How to Use a Free Press to Undermine a Democracy

On October 23, Jim Rutenberg wrote an article in the New York Times entitled, “Wikileaks’ Gift to American Democracy.”  He begins the article by saying,

You sure have to hand it to the Russians.

They understand the power of free-flowing information, how it can upend government and politics.

It’s why they don’t let information flow too freely in their own country. And it’s why, if United States intelligence assessments are correct, they have worked so hard to send it roaring through ours.24rutenberg-facebookjumbo

There is a certain kind of brilliance to the way the Russians are said to have hacked the email accounts of senior Democratic officials and gifted the contents to their BFFs at

The Russians seem to be using the United States’ free press — a great symbol of our democracy — against it….

It’s not complicated.  The Russians wanted Trump to win the election because he advocates positions on issues that are more consistent with their interests: on Crimea, NATO and Putin.  So, according to the US intelligence community, they had their operatives hack into the computers of the DNC.  They released the stolen information through wikileaks.  Then they sat back and let the US news media look through all the information to find what would be most “news worthy.”  Russia released the information in batches periodically so there is always more to come.  There are always more issues to deal with for the campaign that is targeted.  It creates a drag on the campaign that holds back its progress.

Russia did not release any emails through Wikileaks about the Trump campaign.  Imagine how the race would have been different if we only received emails about the Trump team during the campaign.  After the video emerged of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, I am sure there were some interesting emails sent back and forth, a few to attorneys probably.  However, the cumulative affect of the attack is what does the most damage. It puts a continual drag on the campaign.  But Russia did not release any emails through Wikileaks about the Trump team.  Russia wanted Trump to win.

Rutenberg however is not impressed with the Russian strategy.  Writing two weeks before the election, he argues that the Russian attempt to use the US free press has not worked: “But the whole thing seems to be backfiring. In this, the year of the leak, the hackers are contributing to a phenomenon — raw transparency — that should make democracy stronger.”

He suggests that the emails from wikileaks helped lift the fog on the Clinton campaign.

The emails have shown cynical approaches by Hillary Clinton and her team to fund-raising; a penchant for secrecy; a coziness with reporters that is too often the case with both parties in Washington; and a calculated approach to environmental issues, free trade and banking that is already causing trouble on her left flank, as Politico reported.

They have not brought a major scandal to the surface, at least not yet, and even won praise from some supporters like The Post’s editorial page, which said they showed Mrs. Clinton’s “sound policy instincts.”They’ve certainly not blown up the system, as might happen in a more closed, undemocratic form of government.

The problem Rutenberg does not consider is that the emails only lifted the fog on one of the campaigns: the one the Russians wanted the news media to see more clearly.  This placed an additional burden on the candidate the Russians wanted to lose.

To be fair to the news media in this case, the intelligence community’s effort to make a clear statement on the Russian effort to influence the election was undermined by the FBI.  The FBI attempted to prevent the government from making a statement about the behavior of the Russians.  In order for this statement to be effective, it needed to be unanimous.  It also needed to be clear that the Russians were trying to influence the election by releasing emails that could damage one candidate.  This would have made it clear to the news outlets and the public that if the news outlets use these emails in broadcasts they are knowingly assisting the counterintelligence program of a foreign power.  This is something the news media has not had to confront before.  It is a new threat to democracies in the information age.

Near the end of his article, Rutenberg foresees this new threat.

If repressive foreign governments want to make a regular thing of hacking into United States leaders’ email to undermine the country, and domestic politicians like Mr. Trump want to keep embracing that kind of “help,” then the news media may have to rethink how to handle it.

But so far, the hacks have only proved that the United States system knows how to process reality and can handle the truth, which should encourage our leaders to offer more of it.

So for that much, I guess, thanks, Vladimir Putin. Now, ready to share your emails?

Let’s see if the United States can process the reality of this election: an authoritarian regime and an authoritarian faction in the FBI engaged in espionage and violations of the hatch act that enabled an authoritarian candidate to become president.  The Russian emails were like left jabs that kept the Clinton campaign on the defensive; the Comey announcement was the right cross that took our democracy down.  If we are going to democratically elect a leader again in this country in this information age, we are, as Rutenberg suggests, going to have to “rethink how to handle” it.

Also see “Did the Wikileaks Email Dumps Cost Hillary the White House?Fred Kaplan, Slate, November 14, 2016

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