Russia Is Probably Meddling in the U.S. Election—And That's No Surprise

Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton celebrates among balloons after she accepted the nomination on the fourth and final night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28. Jim Young/Reuters

In recent weeks, two hacks against the Democratic National Committee have been uncovered, one disclosing the DNC's opposition research on Donald Trump and another releasing many internal emails that forced the resignation of the DNC chair on the eve of the convention. Regardless of these particular consequences, the hacks highlight the potential for cyber-related chaos in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Consider what else might happen between now and November. Perhaps the electronic voting machines will be hacked. The vendors of these machines are unwilling to allow independent experts to examine and report on how vulnerable their machines are, but in 2006, graduate students and a single professor in computer science demonstrated they could pose a credible hacking threat to voting machines.

A more troublesome possibility is that incriminating emails could be forged. In the fact-free zones of the internet, their mere release would be credible to some segment of the population, and would be hard to refute in the short time before November. And it is relatively easy to forge authentic-looking documents.

In a close election, it would take only a modest amount of hacking to tilt the election contrary to the will of voters, but such actions could throw the very legitimacy of the presidential election into doubt.

Who would have the motive, means, and opportunity to hack the DNC? Being able to identify someone with the motive, means, and opportunity to commit a crime is often an important step forward in identifying the guilty party, although it is by no means a foolproof test.

Start with Russia's Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who wrote that, "The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness." Recall from history that nations have often acted to promote their particular preferences for the governments of other nations. For example, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu openly supported Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2012. Nor have the hands of the United States exactly been entirely clean in this regard over the years.

So why shouldn't we expect other nations to intervene to advance the prospects of its preferred candidate, using whatever means (including cyber) available to do so?

Since the end of the Cold War, many in Russia have blamed the United States for blocking its resurgence as a world-class geopolitical actor. Donald Trump has said the United States might not honor its treaty obligations if NATO states do not pay their "fair" share for defense, while Hillary Clinton (like many others in both Republican and Democratic foreign policy circles) is skeptical of Russian intentions. Motive for Russia to intervene? Check.

Russia has a wide range of capable cyber operatives and intelligence services, some of whom work directly for the state and others that cooperate with or are tolerated by the Russian state. Intelligence agencies specialize in the manipulation of information, and Russia's are particularly good at it. Means for Russia to intervene? Check.

The internet provides us with an unprecedented ability to access information freely. Such capability is largely positive, but one of its most disturbing downsides is that it allows people to live in their own informational echo chambers that amplify like-minded voices without providing enlightenment. Anger begets anger, especially on the internet, which makes it a nearly perfect environment for sowing dissent, discord, and confusion. One of the U.S. presidential candidates is counting on his success at stoking national anger as a path to victory. And the DNC is a nongovernmental organization whose cybersecurity technology and practices could not reasonably be expected to withstand a nation-state cyber onslaught. Opportunity for Russia to intervene? Check.

Motive, means, and opportunity point to Russia as being a likely party to benefit from the hacks. But was Russia actually involved? I believe the large volume of circumstantial evidence reported publicly suggests that the Russians are responsible, and the public arguments offered against that evidence are weak, even as I accept some uncertainty about my conclusion. I also note that the Russian government has explicitly denied being involved, but that same government also pointed to "little green men" in Crimea before it finally acknowledged its military involvement after the fact.

What to do now? Even if Russian meddling in a U.S. presidential election is not a surprise, the United States shouldn't just accept it. The Clinton campaign called out Russia's involvement, saying that the email hack is "further evidence [that] the Russian government is trying to influence the outcome of the election." Trump encouraged Russia to hack more to uncover missing Clinton emails. Nevertheless, both Clinton and Trump should strongly condemn further Russian involvement. For their part, U.S. voters should support—indeed, should demand—a forceful law enforcement investigation of these hacking incidents, even if it may help one side over the other. And state and local officials should anticipate that electronic voting results may be questioned and therefore ensure the availability of paper backup. For both Trump and Clinton supporters, nothing less than the integrity of U.S. democracy is at stake.

Herbert Lin is senior research scholar for cyber policy and security and research fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Hoover Institution.

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