Why is the President downplaying alleged Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections? Maybe he doesn’t oppose all efforts to impact foreign voters
Last week ABC News ran a story “Russian Hacking: Why the U.S. Isn’t Retaliating” which sought to explain why, “after weeks of news stories describing Russian intelligence operations to hack into the U.S. political system,” current and former U.S. national security officials are nevertheless saying (surprisingly to me) that “[n]ot very much” will be done about it by the U.S., “at least in the near term.”
Why? ABC reports:
Among the reasons: officials don’t want to reveal intelligence sources and methods that provide them insight into the activities Russian cyber spies; the U.S. is seeking Russian cooperation in Syria; and American officials worry that an escalating cyber tit for tat between the two powers could hurt U.S. interests more than it helps.
Earlier in September, President Obama “acknowledged that the Russians have been attacking U.S. institutions on the internet” but also said that:
“Our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber arena duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody’s acting responsibly,” Mr. Obama said. “What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the wild, wild West, where countries that have significant cybercapacity start engaging in unhealthy competition or conflict through these means.”
Still, it does seem rather curious that the President Obama seems to think that inaction on the U.S.’s part will somehow discourage Russia (or any foreign government) from attempting to influence U.S. voters, via cyber means or otherwise. In fact, an argument can be made that the failure to respond will only encourage more machinations by Russia or whoever is behind the efforts.
But the President may have another, subtler reason in mind for downplaying the reported Russian activities: he simply doesn’t want an international norm to develop which would condemn a nation for attempting to influence a foreign election. After all, he’s done it himself.
Last April The Guardian reported that during the President’s trip to the U.K., he weighed in with British voters about the then-pending issue of whether or not Britain would leave the European Union (Brexit):
Barack Obama has warned that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the US if the country chose to leave the EU, as he made an emotional plea to Britons to vote for staying in.
And the Obama is hardly alone in trying to affect another country’s electorate. The Washington Post reports that 61 foreign leaders have publicly criticized Donald Trump. Perhaps of more interest is Hillary Clinton’s claim that foreign leaders had reached out to her privately about helping her defeat Trump (and, except for Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, she has declined to reveal which foreign leaders are involved).
Are we collectively schizophrenic about this issue? At last summer’s Aspen Security Forum there was much discussion about the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email system as an example of a disgraceful effort by a foreign government to influence the U.S. election. According to the New York Times, the material revealed:
Top officials at the Democratic National Committee criticized and mocked Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the primary campaign, even though the organization publicly insisted that it was neutral in the race…
In addition, the Washington Post said, “[i]nternal Democratic National Committee emails appear to show officials discussing using Sen. Bernie Sanders’s faith against him with voters.”
For me, the complicating part of this is that the information revealed was apparently accurate, and that factor raises questions such as these: irrespective of the source, to what extent was this the kind of information voters ought to have? Should voters be informed, for example, about a nefarious idea to use a candidate’s faith against him?
In short, is releasing accurate information a proper and even honorable way to attempt to influence an election in another country? (Espionage, incidentally, typically violates the victim’s national law, but is not generally prohibited by international law.)
Exactly how far a nation ought to go in attempting to influence foreign voters caused me to pose this question to Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Ranking Member, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, at Aspen:
[I]f it is wrong to try to influence voting in another country, was President Obama wrong when he came out against the Brexit vote and warned about impact on trade and so forth prior to that vote?
After responding that he wasn’t sure that the President’s effort with respect to the Brexit was strategically effective, he said this:
But it’s a quite a different story to publicly express an opinion and privately, surreptitiously hack in and try to influence an election by disclosing private emails. So I wouldn’t put those in the same category at all.
I followed up with this question in reference to surreptitiously trying to influence a foreign election: “Would we ever do it?” Here’s his interesting response:
MR. SCHIFF: Well, the question would we ever do it. You know, there certainly have been many documented instances in the past where the IC [intelligence community] has attempted to influence political processes elsewhere. I can’t go into any kind of a covert action question here obviously.
In my view, any effort by a foreign government to actually manipulate election results in the U.S. by, for example, hacking into voting machines to change votes, is extraordinarily threatening to our way of life and needs to be addressed accordingly. However, imposing electoral transparency by disclosing accurate information seems to me to be something different.
Accordingly, let’s ask ourselves this: if the U.S. could influence an election in a hostile country not by manipulating voting machines or even by covertly distributing disinformation, but rather by openly (or covertly) releasing accurate material – however obtained – should the U.S. do it?
Representative Schiff isn’t saying, and President Obama passed on the opportunity to make a strong statement in opposition. Is there a message there?