The Slatest

Julian Assange, Russia, and the DNC Hack—Who Meant to Do What With the Emails

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Autodrom circuit on May 1.

Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

The DNC was hacked last year and on Friday WikiLeaks released nearly 20,000 DNC emails, just ahead of the Democratic convention. That much we know; everything else is still conjecture, but there is a consensus starting to form around certain parts of the DNC hack story. The conventional thinking out of the gate, when the party announced the breach last June, was that a Russian-backed group swiped the emails. But was Russia actually responsible? “Anything’s possible,” President Obama told NBC News Tuesday, which seems like a conspicuous nondenial from the president.

While that’s far from a definitive statement from Obama, U.S. intelligence agencies are now increasingly certain of Russia’s involvement and, according to the New York Times, believe with “high confidence” that the Russian government itself was behind the hack. “But intelligence agencies have cautioned that they are uncertain whether the electronic break-in at the committee’s computer systems was intended as fairly routine cyberespionage—of the kind the United States also conducts around the world—or as part of an effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election,” the Times notes.

Despite what was intended by the initial breach, what was intended by the leak seems perhaps more important. For his part, Julian Assange has explicitly said in the past that he hoped to derail Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and the timing of the leak was intended to inflict as much damage as possible. It remains unclear, however, how Assange and WikiLeaks came into possession of the hacked emails and therein lies the rub, geopolitically speaking.

Democrats, including Obama, along with a number of high-ranking Clinton campaign officials have been quick to put forth Donald Trump’s public affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin, coupled with Putin’s antipathy for Clinton, as an unsubstantiated, but politically helpful, theory linking Russia to the emails. Whether the motivation for the cyberattack was to influence the election remains unclear. The potential answer to that question is linked to WikiLeaks and whether a Russian entity provided the anti-secrecy group with the thousands of emails it released last Friday. That is still just a theory and one that would obviously require intent. (Frank Foer lays out the case for Russia’s meddling here.) Cyberespionage is routine business in 2016, and determining the intent of the hack and leak will be of particular importance in determining what constitutes an appropriate U.S. response.