When Foreigners Interfere in a Free Election

The notion that Russian leader Vladimir Putin used hackers to try to meddle in the recent U.S. presidential elections is an upsetting one for many Americans. Yet even if the allegations are indeed true, Moscow simply took a page directly out of longstanding American foreign policy.

For at least seven decades, Washington has been actively seeking to influence the results of foreign elections.

The first such case is thought to be in 1947, when the Truman administration feared that political parties sympathetic to the communists might win the Italian elections. In an interview with the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, F. Mark Wyatt, a career CIA operative, recalled the CIA’s involvement.

“We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets, what have you. And, we did many things to assist those selected Christian Democrats, Republicans … and the other parties as well that … could keep the secret of where their funds came from,” Wyatt recalled.

Millions of American dollars were funneled to politicians sympathetic to American interests, assistance was given to anti-communist newspapers, and the CIA even made ample use of cartoonists in their successful bid to sway a democratic election.

Satisfied with the fruits of their labors, the U.S. began to initiate such efforts in numerous elections to come, in Italy as well as in other countries throughout the globe.

“We didn’t know at that time that we had carried out the first political action, covert political action program, in the history of American intelligence — that would be followed by many, many, many more.”

Last July, a Congressional investigation found evidence that the State Department gave financial support to an NGO which unsuccessfully sought to block Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reelection in 2015.

Yet, seeking to influence whom the residents of a country should vote for in a free election is one of the milder methods used by the American government to topple regimes that weren’t serving their interests.

In 1953, in a joint venture with the British Intelligence agency MI6, the CIA successfully planned and helped execute the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

A controversial politician famed for wearing pajamas to public events and giving speeches to the Iranian legislature while lying in bed, Mosaddeq aroused the ire of the West after he nationalized the massive British oil holdings in Iran. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, which at least was a far better fate than that of other foreign leaders who ended up on the wrong side of the CIA.

Patrice Lumumba was only 35 years old when he became the first democratically chosen leader of a country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. After the U.S. rejected his pleas for aid for his newly independent country, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for aid. This time partnering with Belgium, American officials secretly sent large sums of cash and aid to his political enemies who proceeded to seize power, and shortly thereafter, torture and kill Lumumba.

The CIA spent millions of dollars trying to prevent Salvador Guillermo Allende, an avowed Marxist, from winning the 1970 Chilean elections. When that effort failed, they did all they could to oust him in other ways, and three years later he was toppled in an American-supported coup. Rather than fall into the hands of his enemies, Allende took his own life. In a particular stroke of irony, a Marxist leader who was elected in free elections was overthrown by the beacon of democracy, and replaced by a military junta infamous for their cruelty and horrific violations of human rights.

The fact that America has never refrained from interfering in foreign elections, nor has it been shy about electronically eavesdropping on the private conversations of the leaders of its allies, is hardly an excuse for Russia to do so. But placing the alleged Russian activities in the proper historical context illustrates that it is neither unprecedented nor a grave threat to American democracy. Furthermore, as reprehensible as the hacking of the DNC might be, the American people were well aware that the information they were being spoon-fed by the media (which, for the most part, was actually very pro-Clinton) was accessed via hacking personal emails.

Most importantly, there is no indication that the hacked information made any tangible difference to the election. Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million cast ballots, and it is highly unlikely that the handful of states which tipped the Electoral College vote were somehow more affected by the leaked DNC emails than the rest of America.

The notion that hackers, whether they are foreign elements or homegrown troublemakers, can access private information and use it to create havoc and discord, is something that America must take seriously. But the ongoing obsession about the Russian involvement in the 2016 elections is more likely the result of a losing party unable to accept reality than a genuine concern about national security.