The emails of Sony employees. Top-secret diplomatic cables. The addresses of married people who used a confidential dating service. Every time “secret” information is made public, the focus of attention is always, immediately, on the sensational details. The motives of the hacker, the leaker or the person in possession of the secret tapes are rarely examined. But what to do when that person has an ulterior motive quite far from “the public’s right to know”? And what if that person’s motive is to help throw an American election?
I am not asking this question in a vacuum. All available evidence now points to direct Russian involvement in the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s email system. The evidence has been described by Eli Lake (he quotes Trump campaign adviser Mike Flynn saying he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Russia were responsible) and laid out in meticulous detail by Thomas Rid of Motherboard.
The FBI is investigating, too.
Nevertheless, with the exception of a few people on Twitter and a handful of print journalists, most of those covering this story, especially on television, are not interested in the nature of the hackers, and they are not asking why the Russians apparently chose to pass the emails on to WikiLeaks at this particular moment, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. They are focusing instead on the content of what were meant to be private emails, some of which are sarcastic or cynical, some of which seem to indicate that the DNC didn’t want to be subject to a hostile takeover by Bernie Sanders, but none of which seem to me remotely surprising: This is how people communicate when they are in the heat of a presidential race. I have absolutely no doubt the staff of the Donald Trump campaign, or indeed the Sanders campaign, write to one another in the same way.
Nevertheless, read coldly, in newsprint, these missives seem to shock people. More to the point, they preoccupy journalists, who are, even as I write, poring over them in search of juicy details. And this, of course, is exactly what was meant to happen. Those who leaked them, and the WikLeaks operatives who facilitated those leaks, understand extremely well the dynamic of democratic political campaigns and have deliberately sought to disrupt this one.
How would the Russians know that the emails, rather than the identity of the hackers, would capture the public imagination? Because this kind of trick has been played before. In several post-communist countries — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine — secretly taped conversations have been used to destabilize democratic governments and, in some cases, coincidentally or otherwise, to replace them with populist or anti-European governments more to Russia’s liking. (They are briefly described as part of this paper by Anton Shekhovtsov for the Legatum Institute, the think-tank where I work).
In Poland, hundreds of hours of tapings of political figures were arranged by a businessman who traded coal with Russia; to make them, he used waiters, one of whom later testified that he was explicitly promised a reward when a new government came to power. They were published by a magazine run by an ex-con who spent five years hiding from police in Russia in the 1990s. And yet just as in the United States, the Polish media focused almost exclusively on the details of the conversations, the bad language and jokes — none of which revealed any genuine corruption — rather than the motivations of the people who had taped and released them. Believe me, I know this story well: My husband was one of the politicians on the tapes.
Why would the Russians do this in the United States? That’s easier: You do not need to think conspiratorially in order to understand why the Russian government badly wants Trump to win this election. His deep business connections to Russia have been documented. As I wrote last week, his stated policy positions — temper U.S. support for NATO, stop advocating democracy, withdraw support for Ukraine — are exactly what Russia wants. Russia’s primary foreign policy goals are to weaken the European Union, soften up NATO and make the European continent safe for corrupt Russian money. President Trump would make all of those things possible.
Of course, Hillary Clinton might win anyway. But since vastly more attention will be paid to Debbie Wasserman Schultz than to Vladimir Putin, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to this leak. It might not work — but if you were Putin, wouldn’t you try?