Although there is still a great deal we don’t know and must find out, the Russian hacking of the 2016 American election must now be regarded as a seminal event in the history of American democracy and a paradigmatic warning sign of the danger that all modern democracies face in the age of cyberwarfare. There is no pure analogy for what has happened, since no foreign power has ever intervened to try to shape an American election and subvert the democratic process with this kind of sophistication and potency. However, like the 9/11 attacks, and in a very different way the Watergate scandal, this is a story that requires and will hopefully receive relentless investigative reporting, thorough and bipartisan Congressional fact-finding, and profound reflection on the vulnerabilities it exposes in America’s democracy. And like 9/11, the Russian cyberattack on American democracy has urgent implications for America’s democratic allies.
Here is what we know—and what we need to find out.
It is now beyond dispute (and the consensus view of 17 American intelligence agencies) that the Russian state launched a sophisticated effort more than a year ago to intervene in the 2016 elections in the United States. Operatives of Russian military intelligence hacked into the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015, captured vast troves of information, and released information they thought could be embarrassing, divisive, or controversial through their willing instrument, WikiLeaks. We now also know through the reporting of The New York Times that the Russians, around March or April of 2016, hacked into the computers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and stole “thousands of pages of documents,” which they then leaked to local reporters and bloggers “in nearly a dozen House races” in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. It speaks to the sophistication of the assault that these were all races in competitive districts. And just for good measure—intimidation or spite—the hackers also released the home addresses, cellphone numbers, and personal email addresses of Democratic members of the House, compromising their personal security.