Yesterday on CNN's State of the Union, John McCain warned that Russian hacking aimed at influencing the outcome of U.S. elections has the potential to "destroy democracy," which seems like a pretty hysterical take on the dissemination of embarrassing emails in which Democratic insiders dissed Bernie Sanders and noted Hillary Clinton's limitations as a candidate. Like Clinton, who last week described the email thefts as an attack on "our electoral system," McCain conflates information that guides voters' choices with the nullification of those choices.
The Arizona senator conceded that there is no evidence of direct Russian interference in the voting process and that it's not clear whether electronic communications illegally obtained from computers used by the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, affected the results of the presidential contest. "I have seen no evidence that the voting machines were tampered with," he said. "I have seen no evidence that the election would have been different." Still, McCain said, "that doesn't change the fact that the Russians…have been able to interfere with our electoral process." And "if they are able to harm the electoral process, then they destroy democracy, which is based on free and fair elections."
The problem is that one man's interference with the electoral process is another man's voter education. Leading news organizations concluded that much of the information revealed by the DNC and Podesta hacks, such as excerpts from Clinton's highly paid but heretofore secret Wall Street speeches, concerned matters of legitimate public interest. As The New York Times put it, "Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence."
Valuable journalism, including journalism that helps voters decide which candidates to support, is often based on information that was obtained or divulged illegally by people with axes to grind. It is hard to see how this case is different in principle. Is it the nationality of the informants that matters? If the emails that made Clinton look bad had been swiped by Americans, would she and McCain still be talking about democracy-threatening interference with our electoral process?
During the campaign, The New York Times "obtained" parts of Donald Trump's 1995 tax return and shared them with the public, building a series of stories on the information they contained. If that information had come from a foreign source, would publishing it have undermined democracy? Suppose German hackers had managed to obtain complete copies of Trump's recent tax returns—a subject of intense journalistic interest—and shared them with news outlets, either directly or through an intermediary like Wikileaks. Would Clinton have perceived the resulting exposés as undermining the electoral process or assisting it?
Cybersecurity is obviously a real concern, and hacking in the service of voting fraud would be a genuine threat to the integrity of our elections. But computer trespassing that merely brings to light facts that politicians would rather conceal does not constitute a threat to democracy. To the contrary, it helps voters make better-informed choices.