Take a deep breath
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.