No Third-rate Hack Job

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It is tempting to dismiss allegations of Russian hacking during last fall’s presidential election as blame shifting by sore losers in the Democratic Party and/or the work of a socially awkward teenage hacker working from his parent’s basement. Various figures on the right, including President Donald Trump himself, have intimated as much.

But faced with the seriousness of an apparent consensus on the part of our nation’s intelligence community that Russia unquestionably did something in an effort to affect our electoral process, now is not the time to be dismissive. As a practical matter, there is much we don’t know — and most Americans will never know what they don’t know about the alleged hacking. In such a situation, prudence demands that the allegations be investigated by those in a position to do so.

History supports such an approach.

On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The next day, the White House denied any knowledge of the break-in. President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, dismissed the event as “a third-rate burglary.” And the whole affair was covered in the metro section of The Washington Post.

In today’s parlance, the Watergate events would be downplayed as nonevents or dismissed as “fake news.” But we all know that Watergate was none of those things. And we learned about the seriousness of the Watergate episode from formal investigations, bipartisan governmental hearings and full press coverage.

Such a bipartisan and open effort is exactly what the hacking story needs now. Regardless of the culprits, the hacking efforts perpetrated an unprecedented and dangerous infiltration of the American electoral system. That cannot go unexamined. Indeed, in order to preserve the integrity of our democratic machinery — and the public faith that keeps it operating — an across-the-board accounting must be made.

Until recently, Trump dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s growing confidence that Russia carried out the hacking. And even when he changed his position, he sought to justify the ends, if not the means: “Hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done,” he said. “But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.” We respectfully disagree.

According to the intelligence community’s declassified report released on Jan. 6, “Russia’s [hacking] goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” That “end” is as unacceptable as the means.

Officials from both parties have called for hearings on the hacking activity. We urge Congress to begin them quickly.