Monday, December 12, 2016

In December 1996, a Florida couple with Democratic party ties illegally intercepted and recorded a cellphone conversation in which House Speaker Newt Gingrich discussed strategies for handling the Congressional ethics charges he was facing, and provided it to a Democratic congressman, who passed it on to a Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.  The tape was also later leaked to the press, most likely by one of those members of Congress or someone on their staff.  The Florida couple were eventually charged and fined, and Gingrich paid a penalty to resolve the Ethics Committee's complaints against him.

In June 2004, a newspaper and television station successfully sued to unseal the court records of the divorce proceedings of Illinois senatorial candidate Jack Ryan and his wife Jeri.  The records had been sealed by mutual agreement, and both parties opposed the unsealing, but a judge ruled that the public's right to know outweighed the privacy of the parties to the divorce, including the divorced couple's minor-age son.  The records turned out to be highly embarrassing to Ryan, who ultimately lost his Senate race--to, of all people, a fellow named Barack Obama.

In May 2012, some comments by presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser were surreptitiously video-recorded, and the contents of the recording passed on to a journalist for a left-wing magazine.  (It was later revealed that the video was recorded by a member of the catering staff at the event, although in a second surreptitious video recording, a Democratic party operative claimed--with unknown credibility--that the Romney video recording was actually an "opposition research" project carefully planned by his organization.)  The private comments proved to be highly embarrassing to Romney, and appear to have contributed to his later loss in the presidential election that year.

These events, along with many similar ones in the recent past, provide some important context for the recent controversy over the Russian government allegedly trying to interfere in the US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.  For the precedents clearly illustrate that
  • Embarrassing and damaging private information about politicians often becomes public by less-than-admirable means, at the hands of people who don't always have purely high-minded and disinterested motives.
  • Even when such information is obtained unethically or illegally, the issue of punishing and deterring unethical or illegal behavior can and should be separated from the question of whether the information so obtained should be made public. 
  • There is a broad consensus that the democratic process is generally better served by such information being made public--regardless of the moral quality of either the means of, or the motivation for, publication--than by suppressing it out of respect for the privacy or well-being of public figures and their families.
The Russian "interference" story fits very well with these past precedents.  Foreign hackers connected with the Russian government allegedly compromised Democratic Party email servers, then published their most embarrassing contents via Wikileaks, with the intention (according to the CIA--the FBI apparently reached a very different conclusion) of helping Donald Trump win the presidential election.  Based on past examples, then, we should consider the exposure of this private information to be a generally good thing, and stop sounding the alarm about the impending doom of American democracy at the hands of Russian intelligence.  After all, embarrassing private details about American politicians are revealed all the time, by all sorts of people with all sorts of motives, and we generally consider such revelations to be beneficial, not detrimental, to democracy.

Now, there are certainly aspects to this story that are very concerning.  For one, that the Democratic Party--or for that matter virtually every public-sector, nonprofit-sector or private-sector organization in the country--is so easily penetrated by foreign government cyberespionage agencies is without question grounds for great concern, although obviously more of a technical security matter than a political one.  It has also been noted that both the Trump and Clinton inner circles during and after the election were populated by a disturbing number of top people who have at one time or another had personal or commercial interests directly linked to one or another foreign government.  Congressional investigation into whether any of these past ties are sufficient to jeopardize American national security would certainly be most welcome.  Finally, it's to be expected that at least some of the released emails were doctored or fabricated by the Russians for effect, and some definitive findings regarding their authenticity would be useful--again for the sake of a better-informed public.

But the idea that unsavory characters revealing embarrassing information about candidates for public office endangers the very survival of American democracy would be unthinkable were the information in question not, as it happens, helpful to a character as despised as Donald Trump (or harmful to one as beloved as Barack Obama).  There's no evidence that the published emails had any significant impact on the election or on general trust in government among Americans.  And as the above examples illustrate, the hyperventilation in the press about this whole episode smacks more of partisan bias than serious concern for democracy and the national interest.