06 January 2017

REALITY CHECK: Russia Voiced Her Opinion About Our Politics. No More. No Less.

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.
So begins the US Intelligence Community's briefing to President Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump regarding alleged Russian interventions into the 2016 Presidential Election cycle.

For the most part, the reaction to this conclusion should be a colossal and universal "so what?" Russia under Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian borderline fascist dictatorship. Putin's preferred model of governance is about as antithetical to the principles of republican representative democracy as can be had this side of Josef Stalin--but, perversely, outside of certain cyber-intrusions of the Democratic National Committee, the mechanisms he has to "undermine" the "liberal democratic order" are simply the institutions of the American "liberal democratic order." The only way for Putin to influence our democracy is to participate in it.

To appreciate Putin's alleged tactics and the processes he wishes to undermine, we must begin at the core of those processes--the United States Constitution. Of particular note, we must bring to the fore the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In the United States, rights are boundaries which enclose and delimit the powers of government--with the freedoms of the people ranging far and wide beyond. In the United States, the supreme civic virtue is that voices be heard. People may be right or wrong in their ideas, successful or unsuccessful in their exhortations, but what they should never be is silent. The American ideal of public discourse is raucous, noisy, chaotic--and above all, free from restraint.

How is this relevant? Consider the assessed mechanisms by which Putin purportedly sought to influence American elections:
We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks. 
Disclosing information via DCLeaks.com, WikiLeaks, and the mainstream media is itself speech. It is a participation in the public discourse, a voice crying out to be heard. It is presumably a Russian voice, a voice that has little standing in American political discourse, but it is still a voice. Moreover, as a voice it could only be heard because of our "liberal democratic order." Far from undermining that order, Putin's alleged activities demonstrate its elemental and undiminished strength.

We are also reminded the material released was "victim data." Whether obtained by hack or by unauthorized insider, the materials released on DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks were obtained illegally. This much is absolutely certain. Still, history shows our society prefers to hear even criminally informed voices. The Pentagon Papers were initially stolen, as were the snippets of Donald Trump's income tax returns published by the New York Times during the election.

Moreover, as Newsweek rather conveniently rationalized, the laws criminalizing the acquisition and publication of this material are, arguably, a restraint on speech and, as such, not possible under the First Amendment. In defending the New York Times' decision to publish tax information stolen from Donald Trump, Newsweek paid homage to Bartnicki v Vopper (532 U.S. 514), which struck down a federal statute barring the publication of information obtained by illegal means. By the same logic that made it acceptable for the New York Times to publish Donald Trump's illegally obtained tax returns, it it is equally acceptable for DCLeaks and WikiLeaks to publish the illegally obtained email archives of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta.

Despite the hyperventilations of the Obama Administration, the most that can be said of Vladimir Putin's activities during the election cycle is that he arrogated to himself a voice with which to participate in the public debate over whom should be America's 45th President. There are many pejoratives that attach to such an effort--"invasive", "arrogant", "rude" just to name a few--but, ironically, "undemocratic" really is not one of them. If Putin weighing in on American electoral politics is wrong, then it was wrong for Barack Obama to have weighed in on Britain's Brexit referendum. If Putin is wrong, then the US State Department was wrong to have spent $350,000 of taxpayer money in an effort to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015.

People may not like that Putin has sought a voice in American electoral politics, but it is disingenuous if not deceitful to pretend that anyone--even a despotic dictator such as Putin--seeking a voice is antithetical to America's "liberal democratic order," and it is dangerously naive to pretend that the intrusion of such foreign voices into the "liberal democratic order" is not very much the establish political order of things.

Absent the alleged cybercrimes (and we must remember they are "alleged" because conclusive proof of anyone's guilt in the penetrations of the DNC networks is for now an elusive commodity), all Putin has done is express an opinion. In our "liberal democratic order", we prefer that opinions be expressed rather than excluded.

Opinions are not the enemy of democracy, but the foundation of it. If Putin truly seeks to undermine American political processes, he is going to need better tactics than participation in political discourse.

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