Material stolen from Open Society Foundations in a cyber-attack is being used to embarrass and discredit us. These Watergate-style tactics cant be allowed to succeed
Hackers are stepping up their cyber-attacks on American democratic institutions. The Open Society Foundations, the global philanthropy I lead, is among many to have been targeted. DC Leaks has posted over 2,500 documents reflecting our grant-making strategies over the last decade, prompting a flurry of press reports from far-right news sites in the US and around the world.
Earlier this summer, a shadowy organization called DC Leaks, believed by authorities to be a front for Russian operatives, posted internal communications from the Democratic National Committee. The group also targeted a retired Nato commander, Republican state officials and staffers for several US senators. In recent days, there have been reports of attempted hacks of the New York Times and evidence of a breach of election databases in two states prompting the homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, to urge state elections officials to shore up security of their voting systems, in anticipation of possible attempts to interfere with US elections in November.
Im sure all of us targeted by DC Leaks feel angry about the intrusion and worried about the damage it may do. Steal enough documents, and youre bound to find some unguarded speculation and harsh judgments. But most of what DC Leaks is publishing, at least about the Open Society Foundations and our grantees, is work were proud to be doing. Indeed, all the targets of the hacks this summer Democrats, Republicans, generals, newspapers and election officials are champions of democracy.
These cyber-attacks can be truly damaging, as US General Philip Breedlove, the retired Nato commander, learned when his personal emails were published, including one in which he complained about White House officials. Most famously, the DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, lost her job because the leaks revealed staffers apparently tilting the party machinery against Bernie Sanders. But most of what DC Leaks has publicized is neither sinister nor shameful. The supposed controversies are elevated by being exposed through stolen messages and documents, even if what is revealed was already widely known.
Consider the revelations with which we at the Open Society Foundations have had to contend since DC Leaks stole documents from an online community of ours. One headline reads: Soros Paid Al Gore MILLIONS to Push Aggressive US Action On Global Warming. Indeed, for over a decade the Open Society Foundations have supported several efforts to spur aggressive action on climate change. We were also accused of opportunistically seeking to improve police accountability in Baltimore an idea endorsed by the Department of Justice.
Other headlines decry our work internationally: our support for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and fixing the broken European migration system. All true, as is our support for the reform government of the new Ukraine, and our opposition to Islamophobia in both Europe and the United States. This and much more have been revealed by DC Leaks, information aptly described in a Sunday editorial by the Boston Herald as: the category of just because its hacked doesnt make it news.
Dont get me wrong: being hacked is a terrible invasion and it does real harm. We are scrambling to protect the lives of grantees working in dangerous places. We also need to repair relationships where our candid views made public may have caused offense. We will work around the clock to safeguard every grantee and heal every breach. But we also know why weve been attacked: because like the others in the hackers sights we believe in human rights, democracy and open societies, and were willing to act on our principles.
Todays political hackers remind me of the Watergate burglars, only now theyre breaking into servers instead of offices. Now, as then, the political bosses behind these break-ins hope to use the stolen material to embarrass or discredit their enemies. But the lesson of Watergate is that this tactic can easily boomerang, bolstering the democratic credentials of those attacked, and bringing the real discredit back on the dirty tricksters.
Think of the organizations whose work has been stolen by DC Leaks as a new Enemies List reminiscent of the roster President Nixon maintained of 20 journalists, lawyers, politicians and other public figures whom he reviled. It was certainly dangerous to be among the presidents 20 enemies, but as Nixons power waned, being on the list became a badge of honor.
At least a couple of those included later described it as among their greatest achievements. Yes, you had been under surveillance and perhaps worse: maybe your office was burglarized, your phone calls tapped or your career derailed. But inclusion was also a mark of effectiveness: you had been speaking up enough to disturb a president who himself proved to be the true enemy of American democracy.
These recent intrusions, and I expect there will be more, are a symptom of an aggressive assault on democratic principles that is taking place globally. As a private philanthropy, we have the independence to persist. We will learn from DC Leaks and will continue to support open society no matter whose enemies lists we land on.