- The most serious thing that Russia could have done would have been to directly tamper with the electoral process by hacking voting machines, meaning that the vote tallies corresponded with the decisions of the hackers and not the decisions of the voters. This would be such an assault on our system of government it would be an act of war. Thanks be to God, there is no evidence this happened, and no one is seriously suggesting it did. However, the language used in American media to describe the allegations of Russian interference seem purposely designed to plant that suspicion in the minds of those who only keep up with the news casually.
- It is worth pointing out that any serious world player could pretty easily assassinate a political candidate. Although this would probably provoke a more extreme emotional response, and undoubtedly lead to a real, "hot" war, it would actually be less of an affront to our system. Even in the absence of assassinations, people die due to accident or disease, and we have a very robust system for providing equivalent replacements in case an office holder, let alone a candidate for office, should die. This obviously did not happen, though.
- Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to classified information held by the U.S. government. This undoubtedly happens, as the U.S. likewise undoubtedly obtains classified information held by the Russian government in violation of Russian laws. I suspect the Russians have acquired the technical details to the F-35 Lightning II in this way, for example. This is the only thing that can really be called spying, but it is pretty old hat, and at any rate it is not what the media uproar is about.
- Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to confidential information held by private parties. This, finally, is one of the things that has been alleged to have happened. Remember, political parties may control the government, but they are not the government.
- Russia could have made sure that compromising information, however obtained, about a candidate was leaked to the public. This is also alleged to have happened.
- Finally, Russia could have found plenty of compromising information about either candidate not only by performing perfectly legal investigative journalism, but by merely paying attention the the news over the past three or four decades and using a little common sense. If this didn't happen, some Russians definitely need to lose their jobs.
Next, let's consider just what it means if the accusations against Russia are true.
- Imagine if, instead of it being Russia hacking computers belonging to the Democratic Party, it had been Japan hacking computers belonging to Greenpeace -- perhaps out of frustration at Greenpeace's continuing interference with Japanese whaling. Would this have received anything like the attention the Russia story has gotten? Not at all. There would have been some diplomatic protests and probably some minor retaliation, but it would scarcely have become a major point of friction between the two nations.
- But really, shouldn't we retaliate against a nation that interferes with our presidential elections? If that is the case, I demand sanctions against the United Kingdom. Remember when British parliamentarians were talking about how Trump should be barred from entry to the U.K.? That interference is much more blatant, and in fact much more of a real influence, but note the complete absence of any reference to it whatsoever, let alone any calls for retribution. UPDATE 2/20/17: Meddling from the Limeys continues. I am not a fan of Trump, but I take great offense at this kind of interference, which would demand retaliation. Many Americans will feel even more strongly about it than I do.
- Would the U.S. intelligence community really lie to the public? Um ... yeah, at least if they felt they had some reason to. They've never really even pretended that their mission is to provide accurate and complete information to the public, and the public has generally been quite accepting of this. The whole bits about "We're not spying on the American civilian public!" and "We don't perform torture!" demonstrate that this is not just a theoretical possibility.
The question is, do they see themselves as "having some reason to" lie to the public? We cannot be sure, but the possibility definitely exists. Senior leadership in the intelligence community may be legitimately frightened that the U.S. stands to lose preeminence in the Middle East if Russia is seen as responding to ISIS more effectively than we do, or they may be worried about trouble Trump might stir up with China, or they may just fear his unpredictability. For any of these reasons, they may feel the idea that he was helped into office by Russian meddling might make him less willing to break sharply from policies pursued by previous presidents, or it might at least make him more defensive and preoccupied with domestic criticism.
- Regarding the evidence redacted from the report but made available to American officials, that is only as meaningful as the authors of the report are trustworthy. The sort of electronic records they could create would be very difficult for even a professional with the full resources of another country's intelligence agencies to confirm or deny. If the evidence was faked, it was faked by professionals, and it would appear flawless to even professionals lacking independent access to the raw records. There is no way for the public, or for the government, for that matter, to confirm its authenticity.
- Then again, some readers with experience in reading such reports are claiming the language used actually is less definitive than the press and the Obama administration are suggesting. Remember Saddam Hussein's WMD -- the ones so fearsome that the mere possibility of their existence was said to justify war? When George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, the intelligence community certainly seemed to be supporting him, but when the WMDs turned out to be nonexistent (or to have been long-abandoned projects), that same community pointed out that they never actually claimed that the weapons absolutely, definitively existed, only that there was some evidence suggesting they existed. This kind of maneuver allows them to technically tell the truth, but in a way that rather dishonestly leaves the whatever impression their bosses desire to be left, regardless of the truth.
- The other tool one can use in a situation like this is an examination of the balance between risk and reward. The players we are discussing will obviously avoid major risks unless they are accompanied by great rewards. We have already considered possible rewards for the American intelligence community to lie, and the fact that the risks are greatly limited by the difficulty in verifying or falsifying their supporting documents. What about the Russians?
That's a hard question to answer. Clinton was the embodiment of the American governmental status quo, and the status quo had become increasingly anti-Russian, so there was some benefit to them if she were not elected. On the other hand, I seriously doubt she is such a moron as to actually provoke a war with a nation controlling 7,000 nuclear warheads. Furthermore, she obviously needed no outside help in destroying her candidacy -- her "basket of deplorables" comment is almost certainly what cost her the election. As for the risk, it could have been expected to have been comparable to mere industrial espionage, which goes on all the time. Would they accept a modest risk for a modest reward? Maybe.
Taken together, all of this means that the Russians may well have hacked into the Democratic Party's computers, though we cannot be sure, but that even if they did, it's not really that important. Contrast that conclusion with what we hear from the major news bureaus, though, which is CIA locuta est, causa finita est, and that only a simpleton could doubt that Russian meddling was not only real, but that it completely delegitimized the last election. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of fake news.