UPDATED: Is the DNC Hack "Worse Than Watergate"? Only if You're a Democrat or a Gatekeeper Journalist
Russia is the most likely culprit. But does that mean we should elect Hillary Clinton?
Note: As Jesse Singal of New York magazine has documented, the interview in which Wikileaks' Julian Assange claims to have emails that will lead to an arrest or indictment of Hillary Clinton doesn't actually say that. In fact, Singal writes, "Based on my attempt to verify the quote in question, Assange may have never actually claimed to have such materials." Singal called me to ask where I had gotten the quote, which was from a headline supposedly summarizing the interview's content. He quotes me (accurately) as saying, "I took it from a headline that linked to the interview, but I had not watched the interview, which is not good journalism, to be sure." Indeed, it's not. While the Wikileaks/Assange story is tangential to my main points below about the DNC hack, I regret the sloppiness of my reporting and my contribution to what Singal rightly dubs the "internet rumor mill." Read his piece here.
The hack of emails written by members of the Democratic National Committe (DNC) has produced a great deal of embarrassment so far (go here for a searchable database provided by Wikileaks). The cache of emails, especially ones in which DNC members bandy about the idea of attacking Bernie Sanders in some states for being both Jewish and an atheist, helped push DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz out the door and made it clear that the officially neutral organization was actively working against the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange has pronounced that there are more hacked emails to come from his group, including ones that will "provide enough evidence" to see Hillary Clinton arrested. Well, we'll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, you can savor amuse-bouches such as this email in which DNC operatives toss around the idea of creating "a fake craigslist jobs post for women who want to apply to jobs one of Trump's organizations":
Seeking staff members for multiple positions in a large, New York-based corporation known for its real estate investments, fake universities, steaks, and wine. The boss has very strict standards for female employees, ranging from the women who take lunch orders (must be hot) to the women who oversee multi-million dollar construction projects (must maintain hotness demonstrated at time of hiring).
Title: Honey Bunch (that's what the boss will call you)
- No gaining weight on the job (we'll take some "before" pictures when you start to use later as evidence)
- Must be open to public humiliation and open-press workouts if you do gain weight on the job
- A willingness to evaluate other women's hotness for the boss' satisfaction is a plus
- Should be proficient in lying about age if the boss thinks you're too old Working mothers not preferred (the boss finds pumping breast milk disgusting, and worries they're too focused on their children).
About us: We're proud to maintain a "fun" and "friendly work environment, where the boss is always available to meet with his employees. Like it or not, he may greet you with a kiss on the lips or grope you under the meeting table.
Interested applicants should send resume, cover letter, and headshot to email@example.com
This isn't particularly clever or funny and it obviously doesn't come close to rising to the level of, say, Project MK Ultra, the CIA's secret mind-control experiments. But it's all pretty foul stuff, especially the way in which the DNC was so clearly putting its thumb on the scale in the direction of Clinton. It's exactly the sort of behavior that makes people think that—what's that phrase that both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren use? Oh yeah—"the system is rigged." As it stands, faith and confidence in all aspects of government and a lot of other major American institutions are at or near historic lows. That isn't because we are a particularly cynical bunch. It's because we are privy to more information about the politicians, the performers, and the priests (among others) who seek to assert moral authority and control over us.
Lack of trust is the wages of transparency, but only if what's revealed shows bad-faith or really rotten behavior. In fact, in this new(ish) age of transparency, people are by and large forgiving. For all the talk about how the Sony hack or the celebrity-nude pics hack would destroy everybody revealed in them, very little of that happened as a result.
But the general lack of vengeance on the part of the public is matched with pearl-cluting on the part of the media. Indeed, to date, the press has been far more interested in who created the DNC hack rather than what it contains. Despite the publicized role of a hacker called Guccifer 2.0, "all signs point to Russia." Vladimir Putin, after all, is not just bromancing Donald Trump but has a longstanding dislike of Clinton stemming from her challenging the fairness of Russian elections years ago. Isn't this all about Russia trying to throw a U.S. election one way or another?
Writing at Slate, for instance, Frankin Foer, the former editor of The New Republic, argues that
The emails don't get us much beyond a fact every sentient political observer could already see: Officials at the DNC, hired to work hand in glove with a seemingly inevitable nominee, were actively making life easier for Hillary Clinton. It didn't take these leaks to understand that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a hack and that the DNC should be far more neutral in presidential primaries.
What's galling about the WikiLeaks dump is the way in which the organization has blurred the distinction between leaks and hacks. Leaks are an important tool of journalism and accountability. When an insider uncovers malfeasance, he brings information to the public in order to stop the wrongdoing. That's not what happened here. The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate. To help win an election, the Russians broke into the virtual headquarters of the Democratic Party. The hackers installed the cyber-version of the bugging equipment that Nixon's goons used—sitting on the DNC computers for a year, eavesdropping on everything, collecting as many scraps as possible. This is trespassing, it's thievery, it's a breathtaking transgression of privacy. It falls into that classic genre, the dirty trick. Yet that term feels too innocent to describe the offense. Nixon's dirty tricksters didn't mindlessly expose the private data of low-level staff.
"We should be appalled at the public broadcast of this minutiae," writes Foer, and there I kind of agree with him. But to the extent that what's revealed is minutiae, it will be forgotten or excused, even if it includes off-color humor and language. To the extent that the contents reveal more serious problems, they will remain relevant (and are relevant), regardless of the source. But there is something else at work in most media responses to the DNC hack, and Foer illustrates this too: Concern that Hillary Clinton, presumably the preferred candidate of many journalists, will lose to Donald Trump.
The DNC dump may not have revealed a conspiracy that could end a candidacy, but it succeeded in casting a pall of anxiety over this election. We know that the Russians have a further stash of documents from the DNC and another set of documents purloined from the Clinton Foundation. In other words, Vladimir Putin is now treating American democracy with the same respect he accords his own. The best retaliation isn't a military one, or to respond in kind. It's to defeat his pet candidate and to force him to watch the inauguration of the woman he so abhors.
For better or for worse, we live in a world where such hacks or leaks (one man's leak is another man's hack, I assume) will happen more and more frequently. That Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time creating a private server system and then misrepresenting what information passed through it will only heighten interest and flavor the interpretation of whatever information might come to light over the next few months.
Edward Snowden, whose character and motivation was attacked the minute his leaks become public, had a more thoughtful response. If Russia is responsible, he tweeted, it should be condemned for doing so. And, he said, if Russia was behind the hack, there's no question that the NSA would know. "Evidence that could publicly attribute responsibility for the DNC hack certainly exists at #NSA, but DNI traditionally objects to sharing," Politico reports.
And so secrecy begets secrecy, rather than transparency. Until our government and its actors start coming clean and actually changing their behaviors, it will be extremely difficult for them to gain back the trust they have lost over the past 15 or more years.
Related: Edward Snowden Interview on Apple vs. FBI, Privacy, the NSA, and More.