Adam Schiff and Steve Israel: Hacking and leaking of private emails is happening at an unheard of scale
Reporters should ensure they inform their readers about the likely provenance of hacked emails, they say
Editor’s Note: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Rep. Steve Israel (D-New York) is the chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
This campaign season has introduced a dangerous new precedent – foreign interference in an American presidential campaign and the weaponization of hacked emails.
For months, we have seen frequent publication of emails and other information, stolen largely from Democratic Party leaders and organizations. Most recently, the personal emails of John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and current chairman on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, have been posted on the website WikiLeaks, and eagerly pored over by political rivals and reporters alike.
Previously, the contents of email accounts ranging from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and even low-level staffers and volunteers, have been posted on various sites.
The hacking and leaking of private emails is happening at an unheard of scale, but it’s not without precedent in U.S. political history to use illegally acquired documents against political enemies. The most obvious case is the break-in at the Watergate complex, in which the Nixon administration directed the theft of sensitive files and the tapping of phones in the headquarters of the DNC.
And while the remote break-in of a computer may seem somehow different than smashing a window and rifling through file cabinets, the goal of the intrusion is the same and is no less illegal.
Our email and social media accounts hold our entire lives, from medical histories, to financial troubles, to the most intimate discussions. The recent hacks of political organizations and individuals have revealed information of the most personal nature about finances, mental health and personal relationships. One recently leaked email contained a frank discussion of a colleague whom the authors were concerned may attempt suicide. Some contained intemperate arguments among colleagues, while others contained passwords or credentials that were immediately abused by online trolls.
But the damage to our democracy from these leaks goes beyond the invasion of privacy, because they are being done as part of a coordinated campaign by a hostile foreign power to influence our elections.
The Obama administration has now publicly confirmed that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from US political organizations, and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
This type of disinformation campaign is a well-known Russian intelligence operation, and they have deployed similar strategies in elections in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Georgia and Poland. Further, the Russians have not stopped at leaking unaltered documents, but have also been known to alter documents or insert fake documents among those which are authentic, knowing it will be all but impossible for the victim to prove they are false.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC have understandably refused to set the precedent of having to confirm the authenticity of leaked documents, and it should not fall to the victim of this crime to have to prove or disprove each and every new leak.
If the Kremlin dispatched a team to fly to Washington, break into the DNC, steal and release documents, we would be outraged and demand a response – not from the victims, but from the Russians – and so we should, no less because the intrusion did not require their physical presence.
As we consider policy responses to Russia’s audacious criminality – and we believe the US should team up with our European allies who are the victims of similar meddling to impose a substantial cost – the media and campaigns should also consider their own role. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the intent of the Russians is not just to interfere with our election, but also to influence it in favor of Donald Trump, and having marginalized all political opposition in Russia, to discredit our own democracy.
At the most basic level, reporters should ensure they inform their readers about the likely provenance of hacked emails, including the administration’s assessment of Russian involvement and their motivation, as well as the fact that the documents could be altered. The Russians are not some whistleblowing insider, and the goal of these hacks is anything but transparency.
Media outlets also need to show appropriate restraint in what they report on. It would be one thing if a leaked email showed evidence of unethical or illegal activities, but some of the emails that have generated the most headlines have been strategy discussions and personal insults. There is little public interest served in reporting on a profane comment made in private.
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If the media has been uneven in how it has embraced illegal hacks, some of the GOP campaigns have been a disaster. The Trump campaign has unabashedly applauded the leaks, touting WikiLeaks at rallies and in press releases. Trump has displayed more than a willful ignorance about the Kremlin role in these thefts, and gone so far as to publicly call on the perpetrators to hack Secretary Clinton in a press conference. Similarly, the National Republican Congressional Committee has used documents stolen from its Democratic counterpart in advertisements.
Expecting responsibility from Trump is a fool’s errand, but others should reflect on the precedent and message they are sending to Russia or others that would use these methods to attack the foundations of our democracy.
Those who celebrate hacks today may find themselves the target of other foreign intruders tomorrow. Uncritically embracing stolen documents in the hope it will provide a temporary political gain is as irresponsible as it is damaging to the long-term health of our democracy.