The revelations of a CIA assessment charging that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in order to help Donald Trump, and Trump’s contemptuous dismissal of the charge as “ridiculous,” have set off another round of ugly, divisive commentary regarding both the legitimacy of the election and Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.
Yet the charges of Russian responsibility for the e-mail hacks of the Democratic National Committee and of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta have been repeated so often and so emphatically that it’s become easy to forget that they have yet to be conclusively proved.
While the CIA asserts that Russia interfered with the election in order to assist Trump, it is by no means clear that the nation’s other intelligence agencies agree on all of the details. What is clear is that WikiLeaks managed to obtain a trove of often embarrassing and self-serving e-mails written by DNC officials, Clinton campaign operatives, and media elites. But exactly how did it obtain them? Were they leaked, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims, or were they deliberately stolen by Russian hackers? We still don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Podesta fell victim to a common (and obvious) spear-phishing ploy, and that the DNC’s system was penetrated by what is widely believed to be a group of Russian-speaking hackers associated with the Russian government. Yet the nature of that association is far from clear.
Even so, we find it troubling that these charges of Russian interference are serving to distract from the very real domestic challenges that threaten our democracy: growing voter suppression, the influence of corporate and dark-money PACs, gerrymandering, and an anachronistic Electoral College that, twice in the past 16 years, has undermined the preferences of American voters.
It is also troubling that the finger-pointing over the leaked e-mails has provided Clinton campaign operatives and surrogates with an excuse for deflecting criticism of the kind of campaign they ran. There’s a striking cognitive dissonance at work here: Liberals who have traditionally been wary of the national-security state and justifiably suspicious of its claims seem to have become its most vociferous supporters, at the very same time that former intelligence officials are urging caution. A former chief of Russian analysis at the CIA, writing in The National Interest, noted that while some of the facts “indeed support the judgment that the Russian government was behind the operations, each is also consistent with alternative explanations.” Another former CIA counterterrorism official told Newsweek, “My main concern is that we will rush to judgment. The analysis needs to be cohesive and done the right way.”