Analysts largely agree that the hacking of various arms of the Democratic Party, and the release of hacked emails that deepened divisions within the party just ahead of its presidential convention, is a big deal. But there’s less agreement about whether what we’re witnessing is fundamentally old or new. The answer to that question could shape not just the Obama administration’s response to the hack, but international norms on the limits to foreign influence in democratic elections. Put simply: If, as some reckon, Russian intelligence agencies spied on the Democratic Party and then shared looted documents with WikiLeaks in order to intervene in the U.S. election, can that be tolerated? So far, only anonymous U.S. officials and private cybersecurity companies have designated Russia as the prime suspect in the hack. The U.S. government has yet to publicly accuse the Russian government of orchestrating the breach, let alone the leaks, and Russian officials have denied any involvement in the episode. Nevertheless, some argue that the Kremlin appears to have merely extended to America a reinvented Soviet tactic that it has deployed for years at home and across Europe: Using a variety of measures—including the collection and dissemination of compromising information and disinformation—to meddle in politics, discredit the political systems of rival countries, and sow doubt, discord, and disarray.
An alternative interpretation is that Russia is “crossing a big red line and setting a dangerous precedent: an authoritarian country directly yet covertly trying to sabotage an American election.” Still others point out that there’s a long history of countries, including Russia and the United States, secretly seeking to influence elections and public opinion abroad, particularly during the Cold War. Often these efforts are overt, even routine; in many cases they stop short of explicitly picking sides (think of Angela Merkel praising Hillary Clinton), and in some they don’t (think of Barack Obama’s plea for Britain to remain in the European Union).
As U.S. authorities investigate who was behind the hack, legal scholars and cybersecurity experts have been scrambling to sort the old from the new. Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor and former George W. Bush administration official, says there’s something novel about the mechanisms and scale of the intervention, in that it seems to have involved not just cyber operations, but also partnering with a third-party organization to publish a massive amount of data. That last step is what made ordinary espionage extraordinary—and what potentially invites more ambitious interventions in American democracy in the future.