On 22 July 2016, Wikileaks published a gigantic dump of 20,000 e-mails sent inside the Democratic National Committee (DNC) between January and May of 2016 and hashtagged #DNCLeaks; the release was said to be the first in a series and came three days ahead of the Democratic National Convention.
What are #DNCLeaks, and why were they so controversial?
Initial information on the scope and basic information can be found in an earlier article on this web site, and summarized in an infographic tweeted by WikiLeaks on 25 July 2016:
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 25, 2016
Issues of dispute regarding the content of the leaks were legion. Unquestionably, the e-mails demonstrated that the DNC operated as an arm of the Hillary Clinton campaign, planting information in the media to flatter Clinton and damage opponent Bernie Sanders. The revelations were particularly damaging because the DNC was obligated to behave neutrally, and had repeatedly denied the demonstrated favor toward Clinton existed. Following a contentious and later debunked claim Sanders supporters “incited violence and chaos” at a Nevada caucus (and threw chairs), former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz both reiterated the now-debunked “chair” claim and at the thirty-second mark stated that campaign neutrality was part of the DNC’s charter:
As the former chairperson alluded during that May 2016 appearance on CNN, the DNC’s Charter & Bylaws (current as of 28 August 2015) held [PDF]:
The National Chairperson shall serve full time and shall receive such compensation as may be determined by agreement between the Chairperson and the Democratic National Committee. In the conduct and management of the affairs and procedures of the Democratic National Committee, particularly as they apply to the preparation and conduct of the Presidential nomination process, the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.
The later-substantiated claim was foreshadowed during a December 2015 data breach controversy during which the Sanders campaign was accused by the DNC of accessing Clinton campaign data and swiftly blocked access to a vital campaign tool. The Sanders campaign immediately filed suit [PDF] against the DNC to restore access, maintaining in a complaint that an agreement between candidates and the Committee was violated (as it allowed for 10 days to remedy a breach) and that the Clinton campaign was not sanctioned for identical actions in 2008. In another controversial communication, a DNC staffer included “a script for a new video we’d like to use to mop up some more taco bowl engagement, and demonstrate the Trump actually isn’t trying.” The language employed was seen by critics as offensive and a cynical view of the Latino vote.
What happened after WikiLeaks released the e-mails?
The release immediately made massive waves first on social media (where users widely accused Facebook and Twitter of censoring the leaks), before largely reaching the national media on 24 July 2016:
On 23 July 2016, Twitter denied accusations of censorship in response to tweets from WikiLeaks:
Immediately, social media users seized upon what were perceived as particularly worrisome e-mails among the 20,000 released. Among them were communications heavily suggesting favor to the Clinton campaign, evidence of story-planting in concert with media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Politico, an April 2016 drafted announcement proclaiming Sanders’ ostensible exit from the race, and a suggestion from DNC CFO Brad Marshall that a member of the press be tapped to smear Bernie Sanders on his religious beliefs. Media watchdog Fair.org summarized the #DNCLeaks aftermath in a compendium piece, surmising:
While it’s impossible to know whether systemic pro-Hillary Clinton bias at the DNC was decisive in the 2016 Democratic primary race, we now know beyond any doubt that such a bias not only existed, but was endemic and widespread. DNC officials worked to plant pro-Clinton stories, floated the idea of using Sanders’ secular Judaism against him in the South, and routinely ran PR spin for Clinton, even as the DNC claimed over and over it was neutral in the primary. The evidence in the leaks was so clear that Debbie Wasserman Schultz has resigned her role as DNC chair—after her speaking role at the Democratic National Convention this week was scrapped—while DNC co-chair Donna Brazile, who is replacing Wasserman Schultz in the top role, has apologized to the Sanders camp. Pro-Clinton pundits were quick to dismiss what was literally a conspiracy to railroad the Sanders campaign as nothing more than a yawn[.] … what was once dismissed out of hand—that the DNC was actively working against the Sanders campaign—is now obviously true, but not a big deal. This is a textbook PR spin pattern seen time and time again, what might be called the Snowden Cycle: X is a flaky conspiracy theory → X is revealed to be true → X is totally obvious and not newsworthy.
On 24 July 2016, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was ousted on the eve of the convention and was invited to a purely symbolic role with the Clinton campaign.
Have the leaks been authenticated?
On 24 July 2016, Politico acknowledged collusion between staffer Ken Vogel and the campaign on a piece prior to its submission to editors. The same outlet reported that Marshall apologized for his pitching of a religious smear. Alongside Wasserman Schultz’s ouster and an apology to the Sanders campaign by Donna Brazile, the discrete developments were widely viewed as indirect confirmation the leaked e-mails were authentic:
Who is responsible for the leaks? Are Russian spies trying to install Donald Trump as President?
Commentator and Democrat Van Jones vocally denounced the DNC collusion with the media:
Those who trade integrity for access, eventually wind up with neither. Those who choose integrity over access, eventually wind up with both. — Van Jones (@VanJones68) July 24, 2016
Other Democrats took a different stance on the #DNCLeaks scandal. As what appeared to be an actual conspiracy was unearthed in real time, many substituted a second conspiracy in its place holding that WikiLeaks and/or hackers were working with the Russian government in order to essentially install Donald Trump as President. Fair.org noted that the theory lay largely unproved since first floated by a DNC contractor in June 2016:
Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall (7/23/16) released a rather paranoid rundown the day of the leaks on how Putin was conspiring with Trump (a fairly good debunking of which can be found here), soon after dismissing the substance of the leaks as Russian propaganda white noise. Manysoonfollowedsuit: The DNC leaks as Russian spy operation was the preferred talking point of the day, omitting or glossing over what the leaks actually entailed. The actual culpability of Russia for those leaks, it’s worth noting, is still unproven. The only three parties that have audited the hack are contractors for the US government, and the DNC’s initial story has since changed considerably. At first the DNC (and by extension their security firm CrowdStrike) said ”no financial, donor or personal information appears to have been accessed or taken,” but this later turned out not to be true at all. Six weeks since the hack was first revealed by the Washington Post(6/14/16), no one in the US government, including the FBI and White House (who have reportedly reviewed the situation in detail), have implicated or even suggested Russian involvement in the leak–neither on the record nor anonymously. Thus far, all suggestions to this effect have taken place outside the organs of the United States government — a common and deliberate conflation that even led to this correction in the Vox recap of the situation (7/23/16): Correction: I misread the Washington Post‘s story on last month’s DNC hack and misattributed the Russia link to the US government rather than independent security researchers.
The cited Talking Points Memo piece by Marshall didn’t mention the leaks by name nor outwardly connect them to Russia, it simply made a vague case for Donald Trump maintaining a “bromance” with Vladimir Putin vis a vis advisor Paul Manafort. On 24 July 2016, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said “voters need to reflect” on the possibility floated by unnamed “experts” (mentioned multiple times but not specified) that Russian operatives were affirmatively working to elect Trump via the release:
Although Mook claimed the timing was suspect, WikiLeaks held:
#DNCLeak: WikiLeaks chose the publishing date. As usual, we published as soon as the docs were verified & as fast as resources permitted.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
Shortly after the Russia conspiracy theory was injected into the news cycle by the DNC and its contractor Crowdstrike Bloomberg reported DNC officials believed drawing such a connection might outweigh voter concern over the content of then-forthcoming leaks:
The hackers’ link to the Russian government was first identified by CrowdStrike Inc., working for the Democratic Party. A law firm reviewing the DNC’s initial findings, Baker & McKenzie, has begun working with three additional security firms — FireEye Inc., Palo Alto Networks Inc. and Fidelis Cybersecurity — to confirm the link, according to two people familiar with the matter, underscoring Democrats’ concerns that the stolen information could be used to try to influence the outcome of the November election. If the Democrats can show the hidden hand of Russian intelligence agencies, they believe that voter outrage will probably outweigh any embarrassing revelations, a person familiar with the party’s thinking said.
Almost exactly a month later, Vox reported on 23 July 2016 that evidence from the interim period to support the widespread conspiracy theory was questionable:
Still, it’s worth being clear that there’s zero evidence that Trump or Manafort has direct ties to the Russian government. On the other hand, there is significant circumstantial evidence that the attacks on the DNC were closely linked to Russian intelligence agencies. Multiple security researchers have looked at forensic evidence from the attacks and concluded that the attackers used the same kind of techniques that Russian intelligence agencies have used against other targets around the world.
Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, known primarily in part for his collaboration with former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden to leak damaging information about surveillance, reiterated that the claim appeared to come solely from Democratic officials (i.e., individuals interested in discrediting the source of the leaks to bury their content):
WikiLeaks also weighed in on the claims, repeatedly maintaining anyone claiming to know the source of the leaks was lying:
Note on sourcing #DNCLeaks. We have, as usual, not revealed our sources. Anyone who claims to know who our source is has no credibility.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 22, 2016
Clinton campaign pushing lame conspiracy smear that we are Russian agents. Last time we were Mossad. Get it right. https://t.co/WrTt175zfe
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
Clinton campaign pushing a lot of ‘Russia’ spin to divert from #DNCLeak. We have not revealed our sources & no one disputes veracity.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
Wikileaks also suggested the leak might have come from inside the DNC. Similarly, in a July 2016 interview with Democracy Now! Assange insinuated that the leaks were internal in nature. Moreover, Assange stated that the DNC’s “Russian spies” claim did not itself agree with the dates it provided for breaches. Assange referenced the above-embedded interview [audio] between Robby Mook and Jake Tapper; Assange stated that the clip was cut off early, and Mook was unable to name the “experts” referenced:
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Robby Mook citing experts saying the DNC emails were leaked by the Russians. You were the one who released these 20,000 emails, Julian Assange. Where did you get them? JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, what’s not in that clip there by Robby is that, just afterwards, he was asked by Jake Tapper, “Who are these experts? Can you name them?” The answer was no, a refusal to name the experts. But we have seen one of the experts, so-called experts, that the Democratic Party is trying to base its incredible conspiracy theory on about WikiLeaks. And that is this—what we jokingly refer to as the NSA dick pic guy. He’s a former National Security Agency agent who started to produce conspiracy theories about us in 2013, when we were involved in the Edward Snowden rescue, as a means to try and undermine the Snowden publications, subsequently embroiled in some amateur pornography scandal. That’s why they don’t want to name their experts, because they are people like this. In relation to sourcing, I can say some things. A, we never reveal our sources, obviously. That’s what we pride ourselves on. And we won’t in this case, either. But no one knows who our source is. It’s simply speculation. It’s, I think, interesting and acceptable to speculate who our sources are. But if we’re talking about the DNC, there’s lots of consultants that have access, lots of programmers. And the DNC has been hacked dozens and dozens of times. Even according to its own reports, it had been hacked extensively over the last few years. And the dates of the emails that we published are significantly after all, or all but one—it’s not clear—of the hacking allegations that the DNC says have occurred.
Are any additional leaks anticipated?
According to WikiLeaks, the dump was part of a “series.” However, that outlet didn’t provide a timeline for further leaks:
Have the leaks thus far impacted the convention?
As of early on 25 July 2016, the convention wasn’t officially underway. But in addition to Wasserman Schultz’s cold reception at the Florida delegation’s breakfast on that morning, Sanders was cheered by delegates for vowing to defeat Trump but booed for suggesting a goal of electing Clinton:
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) July 25, 2016
It remained unclear whether further #DNCLeaks would appear prior to or during the convention. In the late afternoon on 25 July 2016, the DNC released a formal apology to Sen. Sanders, his supporters, and the party for their role in the scandal: