Since 2016, we’ve been told repeatedly that cyber attacks on the United States by foreign antagonists are emergency-level threats to the country. And it’s true—they often are. Why, then, isn’t there more outrage about Iran’s recent attempt at hacking the personal emails of a wide range of American officials?
The AP reports that in the past month a group of hackers nicknamed Charming Kitten targeted more than a dozen officials at the U.S. Treasury. They also went after the email accounts of an advisor on national security to Obama and Trump, a State Department official, some American think-tank employees, and various nuclear and defense officials in Jordan, Pakistan, and Syria. The cybersecurity group Certfa and other experts have convincingly tied Charming Kitten to Iran. No one, however, is sure how many accounts were successfully compromised.
Iran’s attempted cyberattack on American national security is not exactly taking over the news cycle. Yet, a year ago, when the House Intelligence Committee revealed that Russians purchased Facebook ads about Bernie Sanders coloring books and memes depicting Jesus Christ and Satan arm wrestling over the fate of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, it was framed far-and-wide as a sophisticated stealth campaign to undermine our democracy.
It would be nice if our foreign-policy priorities had more to do with long-standing threats and less to do with discrete bursts of partisan activism. When Mitt Romney said that Russia was our number-one geopolitical foe, the left thought it was a real howler. But when it seemed (to the desperate) that Moscow could be blamed for the election of Donald Trump, Russia became the number-one threat to our national sanity.
The selective approach to popular cyberthreat assessment pre-dates the 2016 election. In 2014, when it was revealed that Russia hacked into the NASDAQ, it made for a handful of stories but not much else. When North Korea hacked Sony in 2015 because of a comedy about Kim Jong-un, it was treated as a good gossip story, owing to the juicy show-business emails that were exposed.
In truth, Barack Obama himself downplayed the Russian election-hack story until he saw that the left was bent on embracing it as a therapeutic narrative.
Today, as Iran seeks to infiltrate our defense infrastructure and gain access to the nuclear files of its neighbors, the only foreign-policy issue that holds the public’s attention is the fight to end military support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. Withholding American assistance is supposed to make the Saudis pay for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But doing so would be a massive boost for Iran. And even the public contemplation of it is undoubtedly heartening for America’s antagonists in Tehran.
Once again, the paroxysms of liberal outrage and patriotism can be traced directly to an exploitable partisan moment. The Saudi kingdom’s targeted murder of Khashoggi was monstrous (and the United States should punish the Saudis for it in ways that don’t strengthen our enemies). But for many on the left, it’s just another opportunity to have a go at some pet hates: Donald Trump, American military involvement, and even Israel, which is now being criticized for its recent good relations with some Gulf Arab countries.
Away from the emotive displays about Saudi Arabia, American officials are still working to constrain Iranian influence. Trump has re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, and the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, recently announced that Washington is exploring ways to revoke visas for relatives of Iranian officials. The news about the Charming Kitten hack is also certain to provoke an American response because real threats have to be dealt with, regardless of their appeal to pop-up activists.