The Right Way to Cover Hacks and Leaks Before the Election

News organizations need to recognize that in such maneuvers they are the target of an active information influence operation, either by a foreign adversary or a campaign foe. That requires treating adversarial hack-and-leak operations—or, just as importantly, the possibility of an adversarial hack-and-leak operation—as unique and different from a “normal” whistleblower, like an Edward Snowden or Reality Winner.

What We Might Expect This Fall

The most troubling problem with confronting hack-and-leak operations in 2020 is the special challenge of Donald Trump—a president uniquely inclined to disregard democratic norms, spread unfounded conspiratorial notions, and encourage questions about the legitimacy of the election. Trump’s day-to-day mendacity and encouragement of foreign assistance means that rather than eschewing or condemning such operations, he seems uniquely inclined to wholeheartedly embrace the leak of stolen documents.

Everything we’ve seen over the last five years about Trump’s behavior should warn us that he would embrace aid from foreign adversaries and turn it to his political benefit. He’s said as such, as evidenced by his actions in Ukraine, which lead to his impeachment in January seemingly one million news cycles and crises ago, and his calls for China and others to release information that may harm opponent Joe Biden. Similarly, recent evidence shows that Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both seem willing to use their offices to promote the Trump campaign’s interests. Together, such behaviors represent dangerous, fertile ground for a hack-and-leak operation to take root.

One scenario that seems likely to stymie the best possible intentions of the news media is how a hack-and-leak operation might collide with Donald Trump’s natural instincts to inspire second- and third-order political effects that would be impossible to ignore. President Trump, for instance, might weaponize and give oxygen to even a mundane, milquetoast leak to undermine the credibility of the Biden campaign, or attempt to raise questions about the legitimacy of the election, distracting and clouding the presidential race with the vaguest of misconduct allegations.

So how should the news media avoid allowing its pages and programs from being turned into weapons? How do we build on the awareness to do a better job of saying “Caveat lector,” let the reader beware?

This summer at the Aspen Institute, Vivian Schiller and I designed and ran a tabletop exercise geared toward an unfolding hack-and-leak operation timed to the second presidential debate in October.

We imagined how the media might respond to an anonymous “DCLeaks”-style website that appears and purportedly contains internal document stolen from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that was at the center of the impeachment inquiry. It wouldn’t take much effort for such an operation to contain a few key doctored documents, appearing to allege that perhaps we don’t know the full truth about Hunter Biden’s role with the company. In the days ahead, journalists compete ferociously, racing to responsibly confirm the authenticity of the documents and, within a relatively few days, determine the most damning documents are false—that there’s no concrete evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens at all, just some Sony-style internal Burisma corporate gossip, some financial records, and strategy PowerPoints.

In the meantime, though, the mere existence of the leaks ricochets through the right-wing media bubble—they are speculated about on Fox & Friends, OAN, and elevated online by Trump fan sites. The president—who in real life today spent the anniversary of the Podesta leaks tweeting unceasingly about some made-up scandal about “Obamagate”—begins amplifying the claims as evidence that Joe Biden is crooked. He calls for the FBI to investigate. He tweets something reckless and unproven, like, “Is Joe Biden biggest criminal of all time?” His supporters break into “Lock him up!” chants at rallies. Before the authenticity of the documents are even disproved by reporters, “senior Justice Department officials” leak that a grand jury has been empaneled to investigate the Biden family, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announce that they’re traveling to Ukraine to find out the truth. The Biden campaign hits back, saying that the Trump campaign is acting as a pawn of Russia, weaponizing the US government for the president’s reelection. By that point, even if responsible news organizations decide the underlying documents are forgeries, the story has morphed from an “information operation” to an arguably genuine political controversy.

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