A foreign government has hacked a political party’s computers—and possibly an election. It has stolen documents and timed their release to explode with maximum damage. It is a strike against our civic infrastructure. And though nobody died—and there was no economic toll exacted—the Russians were aiming for a tender spot, a central node of our democracy.
It was hard to see the perniciousness of this attack at first, especially given how news media initially covered the story. The Russians, after all, didn’t knock out a power grid. And when the stolen information arrived, it was dressed in the ideology of WikiLeaks, which presents its exploits as possessing a kind of journalistic bravery the traditional media lacks.
But this document dump wasn’t a high-minded act of transparency. To state the obvious, only one political party has been exposed. (Selectively exposed: Many emails were culled from the abridged dump.) And it’s not really even the inner workings of the Democrats that have been revealed; the documents don’t suggest new layers of corruption or detail any new conspiracies. They’re something closer to the embarrassing emails that fly across every office in America—griping, the testing of stupid ideas, the banal musings that take place in private correspondence. The emails don’t get us much beyond a fact every sentient political observer could already see: Officials at the DNC, hired to work hand in glove with a seemingly inevitable nominee, were actively making life easier for Hillary Clinton. It didn’t take these leaks to understand that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a hack and that the DNC should be far more neutral in presidential primaries.
What’s galling about the WikiLeaks dump is the way in which the organization has blurred the distinction between leaks and hacks. Leaks are an important tool of journalism and accountability. When an insider uncovers malfeasance, he brings information to the public in order to stop the wrongdoing. That’s not what happened here. The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate. To help win an election, the Russians broke into the virtual headquarters of the Democratic Party. The hackers installed the cyber-version of the bugging equipment that Nixon’s goons used—sitting on the DNC computers for a year, eavesdropping on everything, collecting as many scraps as possible. This is trespassing, it’s thievery, it’s a breathtaking transgression of privacy. It falls into that classic genre, the dirty trick. Yet that term feels too innocent to describe the offense. Nixon’s dirty tricksters didn’t mindlessly expose the private data of low-level staff.
We should be appalled at the public broadcast of this minutiae. It will have a chilling effect—campaign staffers will now assume they no longer have the space to communicate honestly. This honest communication—even if it’s often trivial or dumb—is important for the process of arriving at sound strategy and sound ideas. (To be sure, the DNC shouldn’t need privacy to know that attacking a man for his faith is just plain gross.) Open conversation, conducted with the expectation of privacy, is the necessary precondition for the formation of collective wisdom and consensus. If we eviscerate the possibility of privacy in politics, we increase the likelihood of poor decision-making.
It is possible to argue that Russia is just behaving as great powers often do. States try to manipulate opinion beyond their borders. Barack Obama recently attempted to sway the British public to reject Brexit; we don’t just broadcast the Voice of America to expose the world to jazz. Russia does this, too. It has a website and television network, Russia Today. We might not care for Russia Today and its propagandistic coverage, but it operates in the open. It uses reporting and opinion to sway hearts and minds. The interconnected nature of the world means that it would be malpractice for states not to make the best case for its policies to enemy and ally alike. The United States is better when it understands the world and argues with it.
Still, we have a clear set of rules designed to limit foreign interference in our elections, to protect our sovereignty. We should be open to rational arguments from abroad but terrified about states playing a larger role than that. This is why we don’t let foreign entities make campaign contributions. We don’t allow noncitizens to vote. Consider our reaction, if an American political leader had pulled this stunt: He would be prosecuted, and drummed from political life. These are unacceptable tactics for an American; they can hardly be more tolerable when executed by a foreign power that wishes us ill.
The DNC dump may not have revealed a conspiracy that could end a candidacy, but it succeeded in casting a pall of anxiety over this election. We know that the Russians have a further stash of documents from the DNC and another set of documents purloined from the Clinton Foundation. In other words, Vladimir Putin is now treating American democracy with the same respect he accords his own. The best retaliation isn’t a military one, or to respond in kind. It’s to defeat his pet candidate and to force him to watch the inauguration of the woman he so abhors.