Last week President Obama announced sanctions against Russia in retaliation for "data theft and disclosure activities" that were intended to "interfere with the U.S. election process." Hillary Clinton calls those activities, which revealed purloined emails that made her look bad during her unsuccessful presidential campaign, "an attack against our country" and "our electoral system" that undermined "the integrity of our democracy."
These overheated descriptions misleadingly equate information that guides voters' choices with nullification of those choices. A calmer, less partisan perspective suggests that what Clinton and Obama view as interference with the election process might more accurately be described as voter education, which strengthens democracy by helping its participants make better-informed choices.
News reports routinely describe the leaking of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, as "election hacking." John McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, seems to agree with that characterization.
In a CNN interview last month, the Arizona senator, a harsh critic of Donald Trump — who denounced him, endorsed him, and then withdrew his endorsement — complained that by leaking information helpful to the Republican nominee, "the Russians...have been able to interfere with our electoral process." He warned that "if they are able to harm the electoral process, then they destroy democracy, which is based on free and fair elections."
That take seems pretty hysterical in light of what actually happened. True election hacking, aimed at perpetrating voting fraud, obviously would be a threat to the democratic process. But there is no evidence of such interference, and it's not even clear that the DNC and Podesta emails had an impact on the election results — or why it would be so terrible if they did.
"The New York Times" reports that hackers gained access to the emails through standard phishing techniques, tricking Podesta and at least one DNC employee into revealing their passwords by pretending to be from Google. The Times notes that "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."
Those news organizations did that because much of the information in the emails — including DNC officials' disdain for Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, excerpts from her secret Wall Street speeches, and observations about her weaknesses as a candidate — concerned matters of legitimate public interest. It was information that voters might rationally want to consider before deciding which candidate to support.
Valuable journalism 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 embarrassed Clinton had been swiped by Americans, would she still be talking about a democracy-threatening attack on our electoral process?
Last fall, the Times "obtained" parts of Donald Trump's 1995 tax return and shared them with the public. 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 exposes as undermining the electoral process or assisting it?
Cybersecurity is a serious concern, especially when it comes to systems that control important functions such as vote counting, banking, and the distribution of electricity. Helping politicians conceal facts that might alienate voters probably does not belong in the same category.
Judging from the account in the Times, both the FBI and the DNC were remarkably lax in their initial responses to the intrusions that produced a bounty of newsworthy emails. Politicians with things to hide might want to be more careful about the security of the systems they use to discuss sensitive matters. But we should not confuse their challenge with a threat to democracy.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.