Editorial

Did Russia meddle in our presidential election?

Seven members of the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote to President Obama this week asking him to declassify and make public “additional information concerning the Russian government and the U.S. election” that committee members apparently have learned about in confidential briefings. The president should take their advice.

Cynics might be tempted to view their letter — which was signed only by Democrats and an independent senator who caucuses with them — as a partisan ploy designed to buttress the argument that Donald Trump’s victory was rendered illegitimate by Russian meddling on his behalf.

But seeking information about possible Russian meddling in the election shouldn’t be a partisan issue. If the Russian government indeed attempted to influence, disrupt or subvert the outcome by stealing and publicizing the emails of senior Democratic officials or promoting the dissemination on social media of “fake news” damaging to Hillary Clinton, that should outrage Americans regardless of whom they supported on Nov. 8. The public has a right to know as much about any such operation as can be made public without compromising intelligence sources and methods.

Both on and off the record, U.S. officials have made it clear for some time that they believed senior Russian officials were complicit. In October, for instance, the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security put out a statement saying they were “confident” that the Russian government directed the hacking, adding that “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” If true, those charges are extremely serious and deeply troubling.

That view has not been universally embraced. Some analysts have disputed the attribution of the hacking and, more recently, the assertion that Russia was behind a barrage of fake news stories designed to influence voters. And it’s true that multiple actors, some of them unconnected to any government, operate in the shadowy world of Internet sabotage and disinformation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Moscow tampered with the U.S. election, rejecting as “utter nonsense” the notion that the Kremlin favored Trump.

But such skepticism is only more reason for the U.S. government to be as forthcoming as possible. If the Russians were involved, the world must be told of it and persuaded of it; if they were not, then it was irresponsible of the intelligence community to level the accusation in the first place.

The Obama administration should make such an accounting in its remaining seven weeks in office. If it doesn’t do so, the Trump administration should do so.

Trump has a special obligation to take a stand against Russian interference in the American political process — not just because he repeatedly praised Putin during the campaign, but also because, at a news conference in July, he said he hoped that Russia could find emails that were deleted from Clinton’s private email servers in 2014. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

Perhaps, as Trump later insisted, he was merely being sarcastic; but once he assumes the presidency he needs to make it clear that he is as opposed to interference in democratic elections as Obama is.

Congress has taken at least one step in the right direction to respond to Russia. This week the House approved an intelligence authorization bill that calls for the establishment of an interagency committee within the executive branch to counter “active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence” in other countries, including the United States. But public support for sanctions or other retaliatory measures will be stronger if the government explains its conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking and disinformation campaigns.

It would be a mistake to minimize the sort of meddling of which Russia stands accused, or to allow it to pass under-covered and under-discussed in the foggy aftermath of 2016’s wild and crazy election. It’s true that nations always have spied on one another, and at times have sought to influence elections in other countries, sometimes in underhanded and unethical ways. The U.S. is far from blameless in that regard, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America during the Cold War. But if Russia engaged in a high-tech attempt to sabotage an American presidential candidate, that is a provocation that can’t be ignored simply because it occurred in the fog of a bizarre campaign.

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