Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full review of the 2016 presidential election before Donald Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017. The move came amid growing suspicions that Russian intelligence agencies were behind the recent hacking of email accounts belonging to members of the Democratic National Committee and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta. Though many people's computers have been compromised before, the fact that the attack targeted prominent political figures during a presidential race — and that tens of thousands of emails gained in the process were then posted to WikiLeaks, an organization with clear connections to Russian intelligence — has caused an uproar.
Many have accused Russia of trying to damage Clinton's campaign to give Trump a leg up.
In fact, some figures, including Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, have even charged Trump and his advisers of being complicit in the operation. Trump's supporters, on the other hand, have denied his involvement in the hack, arguing that the Democrats are merely sore losers hoping to undermine Trump's presidency or overturn his victory. Some have even accused the Obama administration of orchestrating the hack, given the problems these accusations are causing for Trump.
No official findings have been published so far, but several unnamed sources at the CIA have reportedly leaked to the press that the agency has concluded with some confidence that the Russians were indeed behind the hack. It also contends that the Republican National Committee was hacked as well but that no material was released — something the committee denies. At this point, the evidence the CIA has used to support its conclusions has not been made public. Media reports, however, suggest that after the hack, the Democratic National Committee hired a network security firm to investigate. The company found two hacker groups to be involved: Cozy Bear, which is reportedly linked to the Russian GRU (military intelligence), and Fancy Bear, which is allegedly connected to the Russian FSB (a successor to the KGB).
Regardless of what information authorities find — and remember, the FBI and intelligence community have been investigating the possibility of foreign meddling in the election since July — one thing is certain: Their conclusions will never satisfy everyone. Instead the issue will continue to cause controversy, which to many U.S. rivals, including Russia, is not necessarily a bad thing. Sowing discord may even have been the attack's true objective, if the Russians were its authors. Either way, the case offers a useful opportunity to discuss the role intelligence agencies play in foreign affairs.
In 1929, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson said, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail." He made the comment as he shut down the cryptological, counterintelligence and human intelligence operations of the State Department's Bureau of Secret Intelligence. But Stimson eventually changed his mind on that point as he came to understand how vital accurate intelligence is to crafting effective diplomatic and foreign policy strategies.
Like any business negotiation, diplomatic haggling often relies on a great deal of bluff, bluster and outright lies. And, in the same way that businesses must conduct due diligence to understand their partners' interests and circumstances before striking a deal, diplomats cannot accept their counterparts' pronouncements at face value. That's where intelligence comes in, validating or falsifying claims as they crop up in negotiations. In the words of Ronald Reagan, who famously quoted a Russian proverb, it is important in international relations to "trust, but verify."
The United States does the same. U.S. agencies actively collect information on their friends and foes so that they can understand what is happening (or better yet, what will happen) in the world and act or react accordingly. These agencies have billion-dollar budgets not to sit around and collect dust, but to gather information and analyze it in support of those conducting Washington's foreign policy. Some of the means to collect this information are overt, including meeting with foreign leaders and diplomats, exchanging intelligence with other parties, and completing formal verification processes. But it is often necessary to use covert or clandestine means as well, such as tapping human and technical resources. And in today's digital age, those technical tactics frequently mean hacking into information systems.
Carl von Clausewitz once noted that "War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means." The same is true for intelligence agencies: Not only do they inform political intercourse, but they also serve as an instrument for carrying it out. The Soviet KGB termed intelligence operations that were used to influence events "active measures." The KGB, however, was not alone in using tools such as misinformation, disinformation, disruption and agent recruitment; nearly every national intelligence agency, and some large corporations for that matter, rely on the same tactics.
Of course, some are more skilled than others at wielding these tools undetected, though their overt use can also be designed to send a message. For example, transparent involvement in effecting regime change, as in the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala or the 1978 KGB-backed coup in Afghanistan, can demonstrate power and influence to a country's competitors. On the other hand, getting caught red-handed in such operations can force a state to change its intelligence strategy and methods. China did just that after it was discovered to be funneling millions of dollars to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1996. Clearly Chinese intelligence agencies and others have not halted their efforts to influence American politics and policies, but they have changed how they carry them out.
This brings us back to the idea that intelligence agencies can help their countries achieve their strategic goals by influencing the behavior of other nations. The United States, Germany and others have provided aid to opposition actors and dissidents inside Russia — some of whom have been killed or arrested for their actions — in an effort to shape its internal dynamics. They also no doubt supported Ukraine's Euromaidan uprising in 2014, a revolution that rattled Russia to its core. From Moscow's perspective, the uprising posed a direct threat to its periphery and to its need to protect itself from invasion across the European Plain. In response, Russia undertook several not-so-covert actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine to ensure that it maintained a friendly buffer along its border rather than a potentially hostile pro-Western neighbor.
Divide and Conquer
If Reid's accusation that Trump is a Russian puppet were true, it would clearly give Moscow a significant boost in its rivalry with Washington. But even if it is false, the fact that a senior U.S. senator has made such a serious allegation is indicative of the disruption the hacking has caused in the United States. Divide et impera — "divide and conquer" — may have gotten its fame as a tactic of the Roman Empire, but the concept is much older than that, and it continues to be a crucial element of statecraft today.
For decades, the Soviet Union worked hard to foment dissent in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
It backed Marxist terrorist groups around the world, as well as black separatist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in America. It also launched disinformation campaigns, including conspiracy theories that the FBI ordered John F. Kennedy's assassination, that U.S. troops waged chemical warfare in Korea, and that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus.
Russia has since continued the practices of its Soviet predecessor. It is no coincidence that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke received an honorary Ph.D. from a pro-Russia university in Ukraine in 2005. Russian intelligence agencies have also used the connections they made to Western environmental activists in the 1970s to encourage more recent opposition to hydraulic fracturing. They are suspected of having similarly leveraged their links to the Black Power movement to channel aid to the Black Lives Matter movement as well.
The United States is the only truly global superpower. And clearly, Russia's efforts to extend its influence abroad and gain greater access to warm-water ports would benefit from an America divided, inwardly focused and unable to reach the consensus needed to counter Moscow's actions.
So was every intelligence agency in the world collecting information on the U.S. election? Absolutely. Were some of them trying to influence its outcome, and perhaps even put someone favorable to their interests in office? No doubt. I also have no doubt that the Russians (and others) were gathering data on both the Republican and Democratic candidates. But regardless of what these states' primary motives were, all of the United States' rivals stand to gain from the commotion and disunity left in the hack's wake.