In the same op-ed, Mukasey made another important point, one that has influenced my thinking on Russian interference since January 2017, when an experienced intelligence hand articulated it to me: If we know the Russians hacked the Democrats, it’s probably because the Russians want us to know.
Despite the wide-eyed, golly-Mr.-Science tone in much of the news coverage, the indictment doesn’t portray cutting-edge Russian intelligence capabilities. The defendants all are said to be members of GRU, Russia’s main military intelligence unit. It is comprised largely of former special-forces types who are looked down upon by their more sophisticated competitors in the SVR, successor to Mr. Putin’s alma mater, the KGB. Their acts, as portrayed in the indictment, obviously were detected—in exquisite detail—by U.S. intelligence services. GRU’s phishing venture, although widespread, was primitive compared with the SVR’s capabilities.
Why would Mr. Putin, an SVR alumnus, give GRU a mission meant to be highly covert? Was this a serious attempt to swing the election to Donald Trump?
At the time of the hacking, virtually no one gave Mr. Trump any chance of winning. Mr. Putin is a thug, but he is not reckless. It seems unlikely he would place a high-stakes bet on a sure loser. Rather, he likely sought to embarrass the person certain to be the new president, assuring that she took office as damaged goods.
Why leave fingerprints? If the only goal was to inflict damage, the new president would have been not only damaged, but also resentful. Even the person who happily posed with a mislabeled “reset” button in frothier days likely would have turned sour.
The point likely was not merely to inflict damage but also to send a warning. Consider the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of an unauthorized and vulnerable email server. It found that the bureau had concluded the server could well have been penetrated without detection. Recall also that some of the people hacked by GRU agents were aware of that server and mentioned it in messages they sent, so that the Russians too were aware of it. The SVR certainly was capable of an undetected hack.
There are some 30,000 emails that Mrs. Clinton did not turn over, on the claim that they were personal and involved such trivia as yoga routines and Chelsea’s wedding. If they instead contained damaging information—say, regarding Clinton Foundation fundraising—the new president would have taken office in the shadow of a sword dangling from a string held by the Russians.
The veteran intelligence hand I spoke with in January 2017 said that Putin’s goal in leaving fingerprints was to create chaos in our political system. But the two explanations — Mukasey’s and my friend’s — are not mutually exclusive. Putin might well have wanted to embarrass, damage, and warn Clinton in the likely event she won the presidential race, and to create chaos regardless of who won.
As to the latter objective, Putin was already succeeding in January 2007. With the help of Democrats and their friends in the media, he has succeeded beyond his dreams since.