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The DNC hack: has American democracy been compromised?

In contrast to their Republican counterparts, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in July presented a vision of optimism, strength and patriotism for the future of the United States. Despite the convention being largely a successful effort to display unity within the party, the biggest story was the alleged hack of the DNC computer network by Russian intelligence services and consequential publishing of sensitive emails by WikiLeaks.

On 22 July, WikiLeaks published a collection of 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the DNC which included sensitive and damning information—the most notable of which revealed that DNC staffers had disparaged and undermined the Bernie Sanders campaign whilst favouring Clinton’s campaign via email. As a result of the leak, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned from her position. The hack had potentially damaging consequences for the Democrats as it deepened existing divisions within the party.

WikiLeaks claimed that they obtained the documents from a self-styled hacker who goes by the moniker of Guccifer 2.0. Based on intelligence provided to her by cyber-security experts and American intelligence officials, Hillary Clinton has claimed that Russian intelligence services were responsible for the hack in an effort to derail her campaign. Furthermore, she alleged that Donald Trump has shown a troubling willingness to support Putin during his presidential campaign. The Kremlin dismissed allegations of responsibility for the hack as absurd.

Relations between Clinton and Putin have been uneasy since the failure of the reset of Russia-US relations in 2008. More recently, much of the tension between Clinton and Putin is attributed to the former Secretary of State being publicly critical of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Responding to the hack, Trump caused outrage by suggesting that, if responsible, Russia also use their intelligence capabilities to find Clinton’s ‘30,000 missing emails’, in reference to her email server controversy.

While it remains unclear as to who was responsible for the DNC hack, the consensus view amongst cyber experts and intelligence officials is that it was likely Russian intelligence that was responsible. Regardless of the perpetrator, the DNC hack serves to illustrate the importance of cyber-security as an imperative sector of security, given that state or non-state actors have attempted to influence the outcome of the US presidential election through an act of cyberterrorism. In the wake of recent moments of cyber insecurity, such as the Sony Hack and now the attack on the DNC, it’s clear that cyberterrorism not only has the potential to cause social and financial hysteria, but also to wreak havoc on democracy itself.

If a foreign government has intervened on US cyber sovereignty with the goal of shaping the outcome of the election, one must ask why would Putin want to hurt the Clinton campaign? It can be understood that, for Putin, a Clinton presidency will symbolise a continuation of American hegemony in the international system. From the perspective of Putin, Clinton represents the advancement of American foreign policy determined to keep Russia foreign policy neutralised. Clinton represents a continuation of the Obama Administration, which implemented economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea. Putin would be in favour of a weakened US presidential administration—an outcome which he views as likely in the event of a Trump victory in November.

Putin’s disdain for Clinton also appears to stem from personal motives. It appears that Putin has long held a grudge against Hillary from her days as Secretary of State. Putin once blamed Clinton for interfering with the 2011 Russian presidential election, and for influencing protestors who rallied against the election result for possibly being rigged. Many speculate that, if Russia were responsible, it would have been Putin exacting revenge for remarks Clinton made in 2011.

In the wake of the attacks, Clinton has been wise to allude that Trump is an ally of Putin, who can therefore be thought of as being treasonous. It’s attacks like this on the Republican nominee that underscore his unpredictability on foreign policy, which has been particularly notable recently with his potential recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as Russian territory, as well as his questioning of NATO’s value in the modern international system.

Putin would be in favour of a Trump presidency not because Trump appears open to repairing US-Russia relations, but because Trump in the White House would undermine American interests, which would benefit Russia under Putin.

Arguably, Putin would be in favour of supporting a right-wing populist candidate such as Trump in the hope of dismantling neoliberal institutions, such as NATO, and creating disastrous fractures on the European body politic. Although it’s unclear whether Russia was responsible for the DNC hack, Putin’s motivations to level such an attack are clear and evident in his desire to advance Russia’s geostrategic interests.

Matthew Holding is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: Disney | ABC Television Group (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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