One would never know from all the lofty talk about “attacks on our democracy” and the evils of “foreign interference in our elections” that our country — the good ol’ U.S. of A. — is the most active country in the world in attempting to influence the politics, governance, and even the elections of foreign nations. This will be obvious to any Democrat in good standing who fondly remembers President Obama’s efforts to, for example, unseat Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to install the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, to warn Britain off leaving the European Union, and to oust Moammar Qaddafi from Libya under the guise of a U.N. resolution to protect civilians. (Recall that oh-so-hilarious quip from Little Caesar herself, Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.”)
As this short waltz down memory lane illustrates, many of our machinations do not go so well. But others, including many that will remain secret for decades because that’s key to their success, are triumphs that contribute to the security and prosperity of the U.S. and the world.
Why would we want to make this vital work more difficult? Foreign governments share intelligence with us freely in the expectation that the sharing will remain confidential. It may be acted on, but not with any trace of where the information came from. The arrangement is reciprocal, enabling us to share intelligence confidentially and without becoming too entangled in another country’s internal disputes. If we start creating duties to report foreign outreach to the authorities, we will inevitably receive less intelligence of many kinds — it will not just be election-related information that is withheld. Moreover, if we create a norm that all foreign efforts to influence another country’s politics and elections are to be seen as hostile provocations, our own efforts to influence events in other countries will be regarded as provocations; American agents will be more aggressively policed, and their missions will become more difficult to accomplish. Why, just for the sake of scoring some transient political points, would we create anti-information norms that simultaneously contradict our society’s commitment to the free exchange of information and undermine our government’s capacity to influence events in the world — events that matter to us?