People protest as electors gather to cast their votes amid allegations of Russian hacking to try to influence the U.S. presidential election in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, December 19, 2016

commentary

(The National Interest)

December 30, 2016

Were Russian Hacks Really a Threat to American Democracy?

People protest as electors gather to cast their votes amid allegations of Russian hacking to try to influence the U.S. presidential election in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, December 19, 2016

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

by Andrew Parasiliti

The United States yesterday announced tough new sanctions on Russia, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, in response, according to a statement by President Barack Obama, “to the Russian government's aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.”

U.S.-Russia relations, already acrimonious, will likely now take a turn for the worse. Obama's action lays down a marker for President-elect Donald Trump, who has favored a less confrontational stance with Russia. Trump has said that claims of Russian interference in the U.S. elections on his behalf were “ridiculous.”

The Obama administration was right to put Russia on notice about its cyber operations. But let's keep some perspective. Based on what is currently known, the DNC and Clinton email leaks, which contained no classified information, may not have been the affront to U.S. democracy some have described.

For example, Hillary Clinton said the Russian hacks were intended to “undermine our democracy” and resulted from Russian President Vladimir Putin's desire to pay her back for claiming that the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections were rigged. She added that the incident was a challenge to “the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.” A letter signed by a bipartisan group of four senior senators claimed the hacks “cut to the heart of our free society.”

This is all strong stuff, and perhaps now that the president has taken action, a deep breath is in order. The Russian attacks should indeed be another wake up call about the relentless probing of America's digital assets by U.S adversaries and the potential consequences of weak cyber defenses. But by all appearances, U.S. democracy and institutions have hardly taken a crippling hit from revelations about the inner workings of the Clinton campaign and the DNC....

The remainder of this commentary is available on nationalinterest.org.


Andrew Parasiliti is director of the Center for Global Risk and Security at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on December 30, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.