Late last week, WikiLeaks released private emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. Experts suspect the documents were obtained by hackers affiliated with the Russian government. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager has even charged that the Russians are trying to use the emails to help elect Donald Trump. Since then, people on the left and right have expressed outrage that a foreign government would seek to influence American politics. That furor is naive. Foreign governments have sought to shape other country’s politics before. The United States has honed interventions in other countries’ elections to something of an art form. They (we) do it because such interventions can succeed, especially if they find willing accomplices in the targeted country.
The Russian state’s email hack isn’t the first time that a great power had interfered in American politics. In the infancy of the republic, fears of French covert operations designed to drag the United States into a war with Great Britain led President John Adams to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. As historian Timothy Naftali notes, before Pearl Harbor, the United Kingdom tried to turn U.S. public opinion against isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and the original “America First” movement.
Perhaps the most sustained attempt by another power to exert influence in American domestic politics took place during the Cold War. As Christopher Andrew recounts in “The Sword And the Shield,” “influence operations” or the spreading disinformation were staples of Soviet intelligence activities. Notable successes included Soviet dissemination of conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and smears about the private lives of officials such as J. Edgar Hoover.