It is a matter of record, and some very turbulent history, that the United States has intervened in elections or sought to dictate the vote in other countries. One way then to receive the news that the American intelligence community has concluded “with high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had masterminded an “influence campaign” in the 2016 American presidential election—one that has at the very least tainted the Electoral College victory of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump as the next president of the United States—is to welcome the turn of events as karmic payback.
But once we set schadenfreude aside, we quickly realize that the keys to the world’s largest economy and the passwords to the nuclear arsenal of history’s most powerful military will be turned over to an ignorant, undisciplined, Twitter-happy bigot.
This is no mere irony or laughing matter. The result of this tainted election may lead, accidentally, to a shooting war or to economic failure; by design, it will lead to the end of the post-World War II international order. The Russians, like Trump and the Republican Party he has effectively hijacked, did not expect victory. (Indeed the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, got almost 3 million more votes.) But now that Trump is set to occupy the White House, we can expect an upending of many certainties.
To give two examples out of many: One, Trump’s decision to require all ambassadors appointed by Barack Obama to resign from their posts on the day he takes office is not only without precedent; it creates a void where there was none, and because such appointments take time and Senate “advice and consent,” leaves an already isolationist-minded administration without envoys in an increasingly connected world. Two, conflicting reports about his order to the two officials in charge of the US nuclear arsenal (through the National Nuclear Security Agency) to resign their posts also on the day he takes office show that Trumpian uncertainty will affect even the literally most dangerous things in the world.
To what extent did Russia tamper with the US elections?
The unclassified version of the report submitted by the US director of national intelligence consolidates the findings of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The agencies did not suggest that the actual vote tallies were manipulated (even though Trump’s winning margin in three key states were narrow indeed). Rather, they found that two groups, one from “Russian intelligence” and the other from “Russian military intelligence,” hacked into the computer network of the Democratic National Committee and accessed “large volumes of data,” including personal e-mails.
But what distinguished the Russian influence campaign was not the hacking but the leaking: The Russians leaked “US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.” The agencies characterized the orchestrated leaking as an “attack.”
The key paragraph in the unclassified report reads: “We assess with high confidence that… Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency.”
It is still a matter of debate how much of an impact the Russian campaign had on the ultimate outcome. Because a shift in the vote of about 100,000 voters spread over three key states would have resulted in a Clinton win, the impact of the Russian leaks cannot be ruled out. Obama has already ordered retaliatory actions against Putin, including closing down two Russian facilities in the United States. Tellingly, and as Putin opponent Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, predicted, Putin did not respond in kind. This only means, Kasparov said, that Putin expects better treatment from Trump.
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