Caution in future crucial

US poll hacking : India must take special care to ensure that domestic political processes remain immune to foreign intervention in information age.

It is doubtful if Russian President Vladimir Putin has read Fredrick Forsythe’s novel “The Dogs of War”. If by chance he has, he well may recall and chuckle at Sir James Manson’s remark “Knocking of an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style.”

For that is virtually what all US intelligence agencies are accusing him of through ordering Russian cyber intervention against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the US presidential ele­ctions. While Manson’s intentions were thwarted though a regime change took place in Forsythe’s fictional country Zangaro, truth being stranger, Putin has obviously savoured the victory of Donald Trump who wants to establish friendly ties with Russia and a buddy-buddy relationship with Putin himself. And the icing on the cake, for Putin, a former intelligence officer himself, would be the present distrust which Trump harbours aga­inst the US intelligence community itself.

In an extraordinary move, outgoing US President Barack Obama authorised the release of a declassified version of a report of what US intelligence assess as the method and object of the Russian intervention of the 2016 US presidential election process.

The report released on January 6 no­tes “We assess Russian President Vladi­mir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The report goes to state, “We further assess Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him”.

US intelligence asserts that Russian hackers gained access into the Democratic National Committee networks from July 2015 to June 2016. They also hacked into the email accounts of Clinton presidential campaign staff, including Chairman John Podesta.

Through these cyber operations, Russia got sensitive and unfavourable material on Clinton which they managed to put in the public domain through WikiLeaks and similar outlets. Some emails gave an indication that Clinton was tipped of about some questions that were put to her in the formal Trump-Clinton debates. Recently, Trump fulminated against all this.

In unprecedented diplomatic action against Russia, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US. Putin did not respond in kind though reciprocity is the guiding principle of diplomacy. Instead, he invited US diplomats to a reception. Trump praised Putin for acting smart. In effect, Putin has succeeded in sowing a degree of dissension in the US even before Trump has taken office when the need is to unite a divided US.

The report does not state that Trump won because of Russian intervention but its contents insinuate that somehow his victory has not been through a completely indigenous US process; it is the shadow on his victory that has infuriated the president-elect. Trump who is about to assume the most powerful office in the world has been further enraged by the leak of an unsubstantiated report given to him by US intelligence that Russian intelligence has material of his inappropriate and compromising personal behaviour in Russia.

Trump holds a “disgraceful” US intelligence responsible for the leak. A polity suffers when there is an absence of trust between the chief executive and the intelligence agencies.  

The US political class is outraged at the Putin intervention. Certainly this is not out of moral indignation for the US has routinely intervened in the domestic political processes of numerous countries, sometimes openly and at other times covertly. Thus, the outrage could only be because another country, even a strong one like Russia, has had the audacity to seek to influence the choice of the voter of the world’s most powerful country.

The fact is that all countries pursue their foreign policy objectives through impacting on the choices of target countries. Such activity is considered legitimate as long as it relates to bilateral issues and matters of common international or regional concern. However, in terms of international norms it becomes illegitimate once it intrudes into the areas of domestic political choices or economic and social policies.

Domestic matters

Even here in recent decades, Western countries have evolved doctrines under the rubric of humanitarian intervention to go into these domestic matters of developing countries. And humanitarian reasons and promoting democracy even regime change is justified. All this smacks of neo-colonialism and has severe and unforeseen consequences as witnessed in Iraq in the aftermath of US intervention in 2003. Saddam Hussain was no saint but his removal has led to terror organisation Islamic State.

The use of force is an extreme way of intervention in domestic political affairs. In the past, the US intervened in Latin America through instigating and promoting military coups. Ironically, when militaries overthrew popularly elected governments, the change was accepted in the name of non-intervention in internal affairs of countries. This was witnessed in Pakistan and other countries when it suited the powerful countries. The object is to secure interests and not to adhere to international morality though all countries pretend to do so.

Intervention in elections requires a subtle and deniable approach. Here money and campaign advice were the tools of the past; also, the use of disinformation against target political personalities in the target countries.

Obviously, countries with larger resources were able to more effectively intervene in the electoral processes of weaker but strategically important countries. However, weaker countries also played the game by focussing more narrowly on select individuals.

The digital age with its information tools will now bring new opportunities and new tools to intervene. The Trump election has profiled that so clearly even though Russia denies that it was behind the hacking. Democratic countries like India will have to take special care to ensure that domestic political processes especially elections remain immune to foreign intervention in the information age.
 
(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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