Opinion

Can we handle the truth about Russian election hacking?

Posted July 1

The subject may have been Senate Republicans and the secret health care bill some of them were working on, but Arizona Sen. John McCain tapped a different nerve Tuesday.

The bill, he said, was so secret that he hadn’t seen it, “nor have I met any American that has.” Then he added this, “I’m sure the Russians have been able to hack in and gotten most of it.”

Well, of course. “The Russians already know about it” has become one of the comedic catch phrases of the day. I’m sure more than one middle school student this year has tried to excuse a missing assignment by telling a teacher that Russian hackers stole it. A homework-eating pet dog is too old school. You can always fall back on the Russian hacking cliché. Can’t find your keys or the TV remote? Boris must have snuck in and taken them.

Russian hacking has become the modern equivalent of the space alien invasions of a couple of generations ago. Proving its existence, at least to the public’s satisfaction, may be forever outside our grasp.

Or maybe it’s just beyond anything a partisan nation is willing to grasp.

Attempting to alter a presidential election may be the perfect crime. In today’s political climate, the side you help will discount your efforts, while the side you hurt will sound petty and whiny. The truth will become little more than a matter for debate, with no fact beyond allegations it was made up.

The question is whether all of this, including the rise of Russian hacking jokes within the culture, would give the Russians behind such an effort any level of satisfaction.

That was what a Democratic senator posed to FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Bill Priestap during a congressional hearing Wednesday. Priestap had identified the goals of the Russian hackers as sowing chaos, making people lose faith in the election system and helping Hillary Clinton lose. Had they succeeded?

People, Priestap said, might argue it either way.

As indeed they do, all over social media and the airwaves.

Priestap was part of a group of intelligence experts and Homeland Security officials who told lawmakers they had evidence that election systems in 21 states were targeted last fall. Some of these attempts failed to penetrate through security, but some succeeded.

However, the officials said they had no evidence that any votes were changed or voter registration records altered.

I wrote about these attempts last fall after the FBI issued an alert to all states about possible hack attacks. I noted a hacker would have to penetrate 3,143 separate election systems, one for each county in America, making success a herculean task.

The security experts made the same argument on Wednesday. That prompted a challenge from Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who argued a sophisticated hacker would need only to penetrate a few key counties to alter the results for an entire state. It wouldn’t be hard to find a few such counties, in traditionally Democratic states, that went Republican last time.

That still would be nearly impossible. In Utah, as in many places, counties transmit results through a closed system that exists independent of the internet.

Unfortunately, the experts wouldn’t identify the 21 states they said were targeted. They wouldn’t tell Congress much of anything other than the number and their assertion no votes were changed.

And that brings us back to where we started. The Russians deny any involvement, including any part in an effort to disclose Democratic emails or to spread disinformation designed to hurt Clinton. The president denies any connection with the Russians. Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans.

Voters should be demanding real answers. Few things are more important to a free republic than the integrity of its election system.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear what level of evidence would be needed to convince those folks who can’t see a nation that exists beyond party loyalty.

In which case, the Russians may have won, even if they failed.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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