The first foreign power to interfere directly in a United States presidential election was not Russia - but France. The date of this interference was not 2016 but 1796, and the intended beneficiary not Donald Trump but Thomas Jefferson. The French ambassador in the US tried to promote Jefferson, a democrat and francophile, against the federalist and anglophile John Adams. The move backfired, and helped Adams to win. Now, fast forward 150 years. During the cold war, and even afterwards, both the US and the Soviet Union tried, mostly surreptitiously, occasionally bloodily, sometimes successfully, to shape elections in many parts of the world. So, whatever else there is to say about Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 US election, do not make the mistake of saying that such a thing is unprecedented - because it is not.
Nevertheless, however you slice and dice it, Russia's apparent involvement in America's 2016 election is indefensible. The charge, made in a declassified intelligence report published in Washington at the end of last week by the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, is a stark one. It says that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, personally ordered a campaign of influence in 2016 to undermine faith in the US democratic system, to denigrate Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump. Russia did this, the report alleges, by both covert and overt means, including Moscow-funded hacking, trolling and other dirty work, as well as by accessing state- and local-level election arrangements, though not election counts.
The report judges that Russia's 2016 interference represents "a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort", and that its success signals a "new normal" that will be attempted elsewhere, notably in Europe, where the Netherlands, France and Germany all face elections this year. This is serious stuff. It would be naive to dismiss it merely as propaganda or as fake news, or to brush it aside as the sort of thing that all governments always do - as the al-Jazeera sting on an Israeli diplomat in London, reported at the weekend, may tempt some to assert. The intelligence assessment not only explicitly denies these possibilities, but its very publication, which truly is unprecedented, is at least suggestive that the charges are solidly based. The charges, if true, would confirm not just a state-on-state threat but a system-on-system one.