Take a deep breath

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE -

The Wash­ing­ton Post’s re­port that the CIA con­cluded that hack­ers di­rected by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment had sought to help Moscow-friendly Don­ald Trump win the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is likely to res­onate through­out U.S. his­tory. It is also be­ing im­me­di­ately in­ter­preted by ev­ery­one un­der the sun to ad­vance self-serv­ing nar­ra­tives.

Democrats are us­ing the re­port to en­able their de­nial of their broad na­tional un­pop­u­lar­ity and say this is why heavy fa­vorite Hil­lary Clin­ton lost. Repub­li­can anti-Rus­sia hawks are us­ing it as an ar­gu­ment for a crack­down on Moscow, ig­nor­ing the long list of U.S. ef­forts to in­flu­ence other na­tions’ elec­tions. Trump is us­ing it as an­other ex­am­ple of what he sees as a me­dia and po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment out to be­lit­tle and taint his tri­umph.

But Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment by Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell — that he agreed with a bi­par­ti­san group of four sen­a­tors who want a vig­or­ous, painstak­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sia’s role in the elec­tion — seems to set the U.S. gov­ern­ment on a re­spon­si­ble, ma­ture course.

A start­ing point should be es­tab­lish­ing ex­actly what is known with cer­ti­tude. The FBI has looked at the same facts as the CIA with­out reach­ing the same con­clu­sion. Some FBI agents ap­pear to see this as one more in a long se­ries of at­tempts by Rus­sia to clan­des­tinely sow dis­cord among Western democ­ra­cies, as op­posed to try­ing to help Trump.

It is cer­tainly quite pos­si­ble the CIA is right. It is also plau­si­ble that Rus­sian-di­rected leaks hurt the Clin­ton cam­paign enough that it cost her the elec­tion. The dis­clo­sure of Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee emails show­ing some os­ten­si­bly neu­tral party of­fi­cials fa­vored Clin­ton over pri­mary chal­lenger Bernie San­ders in­fu­ri­ated San­ders’ mil­lions of sup­port­ers and may have kept some home in the gen­eral elec­tion.

But the ac­tual pre­cise ef­fect of Rus­sian hack­ing on the elec­tion re­sults is some­thing no in­ves­ti­ga­tion can es­tab­lish; Clin­ton’s weak­nesses as a can­di­date were ex­treme.

How­ever, if Moscow’s role in cam­paign hack­ing is es­tab­lished, the ef­fect on U.S. po­lit­i­cal dis­course is much eas­ier to pre­dict. On the left and quite pos­si­bly be­yond, many will see Trump’s vic­tory the same way that mil­lions saw Ge­orge W. Bush’s 2000 win — as stolen prop­erty — and the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion of Amer­ica will en­dure and per­haps in­ten­sify.

In a less con­tentious era, the lessons of this elec­tion would be ob­vi­ous. Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions — not just the gov­ern­ment — should care far more about cy­ber­se­cu­rity. Amer­i­cans should be much more skep­ti­cal about the ac­cu­racy of what is pre­sented as news in so­cial me­dia. The U.S. gov­ern­ment should es­tab­lish clear poli­cies on how it will sanc­tion na­tions that try to ma­nip­u­late Amer­i­can de­bate — poli­cies that aren’t hyp­o­crit­i­cal, given Wash­ing­ton’s his­tory of covert ma­nip­u­la­tion of other na­tions.

We hope that these lessons even­tu­ally sink in — and that Amer­ica doesn’t be­come trapped in par­ti­san bit­ter­ness at a time when our na­tion faces so many chal­lenges.

That list of chal­lenges only starts with the star­tling and dispir­it­ing pos­si­bil­ity that archri­val Rus­sia has stealth­ily changed the course of U.S. and world his­tory.

This edi­to­rial orig­i­nally ap­peared in The San Diego Union-Tri­bune on Dec. 13.

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