In the wake of the release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, and the assessment by some intelligence experts that Russia leaked the documents in hopes of tilting the election in favor of Republican Donald Trump, observers have expressed furor that a foreign government would seek to influence American politics.
“That the Russians would be happy burglarizing the emails of a major party to try to affect the outcome of our presidential election . . . is very serious and an unprecedented development,” former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley told Fox Business. Slate’s Franklin Foer called it “a strike against our civic infrastructure” that violates “a clear set of rules designed to limit foreign interference in our elections.”
Without context, that outrage is naive. Foreign governments have regularly sought to shape our politics. And the United States, in addition to overtly sponsoring regime change, has honed interference in other countries’ elections into something of an art form. Such interventions will always be appealing to their perpetrators because they can succeed, especially if they find willing accomplices in the targeted country.
What is unprecedented in the United States, though, is Trump’s response. Never before has an American politician actively encouraged foreign intervention in a U.S. election — as Trump did with his invitation to Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails. It’s Trump, not Russia, who has violated established norms.
Great-power interference in American politics goes back to the infancy of the republic, when fears of French covert operations designed to drag the United States into a war with Britain led President John Adams to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. As historian Timothy Naftali notes, before Pearl Harbor, Britain tried to turn U.S. public opinion against isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh and the original America First movement.
Perhaps the most sustained attempt by a foreign power to exert influence in American domestic politics took place during the Cold War. As Christopher Andrew recounts in “The Sword and the Shield,” “influence operations” — which spread disinformation — were staples of Soviet intelligence activities. Notable successes included Soviet dissemination of conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and smears about the private lives of officials such as J. Edgar Hoover.
The KGB also sought to inflame U.S. racial tensions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A 1971 operation fabricated racist pamphlets, attributed them to the Jewish Defense League and mailed them to militant African American organizations. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the KGB reprised its conspiracy-theory peddling to spread rumors that the government had connived in his death. Russian officials hoped that these efforts would diminish Americans’ trust in their government and sow confusion.
Read the whole article here