The DNC lawsuit is just what the Russians wanted

The DNC lawsuit is just what the Russians wanted
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The Democratic National Committee recently fired a missive at the Trump administration, and specifically the State Department, to force the government to use diplomatic channels to serve papers on the Russian government in connection with the DNC’s lawsuit alleging that Russia, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks were involved in the hacking of the committee’s servers prior to the 2016 general election. The committee posits the subsequent leaks negatively impacted the party’s ability to successfully campaign for the election. So, who will be the real winner in the lawsuit? The DNC, the Trump administration … or the Russians?

Vladimir Putin understands that Russia cannot compete with capitalist liberal democracies when it comes to sustaining economic growth, promoting business via adherence to the rule of law, and providing the freedoms we cherish such as expression, assembly and choosing our leaders in free and fair elections. He is limited in what he can do to improve Russia, since those moves would undermine his personal control of the polity. Transparency and the rule of law?  Not happening. Allowing a wider selection of candidates to oppose him and campaign as they wish? No way.  


Since he cannot improve conditions in Russia, he lashes out at the system that stands in such stark contrast: the United States. The 2016 election offered a tempting target of opportunity: Russia could attack the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday MORE, and also seek to undermine Americans’ confidence in the cornerstone of U.S. democracy, the electoral process.


Our faith in our electoral system provides legitimacy, which is at the heart of healthy, self-sustaining government systems. Legitimacy should be easy in a democracy, because it is through elections that citizens confer confidence in their leaders. Even if your candidate loses, you can accept that your candidate competed on a level playing field. In an autocratic system or dictatorship, legitimacy is inherently fragile. In Russia today, there exists no system beyond Putinism.  

There is little doubt the Russians sought to influence the U.S. presidential election. That they preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton is probably correct, if for no other reason than she was a known commodity who had confronted the Russians on matters such as their involvement in Ukraine and Crimea.

Most covert influence programs are driven by more than one objective, however, and I believe the primary objective of the Russian influence program was to undermine the legitimacy of elections, and thus our liberal democratic system. Putin seeks to dilute faith in Western-style democracies because weakening his adversaries draws them closer to the base system in which he operates. He cannot make his system better, so he tries to make ours worse.

With this campaign, the Russians benefitted from several factors. Both candidates faced high negatives yet had core supporters who provided unwavering support and expressed vehement dislike for the other candidate. A potentially close election meant influence operations could target swing states. Using social media enabled the Russians to reach potential voters directly.

For their goal of undermining our electoral process, events could not have gone better. During the campaign, questions arose about data breaches at the DNC offices and whether members of the Trump campaign had conducted undisclosed meetings with Russians. The actions of senior FBI officials, the alleged DNC data breach, rumors of Russian influence operations, and revelations about Trump campaign meetings all made Clinton’s supporters feel that, in this instance, the playing field wasn’t level.  

As with most federal special investigations, that of former FBI director Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE has spilled over its banks. But the channel that Mueller hopes to fathom is whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians; all other matters are secondary. One day, this investigation will conclude, but even if it is determined that collusion occurred, what does that mean?

As someone familiar with overt and covert influence programs, I know the hardest thing to do is accurately measure whether the program had any effect whatsoever, much less how much.  Methodologically speaking, it is nearly impossible to measure how much, or whether, the Russian influence operations made any difference in the election outcome. Social scientists or big data experts may beg to differ, but I see simply too many variables, including multiple mistakes that Hillary Clinton made on the campaign trail.

In the Bush-Gore election of 2000, former vice president Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's Morning Report - In Nevada, bets on Sanders, eyes on Bloomberg Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE lost by a few hundred contested ballots in Florida and then by one vote in the Supreme Court. He could have spent the next four years railing against our electoral system and a “stolen election.” But, for the sake of the nation, he accepted his defeat with impressive grace and humility. George W. Bush probably would have done the same, had the results been different. We all moved on.

Now, the Democratic Party feels aggrieved. Perhaps it should. If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mueller’s investigation will uncover any wrongdoing. I fear the DNC lawsuit pleases Putin as much as it aggravates President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE and his supporters. That’s because the DNC’s message is: Don’t trust the results of our nation’s most important election.

One can understand the emotion behind the lawsuit and the political cards being played in advance of the midterm elections. But had this scenario occurred in 2000, I wonder if Al Gore would have filed that lawsuit.

Mark S. Sparkman is a 30-year veteran of the CIA. He is the chief intelligence officer for Veretus Group, an investigations and strategic intelligence firm in Washington, D.C.