Sunday, January 8, 2017

Trump and the intelligence reports

President Trump has been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about their conclusion that Russia conducted a cyber campaign to embarrass and discredit his Democratic opponent, but he doesn't seem to have understood the message. 

After the briefing, Trump said, "there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines." True enough, insofar as we know, but he misses the point. It's not that the Russians "stole" the election in the way of small-town (or big city) political bosses allegedly have in the past, by stuffing ballot boxes. U.S. intelligence did not find any intervention in the vote-counting mechanisms. But they did find Russian meddling in the election campaign.

What the president-elect should be alarmed about is that a foreign government sought to influence the election by using cyber warfare tools to steal emails and then release those emails through cooperative hacker or fake news groups. Did Russia's orchestrated release of embarrassing emails at strategic times or its dispersal of fake news posts targeting Democrats have an impact on voters on Nov. 8? It's impossible to know with certainty, but it is not irrational to think that undecided voters might have been swayed.

Trump's dismissal of the intelligence reports is worrisome because the 2016 meddling can happen again and can be more destructive in 2018 or 2020. This Russian strategy can also happen in upcoming elections in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain and other democracies.

President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump admires, has made no secret of the fact he would like to restore the old Soviet empire. He has shown a willingness in Georgia and Ukraine to use Russian troops to intimidate or topple governments or grab territory. How much easier it will be for him to use cyber weapons to effect regime change in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Estonia.

Trump had better take this threat seriously. All western democracies had better watch out.

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