The apparent Russian meddling in America’s presidential election took center stage at the third and final presidential debate, on Wednesday night, but it may not be until after Election Day that Americans get a clear sense of what the Russians have been up to and why. When election-season passions cool, a bipartisan investigation should examine what appears to be the most extensive foreign interference in an election in recent US history.
American intelligence services believe Russian operatives were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the subsequent leak of embarrassing private e-mails. The manner in which the e-mails have been parceled out in October suggests that the goal may have been to aid the campaign of Donald J. Trump, who has questioned the need for NATO and seems inexplicably fond of Russia’s strongman leader, Vladimir Putin.
Trump rejected the intelligence community’s assessment at the debate, and, in the heat of a presidential campaign, the intelligence community’s report suggesting a Russian role will inevitably be viewed through partisan filters. That underscores the need for an investigation, after the election, that is truly bipartisan, including Republicans with national security and intelligence backgrounds. The commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks might provide a good model.
One theory that such a panel could investigate is that the Russians have not been out to help Trump per se, but are just trying to create mischief and sow distrust in liberal democracy. They found an ally, witting or unwitting, in Trump, whose groundless complaints about a “rigged” election could weaken confidence in the results. Although it is virtually impossible to rig or hack a US election, just having a candidate speculate about the possibility is a success.
Over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden hinted that the administration planned to retaliate against Putin in some way. “It will be at the time of our choosing. And under the circumstances that have the greatest impact,” he said. Biden implied that the public might not know when such a retaliation has occurred.
But the public can’t be left out of the picture entirely. If indeed the hacking was a psychological warfare operation by Russian intelligence aimed at the American electorate, then it would be appropriate to make the details public. If Trump loses the election, as polls suggest is likely, it doesn’t put the problem to rest. Direct foreign interference in a US election is unacceptable, and both parties should want to get to the bottom of Russia’s activities in 2016 to ensure they are never repeated.