Why you should care
Because Vladimir Putin wants to have the last laugh, and maybe he’ll hack America to get it.
It sounds like a storyline straight out of House of Cards or The Americans: news that the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee’s database and some GOP super PACs’ computers, making off with oppositional research into Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, among other digital goodies. In this edited interview, OZY spoke with Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow Michael Kofman, a foreign policy expert and government adviser on issues related to Russia and Eurasia, about why the hack might have happened and its long-term implications.
OZY: What can you tell us about the nature of the hack?
Michael Kofman: It’s the kind of knowledge all governments seek to gain, and it’s something we’ve seen our own country do. An example is “if” we had access to Angela Merkel’s records, or Dilma Rousseff’s. This is a very classic case of espionage.
In some respects, our political process really takes care of the work for foreign intelligence agencies. Why spend lots of your own money going after political intelligence? You have two very large, powerful machines — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party — that are going to each spend several million in this election, right? And they are going to do the research on the candidates. So instead of you reinventing the wheel, you just hack the Hillary Clinton campaign to get everything on Donald Trump, and vice versa.
Who is going to advise Trump on foreign policy? Who do they need to influence, connect with, get to? They’re figuring out the nodes in the network.
OZY: Should these private institutions be expected to stop a determined nation like Russia from accessing private voter data?
M.K.: There’s no way. In 2014, Russia hacked the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s servers. If the U.S. military has trouble stopping them, what chance does a campaign have?
Here’s the thing: They are far less interested in people’s personal data. That’s something nongovernment hackers who are looking for money will go after — they go for personal data and then either want to steal it to sell it or use it for ransom. A foreign intelligence agency isn’t looking for anything that can be sold for money.
OZY: What do they care about?
M.K.: Who is going to advise Trump on foreign policy? Who do they need to influence, connect with, get to? They’re figuring out the nodes in the network. Let’s say Donald Trump gets elected; they want to know in advance who will be Donald Trump’s expert on Russia, who will lead his position on NATO? How can we influence them? This is important: People are policy. The Ben Rhodeses [an Obama security adviser] of the world matter. If you have Donald Rumsfeld, that’s different from Colin Powell.
Those advisers, if Trump wins, they’re going to be in the White House — the next Valerie Jarrett. If they can figure out who the people are going to be, and what the constellation looks like, then they can get a really good head start. Because that actually builds for them a vision of what Trump’s decision-making may look like. On Hillary’s side, it’s much easier to predict what the policy will be, but it’s much harder to know all the people, because that establishment already has so many people attached to it.
OZY: How likely is it that Russia will use information like this to try to influence the U.S. election, in part through its propaganda networks such as Russia Today and Sputnik News?
M.K.: I’m sure they’ve been trying to influence the election, but they don’t have an audience here. And it’s very hard to influence this election. I would argue the Republican Party has had a hard time influencing this election, and if they can’t do it, how can Russia? They aren’t trying to influence the election so much as they are trying to leverage it for their purposes.
But it’s also about having a good laugh at democracy. There is a more fundamental battle of ideas here. The Russian argument is that this, a sort of electoral democracy, is not a good, functioning model. And because of that, their authoritarian model — not quite a full-blown dictatorial model — is just as good. That’s what Vladimir Putin was doing when he was giving these compliments to Trump. It’s actually a hilariously sophisticated play. Putin’s saying, “Look, in a liberal democracy like America, they prefer a guy like me, too.” Trump thinks Putin is complimenting him back. Putin is not really complimenting Trump, he’s complimenting himself, and validating what they’ve created in Russia while devaluing what we’ve done with democracy.
OZY: Are there any long-term ramifications of this breach?
M.K.: What does intelligence do? It gives you knowledge. Knowledge is power. And power is confidence. Imagine if there is a bilateral meeting between Putin and Trump, and Putin feels like he knows the dirty laundry, the skeletons in the closet. Yeah, that’s confidence. And the odds are, the DNC has already done this research, and the Russians just took it.