German media braces itself for devious hacks as election nears

News editors will have to make tough calls on whether to publish leaked information, and how quickly

To come to Berlin as an American on the eve of Germany's next national political campaign is to go back in time to the US' own recent past, before the hacks and the (Wiki)leaks led to the paralysing debate over whether Russia intervened in our presidential election.

I arrived in this idyllic, rational and not completely batty world capital (a strange sight to these American eyes) last month to find the country's political world on tenterhooks, waiting for disruptive leaks but not knowing when or whether they might come.

A group of hackers - "not us", say the Russians; "yeah, you", say the Germans - was sitting on a huge trove of political secrets gathered over the past couple of years.

Its first big attack, on the Bundestag, the German Parliament, came in 2015. It vacuumed up some 16GB of e-mails and digital files from at least 16 members' offices, including, German officials believe, that of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Cyberthieves have since struck think-tanks related to her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and to its junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

None of the data has seen the light of day - yet. But as the newspaper Die Zeit reported, "unknown persons" have registered a new site called btleaks.com. That, the newspaper theorised, might be a vehicle through which the hackers release their digital booty ahead of the Sept 24 election, which will be a referendum on Dr Merkel, the de facto European Union leader (and, as it happens, one of the strongest Continental voices for continued Russian sanctions).

Whatever the case, if the data does leak, Germany will face a test like the one the United States faced last year. More specifically, the German media will face a test like the one the US media did.

I had to wonder: Will it do better than we did? And should we have done better in the first place?

Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign, its supporters and even some in the media itself have complained since last summer that American news organisations were all too ready to make themselves the weapons of a hostile foreign power, by happily reprinting e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton adviser John Podesta, which intelligence officials say were the fruit of Russian hacking.


Campaign posters featuring German political parties and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is leading her conservative Christian Democratic Union to the polls on Sept 24. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The charge has taken on still more potency with the investigations into whether members of Mr Donald Trump's campaign colluded with Russia. (They say they didn't; Russia denies involvement in the hacks.)

The view has its adherents in Germany, including the chief editor of the influential magazine Der Spiegel, Mr Klaus Brinkbaumer. "I wouldn't say the American media failed, but I actually do agree when somebody says they'd been weaponised and used, it's sad to say," he told me over the telephone from his headquarters in Hamburg.

"It was out there very quickly, and very, very soon, and of course there was a plan behind it," he said, "and I'm not sure every journalist who used this material understood what was behind it."

Should similarly stolen e-mails drop into the decidedly tamer German media, Mr Brinkbaumer told me, Der Spiegel would not use any information it couldn't independently verify.

"We want to be not as quick as possible but as honest as possible and as sincere as possible - that means there will be no rush," he added.

RED ALERTS ON LEAKS

The editors at Bild, Germany's largest newspaper, will go further.

"We will have a special teaser, and in the teaser we will have a banner saying 'Hacked', because 'Hacked' is more known than 'Leaked' in Germany," Mr Julian Ropcke, Bild's political editor, told me at the paper's offices in the headquarters of its corporate parent, Axel Springer.

"And then we will have every paragraph where we use leaked information in red," he said. "So we will have black and red paragraphs, and under it we will write something like, 'The information in red was leaked to manipulate your opinion about this person'."

Mr Ropcke said Bild's decisions were partly informed by what had taken place in the US, though he said he wasn't being judgmental about his overseas colleagues.

"I think we would have made the same mistakes, because it was so early and you didn't really know what was happening," he said as we spoke over Cokes in the Axel Springer Journalists Club, a throwback to a bygone newspaper era featuring original wood panelling from The London Times and sweeping views of Berlin.

Then again, US intelligence officials suspected Russian involvement in the hacking early on. At the time, though, editors at major media outlets - including The New York Times - said that if the contents of the e-mails were newsworthy, they had no choice but to report them.

Mrs Clinton's aides argue that they were covered excessively. The much bigger story, they say, was that the e-mails were allegedly the fruit of a Russian attempt to undermine the US political process.

"There were not commensurate journalistic resources committed to investigating the chain of custody of the hacked materials, compared with the easy task of just regurgitating what was in them," Mr Brian Fallon, Mrs Clinton's former press secretary, told me over the phone.

Sensitive to charges of excuse-making, Mr Fallon added: "I'm not saying the media is solely to blame. The Clinton campaign made plenty of mistakes." But that "shouldn't free the media from looking at itself if this is going to be the norm - where foreign governments are going to interfere in elections".

Mr Fallon acknowledged there had been some newsworthy material in the stolen e-mails. If there hadn't been, the Democratic National Committee chairman, Ms Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, would not have had to resign (over e-mails showing she favoured Mrs Clinton over her rival Bernie Sanders in the primary season), and CNN would not have broken its contributors' contract with Ms Wasserman-Schultz's interim successor Donna Brazile (over e-mails showing she shared with the Clinton campaign a question proposed for a CNN/TVOne candidates' town hall-style forum).

Mr Fallon directed his criticism at less consequential tidbits, like gossipy quips captured in the e-mail exchanges of Mr Podesta and the prominent Clinton supporter Neera Tanden. They fed a stream of blog items and social media posts, he said, that allowed "the Russians to manipulate the news media's attention".

They also fed the American media's voracious appetite for bite-size, traffic-driving titbits that are the opiates of the nation's new information addiction.

THE WHOLE STORY

Several people I spoke with in Germany said they were optimistic that news of the hack-and-leak operation in the US had helped prepare Europe for similar efforts. They pointed to France, where leaks of stolen e-mails from Mr Emmanuel Macron's political movement, En Marche, failed to sway the electorate there.

The French newspaper Le Monde, for instance, declared that it would not allow itself to be "manipulated by the publishing agenda of anonymous actors".

But the leaks also hit just hours before a legal blackout that forbids candidates and media to share "electoral propaganda" 44 hours ahead of voting. And, as Le Monde wrote, it was not enough time to verify any newsworthy material, anyway.

It was never clear that there was much newsworthy in the leaked files to begin with.

As Mr Marcel Rosenbach, a cyber-security reporter for Der Spiegel, told me: "If there's actually something in the material that amounts to something - if there is a scandal to be reported on - that's the most important question."

In that case, the German media's fervent hopes for dealing with stolen data will face their true test.

If history - and what I know about reporters everywhere - is a guide, they will publish. That, after all, is the imperative of a free press. But getting the story right means getting the whole story, including when the leaks are part of a suspected state action aimed at swaying opinion.

If we've learnt anything so far, it's that the answer to information as a weapon is more information, as a path to the truth. And, yes, we can handle it.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'German media braces itself for devious hacks as election nears'. Print Edition | Subscribe