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Lessons from Two Democratic National Committee Break-Ins

There are intriguing parallels between the Russian hack and the 1972 DNC break-in that spurred Watergate. But in some ways the former is even more alarming.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Friday indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence officers for, among other things, hacking into the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) calls to mind another DNC break-in almost exactly 46 years ago.  

Then as now the purpose was to spy on Democrats in a presidential election year. Then as now electronic technology was the means, except in 1972 the purpose of the break-in was to install wiretaps on the phones of top DNC officials. Then as now the actors were involved with intelligence services. Four of the five burglars arrested in the offices of the DNC nearly a half-century ago had ties to the CIA.

Then as now, orders for the operation came from the top. Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell controlled a secret slush fund to pay for snooping operations against the Democrats, including the break-in to the DNC offices in the Watergate, which he approved. A January 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russian election meddling concluded, “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election…. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Then as now statements from the president don’t always comport with reality. Two months after the Watergate break-in, President Richard Nixon said White House Counsel John Dean had conducted an investigation (he hadn’t) and found, “[N]o one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”

Despite the intelligence community’s judgment, President Trump has remained remarkably credulous about the Russian leader’s denials. After meeting with Putin in November 2017, Trump remarked, “[E]very time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”  

And only hours before the indictment was unveiled Friday, Trump complained the “stupidity” of Mueller’s investigation was making it “very hard to do something with Russia.” Even after the indictment was announced, Trump seemed less-than-enthused to press the matter in his meeting today with Putin in Helsinki. 

Although he pledged to “absolutely” raise the election-meddling issue, Trump appears to believe the purpose of any discussion is to extract a Putin confession. He indicated such an endeavor was a waste of time. “I don’t think you’ll have any, 'Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.' There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?” Trump said, adding, “And hopefully we’ll have a very good relationship with Russia.” 

Then as now, the top dog can provoke action. For instance, Dean, acting on instructions from his boss, wrote an August 1971 memo wondering “how can we use the federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” This directive spawned the notorious “Enemies List.”

In a July 27, 2016 news conference, Trump suggested the Russians look for emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said.

The Russians may well have been listening. According to the indictment, hours later “for the first time” Russian intelligence attempted to hack emails used by Clinton’s personal office and targeted 76 Clinton campaign email addresses.  

But these parallels should not obscure some of the significant differences between the two incidents. First and foremost, Watergate — for all its horrors — was a series of illegal actions conducted by a domestic operator: Nixon’s White House and re-election campaign. 

What happened in 2016 was an extensive effort by a foreign power to influence a presidential election in one candidate’s favor. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, Russia tried to collude with the Trump campaign. As the indictment reports, a Russian intelligence officer, posing as “Guccifer 2.0,” wrote to sometime Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, asking, “Please tell me if I can help u anyhow…it would be a great pleasure to me.”  

And, for better or worse, Nixon and his aides confined their activities to the national political level. Not so the Russians. Echoing previous accounts, the Friday the 13th indictment reports the Russians penetrated the very machinery of elections — websites and emails used by state and county election administration officials.

They “visited” county election websites in Iowa and Georgia, the indictment says, and they were particularly active in the swing state of Florida, where I live. The Russian method was diabolically simple. Emails sent to officials in “numerous” Florida counties were designed to look like they came from an election software vendor and included a Word document. The document, which had the vendor’s logo, also contained malware. 

At least according to last January’s intelligence report, none of this hacking involved “vote tallying” machines. Yet, given the breadth of the Russian intelligence operation — hacking into computers at the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign, Clinton’s personal server, sending thousands of purloined documents to Wikileaks, and spreading disinformation on Facebook and Twitter — one need not be a fantasist to believe the Russians may go the next step in 2020 and try to alter votes.  

Watergate inspired a wave of campaign finance reforms, including the creation of the Federal Election Commission. Although this year Congress allocated $380 million in election security funds, it is hardly sufficient to meet the threat. Estimates are that 41 states have voter registration databases first created at least a decade ago. It took impeachment and a full-blown Constitutional crisis for Congress to act nearly a half-century ago. The stakes — democracy itself — are already too high for Congress to wait any longer this time.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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