Russia’s D.N.C. Hack Was Only the StartRobby Mook
By Robby Mook
(The New York Times) – Imagine the headlines if, in 2015, Russian agents had leapt out of a van at 2 a.m. in Southeast Washington and broken into the Democratic National Committee offices using sophisticated tools and techniques to steal tens of thousands of documents, including the names and Social Security numbers of donors and employees, and confidential memorandums about campaign strategy for the presidential election.
The world would have been aghast. It would have been, people would say, worse than Watergate.
Something similar did, in fact, happen at the D.N.C. two years ago, and it was worse than Watergate. This wasn’t just one party spying on the other; these were hackers under orders from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia who were trying to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” according to a report released Friday by the office of the director of national intelligence. But the immediate reaction to the break-in was nothing like what followed Watergate.
That’s because most of us don’t think of hacking as a crime like breaking and entering. Before the D.N.C. break-in, I thought of hacking as a prank by mischievous tech-savvy people to get revenge. When North Koreans hacked Sony Pictures in 2014 in retaliation for making the satire “The Interview,” I was much more disturbed by the embarrassing things the movie executives said in emails to one another than by how easy it was for a dictator to punish critics in the United States. It wasn’t until I lived through the Russian hackings of Democratic staff members and organizations that I realized how dangerous such an attitude could be.
I saw it firsthand in July, when I was asked about the first wave of stolen documents on ABC’s “This Week” and CNN’s “State of the Union.” I thought it was a bombshell — Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee! — but my alarm was dismissed by the news media and our opponents as merely campaign spin, feigned distress meant to dodge real questions about how the embarrassing messages might hurt Hillary Clinton’s prospects.
This perception has to change. I’m not referring to the D.N.C. incident in particular, but about cybercrimes in general. Unless we realize how vulnerable we are, we are playing into the hands of foreign aggressors like Mr. Putin.
The chilling effect of these attacks can be very public, and very personal. But they can also be more subtle, impeding dialogue within an organization. For all the fanfare we give the internet for freeing speech, when it is weaponized against you, it can also be used to stifle speech. At the D.N.C., certain conversations could take place only on an encrypted phone app, which made communicating more complicated logistically.
Skeptics, including President-elect Donald J. Trump, have compared the hacks to leaks to the news media. They’re not the same. A leak occurs when someone who is authorized to have information gives it to a reporter without authorization. The “Access Hollywood” video of Mr. Trump talking about assaulting women was a leak. When someone on my staff shared a memo about our campaign launch without permission, that was a leak. Leaks are frustrating, and they happen all the time.
What Mr. Putin did by dumping Democrats’ emails wasn’t a leak; it was an attack with stolen information.
Until we start to see these situations in this light, “Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” as the national intelligence office report called it, will remain potent, and the democratic process will remain vulnerable. The news media needs to spend at least as much time reporting on the source of these foreign-led cybercrimes as they do on the contents.
This isn’t a partisan issue, as Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have already made clear. Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-un of North Korea aren’t registered Democrats or Republicans — they’re anti-American, and they want to hurt democracy itself. To justify what Mr. Putin did, or to blame the victim, as Mr. Trump and his staff have chosen to do, simply leaves them, and all of us, under threat, because the next attack may be aimed not at a political party, but at the White House or the Pentagon.
Of course, Americans need to do a better job protecting ourselves. Law enforcement needs to create better bridges between the intelligence services that monitor attacks and the individuals and organizations they affect. There are very few protocols for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. to alert and assist potential victims. Our democratic structures — elections equipment and officials, elected officials and candidates, activists and reporters — must be elevated as a priority.
At the time of the D.N.C. attack, water treatment plants, nuclear power plants and even casinos were on the Department of Homeland Security’s “critical infrastructure” list. Voting equipment was added last Friday, but we must do much more to protect the people who animate our democratic process. Imagine how stolen information could be (or already has been) used to influence or corrupt officeholders, or voters themselves.
Watergate inspired greater vigilance in the press and prompted major reforms to safeguard our democratic institutions. We need to do that again.