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Why The United States Do Nothing To Russia's Hacking

The headlines about the hacking of our election have only begun to blare. Monday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the bipartisan chorus calling for an investigation, which will likely follow the U.S. intelligence community’s own “full review,” ordered by President Obama to be finished before Inauguration Day. At this point, everyone but the president-elect and some of his entourage accepts that the Russian government directed the hacking, either to undermine the election or—in the CIA’s latest estimate—to help Donald Trump win.
Before we plunge too deeply into this tale, straight out of a Cold War movie, it’s worth reviewing some context: How long has this sort of thing been going on? How is this hack different from all other hacks? How shocking is it? And what can President Obama (or, if he ever snaps out of his denial, soon-to-be-President Trump) do about it?
First, nations have been hacking into each other’s computer networks for a long time. Back in 1967, when the ARPAnet, the military’s precursor to the internet, was about to roll out, a few computer scientists warned that putting information on a network—where it can be accessed online from multiple, unsecured locations—creates inherent vulnerabilities; keeping secrets, they warned, will be very difficult from now on. In 1984, Ronald Reagan signed the first presidential directive on computer security, warning of electronic interference by foreign intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, and criminals. The staffers who wrote this document—most of them in the Pentagon and the NSA—knew about this danger because they knew the United States was already hacking into foreign networks, and they inferred that what we could do to them, they could someday do to us.
The Russians got into the game in 1997 (or at least they were first detected that year) when, in an operation called Moonlight Maze, the NSA and other intelligence agencies detected intruders hacking into several U.S. military sites and—through various means—traced them back to a server at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The French were seen hacking into Defense Department networks the same year. China took its plunge—targeting defense manufacturers, then businesses of all types, then government agencies and critical infrastructure worldwide—in 2001. Russia’s first known hack of a classified site took place in 2008, when, in an operation called Buckshot Yankee, the NSA detected a massive hacking of U.S. Central Command (caused, it was determined later, by someone purchasing a malware-infected thumb-drive from a bodega in Afghanistan and inserting it in a military computer). Today, more than 20 nations have cyber units (offensive and defensive) in their militaries, including Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
During the 2008 presidential election, China hacked into the websites of both parties’ candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain—troubling, but hey, it was espionage, no big deal. In 2015, after China hacked the personnel records of millions of federal employers, a member of the House Intelligence Committee asked James Clapper, director of national intelligence, what he was going to do about this cyberattack. Clapper replied that the Chinese hadn’t launched an attack, exactly. They’d engaged in “passive intelligence-collection activity”—cyberespionage—“just as we do.”
In the present case, there would have been no ruckus if the Russians had simply hacked emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign; that’s what intelligence agencies do, if they can: collect intelligence on what the presidential candidates and their close aides are saying and doing, what kinds of policies they might pursue.
What’s different this time around is that the Russians leaked cherry-picked excerpts of these stolen files to WikiLeaks, which passed them on to the scoop-happy mass media. In short, the Russians didn’t merely engage in “passive intelligence collection”; they weaponized what they collected. They didn’t merely hack files to learn about U.S. politics; they then strategically planted damaging bits from those files in order to shape U.S. politics.
There is no evidence—nor is anyone claiming there’s evidence—that the Russians tampered with voting machines or registration rolls. What is alleged (and is incontestably true, regardless of Russia’s motives) is that the contents of those emails damaged Hillary Clinton’s reputation. Early on, the DNC emails revealed that the party’s leaders were conspiring with Clinton to weaken Bernie Sanders’ chances in the Democratic primaries. This wasn’t so surprising (Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat until he ran in those primaries), but it angered and disillusioned his supporters—to the point where many of them didn’t return to the party’s fold in the general election.
The later emails—in which top Clinton aides made intemperate remarks about her judgment, hollow beliefs, and conflicts of interest—played into Trump’s campaign rhetoric. He quoted them widely as proof of his charges about her. The Russians had hacked files from Trump’s campaign as well, and no doubt many of those emails would have damaged his reputation, had they been leaked. But that’s the thing: They weren’t leaked. This feature of the tale—the dog that didn’t bark, as Sherlock Holmes would put it—stiffened the CIA’s assessment that the Russians weren’t trying merely to disrupt the political process but to help Donald Trump, their preferred candidate, win.
During the Cold War, the Russians referred to this sort of spying as “active measures,” and the Americans engaged in it too. Both sides rigged elections in smaller countries around the world, either to protect governments serving their interests or to overthrow those that weren’t. This was done mainly by funneling money, spreading propaganda, assassination; the techniques were many.

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