Many Republicans were appalled as they watched their liberal neighbors gush over Edward Snowden’s efforts to steal documents related to American intelligence collection methods and spirit them off first to China and later Russia. Even conservatives who believe the processes through which U.S. counterterror officials had secured the information Snowden stole were overly broad acknowledged these methods were legal and had been deemed a necessity by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The adoration liberals heaped upon someone who had betrayed his oath to his country and violated dozens of laws disgusted the American right.
The turncoat confirmed the left’s worst suspicions about the Bush administration and they adored him for it. This condition is mirrored in the Trumpian right’s newfound admiration for another nihilistic foreign intelligence asset: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
Before he became an ally of Sean Hannity, the Australian national currently living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for fear of extradition to face charges of rape in Sweden was a darling of the American left. In 2010 and 2011, Assange’s organization released a cache of illegally-obtained secret documents revealing American methods, assets, and allies in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters. For this act of subversion, Assange was feted by individuals like The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill as the second coming of Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame.
Wikileaks revealed names of Afghan individuals working with Americans, jeopardizing their safety, making American operations overseas more difficult, and ensuring those assets who might work with the United States in the future to think twice.Taliban members allegedly used the documents to rally insurgents and reportedly murdered a tribal elder who they claimed had been exposed in the document dump. Security experts, journalistic advocacy organizations, and American defense officials were horrified by the overt effort to imperil the safety of American informants.
At the time, conservatives were appropriately appalled by the threat to American national security posed by these leaks and their alleged source—the court-martialed and convicted spy Bradley (now going by Chelsea) Manning. They’re singing a different tune today.
Hannity was among those who believed Assange imperiled American national security and the lives of American assets abroad and, as such, should face American justice. But that was then and this is now. On Tuesday, he traveled to London for an exclusive interview with Assange. There, the WikiLeaks chief insisted his organization had not received the information it obtained from the hacks of Democratic email accounts from the Russian government. This claim was then dutifully repeated by no less than the President-elect of the United States, Donald Trump.
“Julian Assange said ‘a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta’—why was DNC so careless?” Trump asked. “Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case,” Trump added.
We see here Trump’s compulsion to latch onto whatever information confirms his priors—in this case, his wish to believe Russia is not behind the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta. This impulse has now led Trump into a dangerous and likely ill-fated open conflict with the members of the American intelligence community.
Trump received high-level intelligence briefings during the campaign in which he was assured of the confidence of the American intelligence community’s belief that Russian military intelligence was behind the hacks of the DNC and the information’s subsequent release to WikiLeaks. He ignored their conclusions and instead substituted his own.
“Maybe there is no hacking,” Trump asked in a presidential debate. This claim amounts to the allegation of a vast conspiracy to defraud the public orchestrated by the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence, the White House, and both congressional intelligence committees, to say nothing of the vast majority of major independent media.
On October 7, DHS secretary Jeh Johnson and National Intelligence Director James Clapper released a statement implicating Russian intelligence in the hacks of the DNC. They followed this statement with a joint analysis report released on December 29 detailing “Russian malicious cyber activity that is targeting our country’s and our allies’ networks.”
A bizarre alliance of conspiracy theorists, anti-American bloggers, and Assange fanatics insist the hacks can be duplicated using publicly available software and claim that this absolves Russian-linked hackers. That is false, according to the firm Secure Works, which analyzed the summer attacks on the DNC.
Their June analysis of a “spearphishing” campaign in October 2015 and May 2016 confirmed with confidence that a group operating out of the Russian Federation “on behalf of the Russian government” conspicuously targeted individuals and interests opposed to Russia. They included current and former military and government personnel in the United States and Europe, NATO officials, American defense contractors and suppliers, journalists and authors, political officials, and staff working with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The hackers swept up access to over 1,800 Gmail accounts in 2015 alone. If this is the work of a 14-year-old, that’s a kid with a unique set of interests and a lot of free time.
The speed with which these documents were pilfered from Democratic accounts, offloaded to WikiLeaks, and released without even a plausible cover story was remarkably brazen. Only an abiding faith that pro-Trump partisans would not care about the attack on American interests by a foreign power could have led WikiLeaks to engage in such a shamelessly blatant act of provocation on behalf of the Kremlin. That faith has been rewarded in spades.
Republicans would do well to ask themselves to what end is Russia seeking to undermine American computer security and muck around in American politics. Do Republicans really believe that American national interests are advanced by creating friction between the White House and the intelligence community or by cleaving the United States away from its imperiled European allies? Pro-Trump partisans have some soul searching to do. They won; it’s time to govern. The subordination of intellectual honesty to the demands of partisan rigor will only make that task harder, uglier, and less likely to be successful.