anthony Cochenour, who Nichols said is no longer working on the investigation.

Cochenour did not return a phone call.

That was not the end of the alleged hacking on January 10, 2006. A link to the "Brokeback Committee Room" post, using that headline and that URL, appears in three other posts that day, increasing the number of posts that Reid would have had to have published that day -- and then never looked at again after the afternoon of January 11.

And the same kind of homophobic commentary about Hatch and Alito appeared in another post from January 10 that no one in Reid's camp has publicly disputed.

This same time period suggests another problem with one of the arguments Reichman raised in his letters, in which he noted that there are "no public comments on the fraudulent postings."

While Nichols said that the hacking would have had to have occurred contemporaneously with Reid's other writings -- given the dates the pages were archived -- her attorney initially claimed otherwise.

"If the fraudulent posts had been contemporaneously written, there would have been substantial comments and blow back," Reichman said.

Reid, who hosts a weekly program on MSNBC and boasts a diehard following among anti-Trump liberals, was hardly the celebrity back then that she is today. That the blog posts in question didn't generate any headlines or controversies at the time is entirely believable.

Indeed, a quick scan of the archived blog from the period in question shows that to be the case. Of 60 posts published on the blog from January 4-11, 2006, including the three that Reichman said in his letter were hacked, only 13 contained any comments. None contained more than four.

Reichman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Several other journalists have investigated the matter this week, following the revelation of the second round of homophobic posts, and have thrown other parts of Reid's team's argument into question.

On Thursday night, The Daily Beast, to which Reid has been a contributor, published findings from its investigation into the matter, revealing an error in Nichols' methodology. Along with the claim that Reid's blog was hacked, Nichols had also said that some screenshots of her old blog revealed last week may have been manipulated. Nichols had said that tags, including "Gallup" and "gay and lesbian," did not appear on the blog, suggesting that the screenshots showing the tags could have been doctored.

But The Daily Beast found that the disputed tags were not actually labels on Blogger, but instead tags linking to a different, now-defunct tracking site. Nichols acknowledged the "methodology issues," and told the Beast he is "looking to resolve the discrepancy."

The holes in these explanations help explain why Reid has few believers in her corner, outside the loyal cadre of fans who tune in to her program every Saturday and Sunday.

MSNBC has offered tacit support, quietly sharing the materials from Reichman and Nichols with reporters. The network has yet to release an official statement. By Friday, Nichols told CNN Money he was no longer in a position to talk to the press, referring all questions to the network.

Spokespeople for MSNBC did not respond to multiple inquiries.

Reid herself has yet to address the matter, save for a statement released at the beginning of the week in which she said that the posts were created by an "external party."

But that could change this weekend, when she is expected to return to her show.

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