Editor’s Note: Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian. He teaches history and public service at New York University and was the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He is the co-author of “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964” and “Khrushchev’s Cold War” and the author of “Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Historian Tim Naftali: Previous interventions in U.S. politics have all been by close allies
Russia's adversarial stance could be new and troubling, Naftali says
Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, implicitly linked alleged Russian-sponsored hacks on Democratic National Committee servers and Donald Trump’s statements casting doubt on whether the United States should support the Baltic states against future Russian aggression to the WikiLeaks release of DNC emails. And now the FBI has confirmed it’s investigating whether Russia was involved in the hack.
If Mook is onto something, and our democracy has indeed been dealt a foreign blow, you might be asking yourself: In modern U.S. political history, how unprecedented are such serious efforts by foreign governments to mess with our domestic politics?
Not at all unprecedented, as it turns out. Ironically, our best friends, the British, are the past masters of this game. In 1940-41, London directed its intelligence services to help Franklin Roosevelt make the case for U.S. intervention, even though many Americans were convinced that isolating this country from the European war was in our long-term interests. They coalesced around what was then called the America First movement.
With Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s approval, British spies and intelligence officers spread rumors to discredit Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator who was the most prominent American Firster. They also broke into the embassies of enemy countries in Washington, tapped their telephone lines and provided information of their activities to Roosevelt and to U.S. newspapers. The British funneled money to so-called interventionist groups and successfully promoted William J. Donovan, an interventionist Republican who had served in Calvin Coolidge’s Justice Department, to be Roosevelt’s first intelligence chief.
The most dramatic instance of a foreign government messing with our politics came during the Cold War. In the final weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign, the government of South Vietnam colluded with Republicans who presented themselves as representatives of the Nixon campaign. Richard Nixon’s lead over Democratic challenger Vice President Hubert Humphrey had already started to collapse when outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a halt on bombing in Vietnam and the start of serious negotiations with Hanoi and South Vietnam in Paris.
Representing herself as speaking for the Nixon campaign, Republican activist Anna Chennault encouraged Saigon to say no to participating in Paris, asserting that Nixon would better defend South Vietnam than the Democrats.
Recently declassified information provides substance for years of speculation about the complicity of these political activists with Saigon. On November 2, 1968, the United States intercepted a call from Chennault, during which she reported to the South Vietnamese ambassador that she had a message from her “boss.” Chennault said her “boss” wanted the Vietnamese ambassador to tell his “boss” (presumably President Nguyen Van Thieu) “hold on, we’re going to win.”
The implication was that the South Vietnamese should resist U.S. pressure to participate in the peace talks until after the November 5 election. Saigon held firm. On November 7, two days after Nixon won the election, U.S. intelligence overheard Saigon’s assistant armed forces aide in Washington tell an unidentified caller that the South Vietnamese decision to veto participation in peace talks was designed “to help Nixon and had Saigon gone to the conference table, Humphrey would probably have won.”
More recently and overtly, Israel has tried its hand at intervening directly in American politics. In the election year of 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu had a public dust-up with President Barack Obama over setting red lines for Iranian nuclear developments. Then, in March 2015, with U.S. and European negotiators nearing an agreement with Iran that would place limits on its nuclear program, Netanyahu visited the United States as the guest of then-House Speaker John Boehner. What made this an unprecedented break in diplomatic protocol by both Boehner and the Israeli Prime Minister was that Netanyahu made no effort to hide his intention to come to the U.S. Congress to give a speech attacking Obama’s approach to Iran.
Which brings us to today. In outlining the potentially explosive charge against Moscow and by implication the Trump campaign, Mook did not lay out a detailed indictment, citing instead the feeling of “experts.” This much we do know to be true at this point: Some cyber experts do indeed believe that Russia was behind the hacking.
In June, The Washington Post quoted representatives from CrowdStrike, a well-regarded IT security firm the Democrats brought in to investigate the hacking. CrowdStrike said there were two hackers, one of which it codenamed Fancy Bear and assumed was the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. The firm was unsure of the allegiance of the second hacker, Cozy Bear, but assumed this hack might be linked to the Russian domestic security service, the FSB. On Sunday, cyber experts examining the leak to WikiLeaks argued that the acknowledged hacker, Guccifer 2.0, is also tied to Russian intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has not only denied allegations of its involvement, but has also gone on the offensive against the Clinton camp. We should be hearing more about these allegations in the coming days as pressure builds on the Clinton campaign to provide better evidence for Mook’s insinuation or to repudiate it. This choice, too, has a precedent. Just days before the 1968 election, Johnson told Hubert Humphrey that based on U.S. intelligence, he assumed Nixon was colluding with Saigon. Johnson, however, left it up to Humphrey what to do with this information. Apparently citing the national interest, Humphrey chose to remain silent and lost the election.
Perhaps, like Johnson in 1968, Obama has shared something with Hillary Clinton about what U.S. intelligence knows about the hacking, but given the sensitivity of these sources the Clinton campaign for the moment feels it can only insinuate its case. We cannot yet know for sure, but given the seriousness of the charges and their implications, if it can be made, a more explicit case would only strengthen our democracy. It would send a signal to Russia and warn Americans about the threat posed by Putinists in the Trump campaign. And if a strong case of collusion can’t be made against the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign should leave the speculating about it to others.
Collusion or not with the Trump campaign, Russian involvement would be troubling. If Russia is indeed playing politics to help Trump or damage Clinton, it will certainly not be the first time a foreign power has tried to influence our domestic politics. But up to now, the most effective efforts have usually been made by our close allies, who know us and our institutions well, not by a country that seems to be acting like an adversary. What might Russia do next?