Photo: TASS/Valery Sharifulin

By Edward Lucas, CEPA

Russia’s hacking and leaking is proving a far more potent threat to our democracy than nuclear weapons.

Why launch warheads when you can blow up a political system from inside? That is the message of the latest WikiLeaks “exposé” of CIA hacking tools.

The truth is simple. Intelligence agencies conduct intelligence operations. There is a clue in the name.

Western intelligence agencies spy on our adversaries—Russia, China, Iran, organized crime and other targets. That is what they are paid to do. They recruit agents and also use electronic tricks. They work on their own and in conjunction with allies.

They are rather good at this. It would be surprising—and a real scandal—if they were not.

Neither in the material stolen by the defector Edward Snowden, nor in the latest data heist from the CIA, is there the slightest sign of American, British or allied services doing anything illegal or unethical.

They are not spying to serve U.S. corporate interests. Nor are they targeting Western governments’ domestic political opponents.

The CIA collects lists of vulnerabilities in old operating systems. So do other agencies. These do not “bypass” encrypted communications such as Signal, WhatsApp and the like. The real point is that encryption is now ubiquitous, free and convenient. Spy agencies can’t crack it. So they have to attack the “end-point” instead.

That means getting into computers, smartphones and other devices; anyone with the slightest interest in intelligence or computer security knows that cracking these “end-points” has been an espionage priority for five years or more.

One real scandal is that the CIA got breached at all. The agency admits that a contractor is the likely source. Using outsiders may save money and increase flexibility, but it is bad for security. Using only public employees motivated by patriotism rather than careerism, who have taken a lifelong vow of confidentiality, may cost more money in the short term, but it saves a lot in the long term.

An even bigger scandal is WikiLeaks itself. I was a huge fan of WikiLeaks when it first started. But it has long abandoned the commendable cause of genuine whistle-blowers, who risk their careers or jail to expose corporate or government wrongdoing. WikiLeaks is highly selective. It never publishes leaked material that damages Russia or China. It dumps large amounts of documents all at once, accompanied by sensational, misleading press releases and tweets.

For example, it implies that the CIA could have faked Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

That would be illegal, insanely risky and politically inconceivable: The CIA, under a Democratic administration, hacks into a Democratic candidate’s campaign and releases damaging e-mails because the spies knew that Hillary Clinton would lose and wanted to taint Donald Trump’s eventual victory? Implausible, even by Hollywood standards.

More plausibly, WikiLeaks—wittingly or unwittingly—is helping Russia’s attempt to destroy the American political system by injecting fear, uncertainty and doubt into an already highly polarized and overheated environment.

It suits the Kremlin to have a menacing reputation. But we should remember that Russia is not a superpower. It has a California-sized economy based on old-fashioned natural resource industries. Its infrastructure, public services and demographic outlook are dire.

But Vladimir Putin brilliantly exploits the West’s weaknesses. It systematically attacks trust—in the media, in institutions, in politicians, between countries.

Russia’s tactics work. But only because we let it.

By Edward Lucas, CEPA

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.