The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a declassified report purportedly supplying the minutiae of a conspiracy theory that has dogged the victory of Donald Trump in the November presidential election: Russia’s alleged “influence campaign” that sought to tip the scales in favour of the property magnate. The report, which pulls together intelligence gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, concludes with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered such a campaign in 2016, which saw hacking of email accounts of Democratic Party officials and other political figures.
Further, personal information of the victims was passed on to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and broader media, which in turn disseminated large troves of data. These releases and public propaganda by the Russian regime, the report suggests, undercut the campaign of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. The report comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow could not be worse. President Barack Obama himself cited the “highest levels of the Russian government” as the provenance of this malicious cyber activity. When he announced sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 diplomats from U.S. soil in December, matters reached boiling point.
The hacking saga raises two sets of questions. First, how consequential are the U.S. intelligence agencies’ claims in terms of the impact on the actual election outcome of the concerted disinformation campaign? It is possible that a section of voters was swayed by this covert action; yet Mr. Trump’s win, as even the liberal-minded U.S. media concede, was the result of factors deeply rooted in domestic politics, including economic woes and the anti-immigrant attitudes of an angry middle class in the Rust Belt States. On the flip side, conservative Americans’ view of Ms. Clinton as an untrustworthy and over-connected Washington insider scarcely required corroboration from an outside actor.
There is, of course, some irony in the intelligence report given the unparalleled record of the U.S. in interfering in the elections of other nations, including in almost all of South America and even in Russia, in 1996. The second concern that the hacking episode throws up is that Mr. Trump’s dismissive reaction of the intelligence report could send a dangerous signal to Russia that it could carry out more such shadow campaigns with a sense of impunity. Information is ultimate power in the digital universe of 21st century democracies. The rise of hacking and fake news thus is, justifiably, a source of deep fear for liberal governments across Europe, poised on the brink of elections and facing the prospect of a Brexit-style sweep in some cases.