There is mounting evidence that the internal Democratic National Committee emails dumped by WikiLeaks last week were stolen by hackers tied to the Russian security services. The private cyber-security firm hired by the DNC concluded that the hack was conducted by two separate Russian groups, and three additional private firms supported that conclusion. There is also strong evidence linking the DNC breach to previous intrusions at the White House, the State Department, the German parliament, and a French television network—all believed to be connected by Russian state actors. The latest breach has raised deeply troubling questions about the integrity of American elections and whether foreign agents can destabilize them.
But this is being obscured by the content of the emails themselves. Bernie Sanders’s most ardent supporters say they constitute proof that the primary system was rigged against him. The emails, however, show nothing of the sort.
The hackers have been dribbling out material for a month. But the WikiLeaks dump on Friday was different. It was massive—over 20,000 emails and thousands of attachments, including social security, passport, and credit card numbers of Democratic donors. And Wikileaks didn’t just haphazardly dump the information: It used its Twitter account to highlight emails that supposedly exposed a corrupt effort by the DNC to secure the presidential nomination for Clinton.
This is, to put it lightly, an exaggeration. Sure, there’s an email by a finance staffer ineptly trying to play communications staffer. But his suggestion that the DNC attack Sanders over his religion, or lack thereof, died without anyone acting on it.
Other emails highlighted by Wikileaks as evidence of corruption in fact show staffers getting guidance from attorneys on how to comply with campaign finance laws and spitballing ways to respond to attacks from Sanders on the integrity of the nomination process. A look at the “inner workings of the party’s financial operation,” The Washington Post said, reveals that “flattery, cajoling, and favor-bestowing [go] into winning rich supporters.” The same could be said of almost any political operation in this country.
Wikileaks’s tweets conjured dark and menacing conspiracies, but these are not borne out by the emails themselves. Take the group’s claim that the “DNC knew of Hillary paid troll factory attacking Sanders online.” The highlighted email isn’t some secret communication laying out nefarious plots. It’s a summary of a panel discussion on Fox News Sunday.
But forget the emails for a second. The main problem with the notion that the DNC rigged the results for Clinton is that it requires one to assume the improbable. The DNC had no role or authority in primary contests, which are run by state governments. Clinton dominated the primaries. The DNC, through state parties, had a bit more influence over caucuses … where Sanders dominated Clinton.
None of the thousands of leaked emails and documents show the DNC significantly influencing the results of the nomination. Furthermore, if it is true that last fall Clinton campaign chair John Podesta tried but failed to have DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sacked, the underlying premise of the entire WikiLeaks dump—that Wasserman Schultz machinated to deliver Clinton the nomination—is hard to believe.
The main direct consequences of the WikiLeaks dump have been the resignation of Wasserman Schultz—which will probably relieve the Clinton team as much as satisfy Sanders supporters—and tut-tutting from the press, which sees something nefarious in the DNC strategizing how to get favorable press or grousing about a campaign accusing it of corruption.
The more serious problem is the divisive impact the dump has had on a party that is in the midst of trying to unite the Sanders and Clinton constituencies. Sanders and his allies have reiterated unambiguous support for Clinton, affirmed their belief in the integrity of the process, and stressed the urgency of a unified front against Donald Trump. Unfortunately, that is not enough for some Sanders supporters, who have taken to booing their own leader.
The long-term implications are even more unsettling. Because of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2009, the roles of the national committees have been greatly reduced since the 1990s. For the Democrats, serious research is done by American Bridge, and polling and independent expenditures related to television, online efforts, and fieldwork are done by super PACs. There’s just not a lot, comparatively speaking, for the Russians to have found in the DNC’s servers. What is ominous is the Russians’ willingness to aggressively hack one of the major political parties in what appears to be an effort to manipulate the results of an American election.
If the Russians can get in to the severs of the White House, the State Department, and the DNC, then it is possible they can retrieve the digital and data infrastructure of the Democratic Party and its allies in organized labor and liberal interest groups. They have now crossed over from simply infiltrating documents and data to exfiltrating documents to shape public opinion and the democratic elections that determine control over the power of the state.
Could the Russians wipe out the voter registration rolls in an effort to shape the electorate to benefit Donald Trump? Just last week the Illinois State Board of Elections announced it had been hacked, “most likely from a foreign (international) entity.”
And what about the Democrats’ advantage in data and analytics? It depends upon the integrity and security of the data. What if hackers installed malware that severely damaged NGP-VAN, the system that Democrats use for targeting and contacting voters? In 2012 the Republicans tried to create a similar system; it was a disaster, causing chaos in its get-out-the-vote operation.
Consider that in 2002, Republican operatives jammed the phone lines of Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire, possibly costing them a seat in the U.S. Senate. Hackers might be tempted to try something similar, gumming up Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts across the battleground states. Or, more stealthily, they might prevent some voters from showing up in voter contact lists.
There is one silver lining in this attack on the DNC’s servers. It not only exposes the vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party’s reliance on data stored on connected servers, but shows the brazen eagerness of the Russians to exploit vulnerabilities to undermine our democratic process. Democrats need to stop quibbling about whether the DNC rigged the nomination and confront this threat.