Vladimir Putin has exposed democracy's technical frailty—all the way to the White Houseby Luke Harding / January 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The email looked real. Headed with the subject-line, “Someone has your password,” it was sent to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The date was March 2016. Most observers then believed that Clinton would easily win the forthcoming US presidential election, as did Clinton herself. The message warned Podesta to change his password. Helpfully, it offered him a link. According to the New York Times, Charles Delavan, a Podesta aide, spotted the email and realised something wasn’t right. He sent it to a computer technician. By mistake, Delavan wrote that the email was OK, or “legitimate,” as he put it. Podesta got a new password.
The blunder didn’t necessarily change the course of history—who is to say which one of the multiple twists in the 2016 campaign proved the fateful one: the FBI?; vote suppression efforts in Republican states?; the quirks of the electoral college? But Delavan’s omission gifted Moscow 60,000 messages from Podesta’s private account, and eventually led to a whole run of unflattering stories about the private insecurities and back-room schemes of Clinton and her staff. And thus it certainly nudged events in the direction that would lead, eight months later, to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th American president.
In December, US intelligence officials concluded that the phishing email targeting Podesta had arrived from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In January, they published a report explicitly charging that it was part of a campaign of interference in American democracy that was “ordered” by Putin himself. Official Washington-Moscow relations have sunk to a level not seen since the early 1980s. Just before New Year, the outgoing President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats—almost certainly spies—from Washington. The White House and Treasury Department sanctioned nine entities and individuals for meddling in the US election. All were from or linked to the GRU and FSB, the two Russian military and civilian intelligence agencies deemed responsible. Republican establishment figures, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, came forward to urge that the new administration should also ensure that Putin’s meddling did not go unpunished.