U.S. Election Interference

Election Meddling Is Surprisingly Common

The 1948 Italian election was supposed to be a nail-biter, and one with potentially major consequences in the early days of the Cold War. Back then, Italy had one of the strongest communist parties in Western Europe, which relied on Soviet financial assistance, and the Americans’ recently established Central Intelligence Agency worried that the reds were about to establish a beachhead in what a memo to the White House described as “the most ancient seat of Western culture.”

Acting under a secret National Security Council directive without authorization from Congress, the CIA set to work, using its assets in the Italian secret service and diverting funds meant for the postwar reconstruction of Europe to newly formed political fronts, anti-communist Italian politicians, and Catholic groups. The Christian Democratic Party ended up winning by a comfortable margin. Whether this would have happened anyway without U.S. help is open to debate, but as Tim Weiner writes in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, the agency was encouraged by the victory and “the CIA’s practice of purchasing elections and politicians with bags of cash was repeated in Italy—and in many other nations—for the next twenty-five years.”

A little more than two weeks until Inauguration Day, and the incoming administration continues to dismiss, even just this morning, allegations that Russia deliberately interfered in the 2016 U.S. election by hacking and leaking information from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But interference by either Moscow or Washington in other countries’ elections isn’t unusual at all. A recent paper by Dov Levin, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, shows just how common it’s been.

Using declassified documents, statements by officials, and journalistic accounts, Levin has found evidence of interference by either the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia in 117 elections around the world between 1946 and 2000, or 11.3 percent of the 937 competitive national-level elections held during this period. Eighty-one of those interventions were by the U.S. while 36 were by the USSR/Russia. They happened in every region of the world, though most commonly in Europe and Latin America. The two powers tended to focus on different countries, though Italy was a favorite of both, receiving eight interventions by the U.S. and four by the Soviets.

Not all these interventions relied on methods as crude as bags of cash, though many did. Others included training locals of the preferred side in campaign techniques, covertly disseminating damaging information or disinformation about the other side, or providing or withdrawing foreign aid to influence the vote. Levin has found that interventions on average correlate with an increase in the vote of the preferred side of 3 percent, enough to swing a close race.

Foreign election interference has long history in US

News reports indicate that the United States Intelligence Committee believes Russia is interfering in our elections again.

Although President Trump's impeachment brought attention to the issue of foreign interference, Russia is not the only country to interfere in elections. Some countries use cyber attacks and social media agitation to gain a foothold into election results.

Foreign electoral interventions run anathema to every principle upon which freedom is based. Nobody in a country wants to believe powers outside of it are interfering in their elections.

Barbara Banaian (Photo: Submitted photo)

The Founding Fathers warned against foreign interference. In the Constitution is the Emoluments Clause to protect office holders against "corrupting foreign influences." This is strengthened by the Nobility Clause, which held that no office holder should assume a title of nobility. This includes being named a noble of another country.

And yet foreign interference has been happening for a long time. William Blount, signatory of the Constitution and the first of two senators from the new state of Tennessee, was impeached for scheming to have lands in Florida transferred to British control in order to pay off debts from land speculation.

During the election of 1940, both Britain and Germany supported different candidates for U.S. president since both thought Franklin Roosevelt was likely to enter World War II on behalf of the Allies.

Russia has been interfering in foreign elections for many years. Disinformation campaigns, propaganda, providing/withdrawing foreign aid are some of the ways in which other governments may try to sway our elections. Cyber attacks and agitation on social media sites are also destabilizing forces.

On May 12, 1948, the New York Times published an open letter from Henry Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, to Joseph Stalin that called for international cooperation.

Stalin responded, calling Wallace’s letter “a good and fruitful foundation for such understanding and for the development of international cooperation.” The response was reported widely across the U.S. as undue interference on Wallace’s behalf. He lost badly.

Not that the U.S. is pure in this regard. Does the U.S. interfere in the elections of other countries? Certainly. The Monroe Doctrine, which we studied in high school and college, was offered in part to prevent other colonizing, imperial forces to be near our borders.

As the United States was becoming a worldwide power in the 19th century, the Monroe Doctrine was a policy of opposition to outside interference in the Americas. Yet the U.S. did so repeatedly, with more recent examples from Chile and Bolivia.

In different times, many politicians would refuse Russia's and other countries' interference. When presented with the opportunity to get information about his opponent’s visit to Moscow, George H.W. Bush is said to have responded “We absolutely could not do that.”

The integrity of our elections are important, and Congress is trying to limit the ways in which foreign government can take part in elections. Strengthening our voting infrastructure and security is one way.

The U.S. does not have just one election system to be manipulated. These are run by states and localities, and it is thought that foreign power might be interfering in state elections. It is alleged that two state systems, in Florida and Illinois, were breached by Russia in 2016.

In Minnesota, fortunately, we take election security seriously. Money deployed by the state has been used to hire cyber security experts to protect the integrity of our ballots.

But the ballot box is just one source of mischief alongside social and traditional media. Sometimes people in other countries make the recordings that can reach inside the United States.

Furthermore, the mischief doesn't have to affect the whole country – just a few key states would be enough. Countries frequently offer free trips for state and local officials to “study the culture” of their hosts.

We need to remain vigilant in the days ahead. Campaigns seem to be the front line of battle, and we must not compromise the foundations of our republic.

This is the opinion of Barbara Banaian, a professional pianist who lives in the St. Cloud area. Her column is published the first Sunday of the month.

The U.S. is no stranger to interfering in the elections of other countries

One professor’s database cites 81 attempts by the United States to influence elections in other countries, notably in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.

Update: President Obama on Thursday slapped Russia with new penalties for meddling in the U.S. presidential election, kicking out dozens of suspected spies and imposing banking restrictions on five people and four organizations the administration says were involved.

The CIA has accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election by hacking into Democratic and Republican computer networks and selectively releasing emails. But critics might point out the U.S. has done similar things.

The U.S. has a long history of attempting to influence presidential elections in other countries – it’s done so as many as 81 times between 1946 and 2000, according to a database amassed by political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University.

That number doesn’t include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the U.S. didn’t like, notably those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile. Nor does it include general assistance with the electoral process, such as election monitoring.

Levin defines intervention as “a costly act which is designed to determine the election results [in favor of] one of the two sides.” These acts, carried out in secret two-thirds of the time, include funding the election campaigns of specific parties, disseminating misinformation or propaganda, training locals of only one side in various campaigning or get-out-the-vote techniques, helping one side design their campaign materials, making public pronouncements or threats in favor of or against a candidate, and providing or withdrawing foreign aid.

In 59% of these cases, the side that received assistance came to power, although Levin estimates the average effect of “partisan electoral interventions” to be only about a 3% increase in vote share.

The U.S. hasn’t been the only one trying to interfere in other countries’ elections, according to Levin’s data. Russia attempted to sway 36 foreign elections from the end of World War II to the turn of the century – meaning that, in total, at least one of the two great powers of the 20th century intervened in about 1 of every 9 competitive, national-level executive elections in that time period.

Italy’s 1948 general election is an early example of a race where U.S. actions probably influenced the outcome.

“We threw everything, including the kitchen sink” at helping the Christian Democrats beat the Communists in Italy, said Levin, including covertly delivering “bags of money” to cover campaign expenses, sending experts to help run the campaign, subsidizing “pork” projects like land reclamation, and threatening publicly to end U.S. aid to Italy if the Communists were elected.

Levin said that U.S. intervention probably played an important role in preventing a Communist Party victory, not just in 1948, but in seven subsequent Italian elections.

Throughout the Cold War, U.S. involvement in foreign elections was mainly motivated by the goal of containing communism, said Thomas Carothers, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The U.S. didn’t want to see left-wing governments elected, and so it did engage fairly often in trying to influence elections in other countries,” Carothers said.

This approach carried over into the immediate post-Soviet period.

In the 1990 Nicaragua elections, the CIA leaked damaging information on alleged corruption by the Marxist Sandinistas to German newspapers, according to Levin. The opposition used those reports against the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega. He lost to opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro.

In Czechoslovakia that same year, the U.S. provided training and campaign funding to Vaclav Havel’s party and its Slovak affiliate as they planned for the country’s first democratic election after its transition away from communism.

“The thinking was that we wanted to make sure communism was dead and buried,” said Levin.

Even after that, the U.S. continued trying to influence elections in its favor.

In Haiti after the 1986 overthrow of dictator and U.S. ally Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the CIA sought to support particular candidates and undermine Jean-Bertrande Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and proponent of liberation theology. The New York Times reported in the 1990s that the CIA had on its payroll members of the military junta that would ultimately unseat Aristide after he was democratically elected in a landslide over Marc Bazin, a former World Bank official and finance minister favored by the U.S.

The U.S. also attempted to sway Russian elections. In 1996, with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the Russian economy flailing, President Clinton endorsed a $10.2-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund linked to privatization, trade liberalization and other measures that would move Russia toward a capitalist economy. Yeltsin used the loan to bolster his popular support, telling voters that only he had the reformist credentials to secure such loans, according to media reports at the time. He used the money, in part, for social spending before the election, including payment of back wages and pensions.

In the Middle East, the U.S. has aimed to bolster candidates who could further the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In 1996, seeking to fulfill the legacy of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the peace accords the U.S. brokered, Clinton openly supported Shimon Peres, convening a peace summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik to boost his popular support and inviting him to a meeting at the White House a month before the election.

“We were persuaded that if [Likud candidate Benjamin] Netanyahu were elected, the peace process would be closed for the season,” said Aaron David Miller, who worked at the State Department at the time.

In 1999, in a more subtle effort to sway the election, top Clinton strategists, including James Carville, were sent to advise Labor candidate Ehud Barak in the election against Netanyahu.

The U.S. Has Been Meddling In Other Countries' Elections For A Century. It Doesn't Feel Good.

PHILADELPHIA ― Intelligence officials are shocked that Russia appears to be meddling in the U.S. presidential election, but for some supporters of Bernie Sanders, it’s just turnabout.

Lakewood, Colorado, delegate Kim Netherton said it’s beside the point whether agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails, as reported this month. And it may come with a little poetic justice for Hillary Clinton, according to Netherton.

“Isn’t it interesting that her campaign is now experiencing the same thing that she perpetrated on other countries,” Netherton told The Huffington Post, as she awaited Sanders’ speech Monday night.

“She did this in Haiti, she did this in Honduras, and now it’s coming back on her and she’s all verklempt about it,” Netherton added. “It’s a little bit of her own medicine, but unfortunately I don’t think she’s open minded enough to see that for what it is.”

Indeed, meddling in foreign politics is a great American pastime, and one that Clinton has some familiarity with. For more than 100 years, without any significant break, the U.S. has been doing whatever it can to influence the outcome of elections ― up to and including assassinating politicians it has found unfriendly.

The Clinton camp disagrees that whatever happened in Honduras is on the same level as what Russia is up to. “There’s simply no equivalency here,” said Clinton spokesperson Jesse Lehrich. Which is true: the U.S. has meddled in far more foreign elections than vice versa.

The U.S. penchant for meddling in Latin American politics is something Sanders and Clinton disagreed sharply about in a March debate. “I think the United States should be working with governments around the world, not get involved in regime change,” Sanders said. “And all of these actions, by the way, in Latin America, brought forth a lot of very strong anti-American sentiments.”

The phenomenon is so prevalent, there’s even a running joke in Latin America that goes like this:

Q: Why has there never been a coup in the United States?

A: Because there’s no U.S. embassy in Washington.

To get a sense of why that joke gets so many knowing laughs around the world, let’s do a quick run through of a few of America’s greatest hits.

At the beginning of Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State in 2009, the Honduran military ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in a coup d’etat. The United Nations condemned the military coup and the Organization of American States suspended Honduras from its membership , calling for Zelaya’s reinstatement. Instead of joining the international effort to isolate the new regime, Clinton’s State Department pushed for a new election and decided not to declare that a military coup had occurred.

“If the United States government declares a coup, you immediately have to shut off all aid, including humanitarian aid, the Agency for International Development aid, the support that we were providing at that time for a lot of very poor people,” Clinton said when asked about Honduras in April . “So, our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people, but we should slow walk and try to stop anything that the government could take advantage of, without calling it a coup.”

Clinton said that she didn’t want Zelaya returning to power. “Zelaya had friends and allies, not just in Honduras, but in some of the neighboring countries, like Nicaragua and that we could have had a terrible civil war that would have been just terrifying in its loss of life.”

Emails that have since surfaced show that Clinton and her team worked behind the scenes to fend off efforts by neighboring democracies through the Organization of American States to restore the elected president to power. “The OAS meeting today turned into a non-event ― just as we hoped,” wrote one top State official, celebrating a strategy of slow-walking a restoration.

Critics of the decision not to shut off aid said it essentially legitimized the coup government as it cracked down on dissent. And the outcome hasn’t been so great: Since 2009, the country has become increasingly dangerous, contributing significantly to the 2014 surge of unaccompanied minor children fleeing to the U.S.

In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency deposed Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. It installed a military dictatorship that would be more amenable to fighting communism and protecting the United Fruit Company ― to which brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles, CIA director and secretary of state, respectively, were closely tied. Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, was in Guatemala at the time. He would later tell Cuban leader Fidel Castro that it was Guatemala’s free and open society that allowed the CIA to penetrate and overthrow Arbenz. Castro should go the opposite direction if he wanted to stay in power, Guevara said. He took Guevara’s advice and was able to fend off endless CIA assassination and overthrow attempts. The collateral damage was freedom in Cuba.

When Iran elected a nationalist politician, Mohammed Mosaddeq, the U.S. intervened to launch a coup in 1953, which CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt led. Mossadegh’s crime was to nationalize a British oil company, a forerunner to BP, and to spark concerns among the paranoid Dulles brothers that he was leaning toward the Soviet Union. The U.S. installed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran’s monarch, as the head of Iran and his repressive rule led to the Iranian revolution. That uprising, in turn, has given us a brutally repressive regime in Iran, client terrorist groups around the Middle East, savage sectarian violence in Iraq and a nuclear standoff. Sad!

It’s hard to know which specific meddling we’re talking about when it comes to Haiti, given the high number of U.S.-sponsored coups and interventions there. None, at least, were under Secretary Clinton’s watch. But memos that WikiLeaks published suggest the State Department, in collaboration with local factory owners, helped suppress a minimum wage increase in the Caribbean nation. The Clinton Foundation, meanwhile, has done some impressive work in Haiti, while also catching plenty of flack for its shortcomings.

Malcolm X once called Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.” Lumumba led an anti-colonial campaign to oust the ruling Belgians from the Congo and he became the country’s first elected leader. The U.S. set about almost immediately to overthrow and assassinate him, perceiving Lumumba (incorrectly, it turned out) to be a pawn of the Soviet Union. The Belgians took the lead in the plot against Lumumba, but the U.S. was a willing participant. When he was finally captured, he was tortured and killed. So that the public wouldn’t learn of the crime, he was doused in acid to make his body disappear. The assassins ran out of the substance, so they crushed, hacked and ground his body to pieces, scattering the remains in an area that would later be named for Lumumba. More than 50 years of conflict has followed. His killing has been called “the most important political assassination of the 20th Century.”

Another leader who resisted being pulled into the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was Sukarno of Indonesia. When the Communist Party finished fourth in an Indonesian election and Sukarno offered them proportional representation in his government, the U.S. panicked and secretly supported the brutal purging of suspected communists. Thousands died and the military emerged the most powerful institution in the country. It quickly tossed Sukarno from power in 1967 and squashed democracy. Just last week, a panel on an international tribunal at the Hague found the U.S., along with Australia and the United Kingdom, had been complicit in Indonesia’s crimes against humanity in 1965.

When the French withdrew from Vietnam in the 1950s, they scheduled an election to be held shortly after. It became increasingly clear that the communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh would win it in a landslide. So the U.S. intervened and installed Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of a new country it recognized as South Vietnam. The national election was canceled, but the U.S. still needed a way to pretend the puppet regime had political support. So it set up an election between Diem, who was widely disliked, and an exiled member of the royal family who was even more hated. Diem won with an absurd tally of 98.2 percent. U.S. media declared it a deeply moving expression of the will of the South Vietnamese people.The John F. Kennedy administration wound up helping plan a 1963 coup against Diem, who ended up dead. For the next decade, the U.S. went to war to defend the fictional government we had propped up, at the cost of 58,000 American lives and perhaps 2 million Vietnamese. The last U.S. troops withdrew from the country in 1973.


The election in 2014 didn’t go as the U.S. intended (like the one in 2009, shot through with fraud that gave it to Hamid Karzai). So the U.S. declared it a tie and created a new position not in the Afghan constitution called Chief Executive Officer.

Which we guess is better than assassinating the other guy.

The one thing that ties all the stories above together is that not only did they inflame anti-American sentiment, they actually worked against the interests of the U.S. in the long run.

When the CIA pressed President Barack Obama on its plan to arm “moderate” rebels working to oust Bashar Assad in Syria, he asked a provocative question: Has this kind of thing ever worked? An assessment was done, but if the agency found any examples, none have ever surfaced.

Among the many counter examples, of course, is Osama bin Laden, who the United States paid to fight, not coincidentally, the Soviet Union. In throwing his weight behind Donald Trump, Putin might want to be careful what he wishes for.


By Senate amendment, item 610 was changed to read, “610. Contributions or expenditures by national banks, corporations, or labor organizations”. See Senate Report No. 1620, amendment Nos. 4 and 5, 80th Cong.

1990—Pub. L. 101–647, title XXXV, § 3516, Nov. 29, 1990 , 104 Stat. 4923, substituted “Making political contributions” for “Place of solicitation” in item 603 and “Place of solicitation” for “Making political contributions” in item 607.

1980—Pub. L. 96–187, title II, § 201(a)(2), Jan. 8, 1980 , 93 Stat. 1367, struck out item 591 “Definitions”.

1976—Pub. L. 94–453, § 2, Oct. 2, 1976 , 90 Stat. 1517, substituted “political contribution” for “political activity” in item 601.

Pub. L. 94–283 title II, § 201(b), May 11, 1976 , 90 Stat. 496, struck out items “608. Limitations on contributions and expenditures”, “610. Contributions or expenditures by national banks, corporations or labor organizations”, “611. Contributions by Government contractors”, “612. Publication or distribution of political statements”, “613. Contributions by foreign nationals”, “614. Prohibition of contributions in name of another”, “615. Limitation on contributions of currency”, “616. Acceptance of excessive honorariums”, and “617. Fraudulent misrepresentation of campaign authority”.

1974—Pub. L. 93–443, title I, § 101(d)(4)(B), (f)(3), Oct. 15, 1974 , 88 Stat. 1267, 1268, substituted “Contributions by foreign nationals” for “Contributions by agents of foreign principals” in item 613, and added items 614 to 617.

1972—Pub. L. 92–225, title II, § 207, Feb. 7, 1972 , 86 Stat. 11, substituted “contributions and expenditures” for “political contributions and purchases” in item 608, “Repealed” for “Maximum contributions and expenditures” in item 609, and “Government contractors” for “firms or individuals contracting with the United States” in item 611.

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These examples are cited in Dov Levin’s just-released Meddling in the Ballot Box, the first book-length academic study of the history of foreign election interference. “This is a very common phenomenon which can have major effects on elections and determine election results,” Levin, a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, told me in a phone interview. “What happened in the U.S. in 2016 was not new.”

The risk of foreign interference has gotten less attention in this election than it did in 2016, perhaps in part because it is overshadowed by the president’s own threats to the integrity of the election. But it is still a concern. In August, the U.S. intelligence community released an assessment that “China prefers that President Trump—whom Beijing sees as unpredictable—does not win reelection,” while Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ ” FBI Director Christopher Wray has also said that Russia is currently engaged in “very active efforts” to influence the election on Trump’s behalf. Russian President Vladimir Putin, never one to miss an opportunity to troll, recently proposed a noninterference pact between the U.S. and Russia.

Levin makes the case that not only is meddling a more or less typical feature of democratic elections around the world, but the U.S has historically been one of the most active perpetrators. His work also suggests that current trends will only make the U.S. more enticing—and more vulnerable—to foreign interference in the coming years.

Levin’s book is based on a dataset he developed (which I wrote about in 2017) looking at election interference by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia between 1946 and 2000. (These aren’t the only countries that have intervened in elections abroad, but during this period, they were by far the most prolific.) He finds that the two powers engaged in some form of interference 117 times during this period, or one out of every nine competitive elections held around the world during this period. Eighty-one of those were done by the U.S, and 36 by the Russians. He also found that interventions correlate with an increase of 3 percent in the vote share of the aided party, more than enough to swing a very close race.

This interference can take the form of the covert methods that we more commonly talk about—leaking damaging information about a candidate to the media, giving bags of cash to a preferred candidate—or overt methods like promising a trade deal to reward a preferred candidate or threatening consequences if voters choose wrong. A recent example of overt interference was the Trump administration’s move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights shortly before Israel’s 2019 election—widely seen in both the U.S. and Israel as a blatant attempt to boost Trump’s preferred candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu. Meddling in Israeli elections is something of a tradition for the U.S.

The most depressing conclusion of Levin’s study may be that election interference turns out to be a pretty rational act. Not only is it fairly effective, there’s little evidence that either the intervening power or the aided candidate suffered backlash as a result. In fact, the data shows that intervention is more effective when it’s overt—when everyone can see what’s happening—rather than covert, though the latter is more common.

Another troubling finding: Electoral interference does not only happen in poor countries with fragile democracies. Targeted countries during the period studied include the U.K., Germany, Iceland, and the U.S. itself.

Russia’s 2016 interference fits the historical pattern. They used pretty typical methods—stealing and leaking damaging information on one of the candidates, spreading misinformation and propaganda online—which Levin argues are just digital updates of time-honored dirty tricks used throughout the Cold War. What does worry him going forward is the newfound ability of a foreign power to actually interfere in the counting of ballots. This kind of direct manipulation has been very rare, though not completely unheard-of: The book recalls that during the 1994 South African election—the first conducted after Apartheid—an unidentified hacker manipulated results on the central election commission’s computer to add votes to the opponents of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.* The fraud was only detected thanks to a simultaneous manual count.

Levin argues that two factors make electoral interference more likely. First, the country interfering needs a willing partner in the candidate being helped. Election meddling is generally an inside job powers almost never intervene without the consent of the party they’re helping. This consent is not a given: Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, for instance, declined Soviet financial aid during his 1968 campaign against Richard Nixon—and went on to lose the race. Trump’s campaign, by contrast, encouraged Russian assistance both privately and publicly during the last election. Levin feels that Trump’s current predicament—dismal standing in the polls while multiple crises afflict his administration—makes outside assistance more likely. “That’s a situation where politicians start to look for a Hail Mary,” he says. “That’s a situation that’s very conducive for foreign powers to come in and find someone who’s willing to cooperate.”

The second factor is that the intervening country must perceive one of the candidates as a threat to its interests. When the U.S. intervened during the Cold War, it was usually to prevent the election of leftist governments that would fall under Moscow’s sway. In 2016, Russia was concerned about the hawkish Hillary Clinton and worked to either prevent her election or, if that failed, undermine her presidency. These time, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, they have similar fears about Biden.

Foreign Governments Have Been Tampering With U.S. Elections for Decades

Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

Something quite remarkable happened this morning. Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee for president, beseeched the government of Russia, a foreign and quasi-hostile country, to hack the private email account of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a room of flummoxed reporters. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

For those few readers who aren’t up to speed, let’s back up a step. It appears increasingly likely that a Russian state intelligence agency illegally accessed the Democratic National Committee’s internal servers and enlisted WikiLeaks to publicize damaging internal emails on the eve of the Democratic convention. Most observers believe that Russia’s government initiated this criminal act in the service of tilting the presidential election to Trump, who proposes to take the United States out of NATO and whose personal financial ties (and potential dependency) on Russian investors raise a host of troubling questions.

In fact, this is not the first time that a Republican nominee has benefited from foreign interference in an American presidential election. The year was 1968, the candidate was Richard Nixon and the country was South Vietnam.

In the fall of 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee, found himself trailing his Republican opponent Richard Nixon by a consistent and seemingly insurmountable gap in the polls. Bleeding the support of conservative Democrats, who gravitated to George Wallace’s third-party candidacy, he also faced trouble on his left flank. Unable to disassociate himself from President Lyndon Johnson’s deeply unpopular war policy in Vietnam, he became an uncomfortable proxy for the White House. Wherever he went, anti-war protesters heckled him, shouting “Stop the War, “Seig Heil,” and “Shame, Shame.”

It hardly mattered that Richard Nixon’s position on Vietnam was totally indiscernible. Though he had told a New Hampshire audience, “Yes, I have a plan to end the war,” and though he promised that he would “end the war and win the peace in the Pacific,” Nixon stubbornly refused to reveal even the scantest details of his “plan,” which, to his chagrin, reporters took to calling a “secret plan.” “I don’t want to pull the rug out from under our negotiations in Paris” by giving away too much detail, he explained. Unlike Humphrey, he could afford to be vague. He was not a member of the current government and stood for change, ipso facto.

With his campaign in shambles, Humphrey’s only hope was to break with Johnson and reverse course on Vietnam. On September 30, he did just that, announcing that upon taking office he would unilaterally halt the bombing of North Vietnamese targets and thus take a “risk for peace.”

As organized labor mobilized to stem the flow of working-class defections to Wallace, and as peace Democrats moved into Humphrey’s column, Nixon’s lead shrunk to five percentage points by October 20. Then, on October 30, Nixon’s advantage all but vanished as Johnson sprung an “October surprise,” announcing to a prime-time television audience that North Vietnam and its ally, the National Liberation Front, had agreed to a new round of four-way peace talks with the United States and its ally, the Saigon-based Government of Vietnam (GVN). Johnson also told the nation that Hanoi had agreed to stop bombing South Vietnamese cities in return for a halt in America’s bombing campaign north of the demilitarized zone. With hopes for peace running high, Humphrey surged in the polls, leading Nixon by three points on November 2.

But Nixon had an October surprise of his own. In the three weeks leading up to the election, as a newly invigorated Hubert Humphrey barnstormed the nation, touting a platform of “human equality and human opportunity,” crying out for “a spirit of community,” visiting black churches and tearfully celebrating America, “the only country on the face of the earth that has ever dared to try to make what we call a biracial, pluralistic society work,” Nixon’s campaign was using back channels to scuttle the Johnson administration’s negotiations with the various parties in Vietnam.

Nixon’s team met secretly with Anna Chan Chennault, a wealthy supporter of Taiwanese President Chiang Kai-shek, co-chair of Republican Women for Nixon and confidante of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. At Nixon’s behest, Chennault informed Thieu that Nixon would secure a better deal for his country than either Humphrey or Johnson, and that the Democrats were effectively prepared to sell out Saigon in order to secure peace at any price. If Chennault could convince Thieu to stay away from the negotiating table, the talks would collapse, LBJ would look foolish and the Democrats’ 11th-hour gambit would fail.

Incredibly, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey knew of Nixon’s maneuvers. The National Security Agency intercepted cables between Thieu and his ambassador in Washington, D.C. (“[I am] still in contact with the Nixon entourage, which continues to be the favorite despite the uncertainty provoked by the news of an imminent bombing halt,” one communiqué began.) On the basis of these cables, LBJ ordered the FBI to tap Chennault’s phone the bureau, in turn, concluded that she “contacted Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem and advised him that she had received a message from her boss (not further identified) which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win’ and that her boss also said, ‘Hold on, he understands all of it.’”

Johnson was furious. He regarded Nixon’s willful interference as “treason” (and, indeed, it appeared to be a gross violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits individuals from negotiating with foreign governments. Yet he and Humphrey agreed not to go public. They lacked a definitive “smoking gun” that tied Nixon to the arrangement, and they were loath to compromise American intelligence services by acknowledging the taps and intercepts.

In the end, Nixon’s October surprise trumped LBJ’s. On November 2, Thieu announced that “the government of South Vietnam deeply regrets not being able to participate in the [peace] talks,” and as quickly as it had emerged, the euphoria over LBJ’s October 31 announcement broke. Without South Vietnamese participation in the Paris talks, there was little chance of final resolution.

It’s impossible to say whether Nixon’s October surprise was decisive. The election results were painfully close, with Nixon taking 43.4 percent of the popular vote to 42.7 percent for Humphrey and 13.5 percent for Wallace. But it’s eminently plausible that a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough might have swung the map to Humphrey.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Nixon violated the law to win a presidential election. Neither would it be the last time that a foreign power intervened in an American presidential election.

On November 4, 1979, roughly 3,000 Iranian university students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 63 American diplomats and servicemen hostage.

It was all precipitated by a dramatic regime change in the Islamic state. Since 1953, when the CIA helped coordinate the overthrow of nationalist Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in an effort to safeguard western oil concerns in the region, the American government had provided generous economic and military assistance to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. A secularist who strove to modernize his country, the shah was also a corrupt authoritarian who embezzled billions of dollars in public funds and employed brute force against his political opponents.

When a loose coalition of Muslim fundamentalists, middle-class reformers and military dissidents finally toppled his regime in February 1979, the U.S. government faced a difficult decision: It could either cooperate with the new head of the Islamic state— Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhulla Musawi Khomeini, an Islamic fundamentalist who harbored a strong anti-American bias—or keep its distance. Declining to use military force to help restore the shah to power, the Carter administration also allowed the exiled shah to enter the United States in late 1979 to seek cancer treatment. When Carter refused the ayatollah’s demands that the shah be returned to Iran to face trial, and that his personal wealth be turned over to the state, student radicals in Tehran decided to strike back at the “Great Satan.”

The hostage crisis proved a weight around President Jimmy Carter’s neck. Throughout the fall of 1980, Carter’s team had hoped against hope for a resolution to the standoff. For a time, it seemed possible that Iran might release the hostages before the election. They had had served their purpose from a propaganda standpoint and were becoming an unnecessary burden to the Islamic government in Tehran. With Iran now locked in a costly war with its neighbor, Iraq, and with the shah dead of cancer, the ayatollah was eager to unfreeze his country’s foreign-held assets. Ronald Reagan’s advisers were also well aware that negotiations between Iran and the United States were nearing a successful resolution. But Reagan also understood that Iran might hold the key to the election—so much so that he deployed his running mate, George H. W. Bush, former President Gerald Ford, and Henry Kissinger to decry foreign “manipulation” of an American election.

He needn’t have worried. If Tehran was tipping the scale, it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter, whom the ayatollah despised—in part for his decision to admit the shah for treatment, and because Carter ordered a military rescue operation (albeit, a badly bungled one). After stalling long enough to see the incumbent president vanquished at the polls, the ayatollah then waited quite literally until the moment he left office before releasing the American captives. Experts then and since agree that the timing could not have been coincidental.

For many years, there were persistent whispers in the Beltway that Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, who later became CIA director, colluded with persons close to the ayatollah to delay the release of the hostages. But there is no compelling evidence to suggest this ever happened, just as there is a scant basis for conservative claims that Senator Edward Kennedy used a go-between in 1984, in an unsuccessful attempt to involve the Soviet Union in the 1984 presidential election.

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of January 20, 1981—inauguration day, Carter phoned Reagan from his desk in the Oval Office. It was likely that the captives would be released within a matter of hours, he explained. It had taken weeks to iron out the details of the agreement, but in the end, the ayatollah’s representatives had consented to cutting the Americans loose in exchange for a transfer of $9 billion in frozen Iranian assets. Carter was dressed in a casual cardigan sweater and open collar shirt. The lines on his face betrayed the many sleepless nights he had passed since the November election. More than anything, he wanted to see the hostages released during his presidency.

At 10:25 a.m., Roselyn Carter called down from the residence to urge her husband to dress for Reagan’s inauguration. In a short while, the Reagans would arrive for coffee and tea, and both couples would board a limousine for the short drive to the Capitol. It was left to Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, to monitor the situation in Tehran and inform Carter the minute that the planes carrying the American hostages took off for Europe.

From his limousine—and then from Air Force One, which was waiting on the tarmac during the inauguration ceremony to shuttle the Carters back home—Jordan kept in close communication with the White House Situation Room. The hostages were sitting on an airport runway in Tehran, awaiting clearance to take off. With one eye on a television in the main cabin on Air Force One Jordan could see the tension in Carter’s eyes. Vice President George Bush had already taken the oath of office. In a matter of minutes, power would be transferred to the new president. After a bruising four years in office and a trying re-election campaign, Carter seemed destined to leave the presidency without realizing his greatest goal.

“I called the situation room on the secure communications system to inquire about the hostages,” Jordan later wrote. “The person who answered the phone asked me to hold on for a minute. He came back on and said he was sorry but the information was not available. ‘But I’m calling on a secure phone,’ I protested. ‘That’s not the problem, Mr. Jordan. Mr. Carter is no longer president, so classified information is no longer available to you.’”

Moments after Reagan raised his right hand to take the oath of office, planes carrying the American hostages began their flight from Tehran.

Questions abound regarding the probable Russian hack of the DNC email. Of course, it’s not quite the same: Unlike Richard Nixon, who willfully committed a criminal act by negotiating as a private citizen with a foreign power, Donald Trump almost certainly had no foreknowledge of the attack. In this sense, he was likely just as unwitting a beneficiary of events as Ronald Reagan in 1980. At least, that was the case until this morning, when Trump actively solicited the criminal intercession of a foreign government in a U.S. presidential election. Now, all bets are off.

It seems all but certain that Vladimir Putin has decided to insert himself in the presidential campaign process to punish a candidate whom he doesn’t like (Hillary Clinton) in favor of one with whom he can do business.


On Dec. 22, 2020, Reuters published an exclusive report here detailing an investigation into a data theft at Leonardo that took place between 2015 and 2017.

Italian police said on Dec. 5, 2020 that they had arrested Arturo D’Elia and Antonio Rossi, who had both worked at Leonardo, over their alleged role in hacking 94 computers, 33 of which were located at the group’s plant in Pomigliano, a municipality in Naples. The hacking took place years prior to the 2020 U.S. election (between 2015 and 2017).

The 108-page arrest warrant examined by Reuters reporters showed that the hack appeared to target details of Europe’s biggest unmanned fighter jet program and aircraft used by the military and police. There is no mention of the U.S. election anywhere in the document. (In the 108-page the judge cited different potential reasons behind the 2015-2017 hacking for which D’Elia is under investigation: “the use of data for industrial and commercial purposes, blackmail and military espionage activities or simply the intention to damage the image of the company by demonstrating . its organizational and IT vulnerability.”)

Reuters spoke via phone with D’Elia’s lawyer Nicola Naponiello, who previously provided Reuters with comment for the Dec. 22 report on the Leonardo investigation. Naponiello said that when his client was questioned by Naples prosecutors on Jan. 12, he denied any involvement in an alleged plan to change the outcome of U.S elections. According to Naponiello, who was assisting his client during the questioning, D’Elia called any allegations of his involvement in a plan against Trump “pure fantasy.”

Reuters reporters also spoke with a Naples police officer involved in the arrest of D’Elia who said that Naples prosecutors are now looking into the allegations of D’Elia’s interference in the U.S. election, but have deemed the conspiracy theory likely baseless. The officer also told Reuters that during police questioning in December, D’Elia made no mention of a plot involving Trump.

In addition, a spokesperson for Leonardo told Reuters on the phone that D’Elia, a former consultant for the company, had not worked for Leonardo since 2017.

Watch the video: Η παρέμβαση της Μόσχας στις αμερικανικές εκλογές, ο Άσαντ και ο ISIS (January 2022).