Should we be alarmed about reports that Russian nationals linked to that country’s Military Intelligence Service conducted cyber-hacking operations during the U.S. presidential election to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy over Hillary Clinton?
According to the CIA, the Russians hacked the computer systems of the Democratic Party national committee and key Democratic operatives, and then transmitted embarrassing materials to WikiLeaks. Russian nationals also hacked the Republican National Committee, but did not – at least not yet – release materials from the Republican side.
Just before the CIA news broke, President-elect Trump said the hacks may have been done by Russia, or maybe by China or “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” After the CIA news became public, Trump’s transition team issued a statement that “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Then, on Sunday, Trump called the CIA story “ridiculous.”
Trump and his team are reacting to the CIA’s assessment in precisely the wrong way. If Russian hacking operations did in fact occur, and if they did so at the behest of Russian intelligence, then the more Trump doubles down on claiming the contrary the more reliant he becomes on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s keeping secret the Russian operations.
Putin will eventually want to be paid for his silence. For example, he may want Trump to show flexibility regarding economic sanctions against Russia as a result of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.
In other words, if Trump doesn’t change course, once he takes the oath of office our next president may be vulnerable to blackmail by a powerful and determined foe of the United States.
Trump needs to get out from under Putin’s heel. To do that he should endorse President Obama’s recent instructions to his national security team to provide a full report on Russian operations during the election season. He should urge Obama to release that report before inauguration day Jan. 20.
And he should endorse the efforts by Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Mitch McConnell and North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who chairs the crucially important Senate Intelligence Committee, to conduct congressional investigations into Russian operations against the election and other U.S. targets.
In addition, when Trump takes office he should consult with congressional leaders to establish a bipartisan national commission not just on Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, but that country’s growing capacity to launch cyber-based attacks against a wide range of political and economic targets in the U.S. That commission also should be instructed to recommend ways to thwart all cyber-related activities against the U.S., including specific proposals for what might be large expenditures needed to protect us from attacks from not only Russia, but other hostile countries such as China, Iran and North Korea as well as terrorist organizations.
Finally, after U.S. cyber-defenses are deepened, Trump should make it clear publicly to Putin and other hostile leaders that real consequences will result from further cyber-attacks against America.
Joseph M. Grieco is a professor of political science at Duke University.