Another day on the campaign trail, another hack of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This time it’s an audio recording of the Democratic presidential candidate speaking to donors at a February fundraiser in northern Virginia, and the subject isn’t just the usual stuff of politics: It goes to the heart of American nuclear strategy.
The recording that was passed to the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon website marks another alarming episode in a campaign season marked by a series of digital thefts that security experts believe have been carried out by Russian-backed hackers to disrupt the U.S. presidential election.
The hack reinforces concerns that Russia is trying to influence and interfere in the U.S. election in favor of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and whose aides have long had friendly ties to Moscow and its allies. Both the Clinton campaign and lawmakers have alleged that Russia is attempting to meddle in the election.
But it’s not clear this latest hack will have much of an effect on the race for the White House, as the recording touches on questions of longer-term nuclear modernization, as well as relatively obscure details of the Defense Department’s nuclear programs that are unfamiliar to most voters — and apparently even to Clinton herself.
In the recording, made at a routine fundraising event at one supporter’s home in the leafy Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, Clinton questions the elaborate, long-term $1 trillion modernization plan for the country’s nuclear force, which is supported by President Barack Obama’s administration, and whether and to what degree all of it is needed.
“Do we have to do any of it? If we have to do some of it, how much do we have to do?” she asked.
The timing of the leak will feed suspicions that Moscow’s proxies are somehow involved. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrapped up a four-day swing through some of the nation’s most critical nuclear missile installations, touting the U.S. arsenal and promising hundreds of billions of dollars in upgrades in the coming years.
The Pentagon plans to spend $108 billion over the next five years to maintain and upgrade its nuclear force, including the nuclear-tipped cruise missile program.
Speaking Monday at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Carter said Washington has underfunded nuclear weapons modernization over the past 25 years — while Russia and China have ramped up their efforts — and many systems “have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives. So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms [and] keeping them. It’s really a choice between replacing them [and] losing them.”
The next day at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Carter went further, suggesting that Washington should “adapt” traditional conceptions of deterrence in the face of North Korea’s unpredictability and Russian modernization programs. “We can’t just do things the old way,” he said. “We have to look at those whom we’re deterring and adjust what we’re doing to take that into account.”
Carter’s comments marked one of the most strident defenses of the American military’s nuclear capability by a U.S. official in years, analysts say.
“He emphasized in a forward-leaning and deliberate way how nuclear forces are the backbone of our forces, including conventional forces,” said Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That was an important speech.”
But it was Carter’s remark that the United States is “refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook” to deter Russia that drew a swift rebuke from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which accused Carter of “plotting a dangerous game.”
Moscow added that “Carter’s statement means that if Russia comes under attack from U.S. allies, the Americans will be ready to back it and threaten to use their nuclear weapons against us.”
The audio recording of Clinton’s remarks has also surfaced on a website called DC Leaks, which previously published large volumes of hacked emails from U.S. military and civilian officials and organizations. Researchers at the cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect have identified the site as part of information operations carried out by Russian agents against U.S. targets during the election season. The site has posted emails belonging to former Secretary of State Colin Powell; Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former commander of NATO forces in Europe; and documents from financier George Soros’s philanthropic outfit.
The audio file in question was contained in an email sent by Ian Mellul, a Democratic operative, to Nick Merrill, a Clinton official. Merrill did not respond to questions about the file and the policy differences between Clinton and the Obama administration on nuclear weapons.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the email hack, but the episode — and the fact that the Clinton campaign has been targeted yet again — will likely turn the spotlight back on the Trump campaign’s ties to Moscow.
This week, one of Trump’s advisors, Carter Page, was forced to resign after a report that he may have met with Russian officials under sanction by the United States and the European Union and that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating him for possible back-channel ties to Russian leaders. Page, a onetime consultant to and investor in the Kremlin’s state-run gas company Gazprom, has long defended Russian government policies. The Trump campaign spent days denying he was even part of the candidate’s advisory team before Page finally announced he was leaving the campaign.
In the leaked recording, Clinton stumbles on a technical question about a new nuclear weapon. A former senior Pentagon official asks Clinton if she favors scrapping a proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, known as the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon.
Clinton indicates she would oppose such a missile, signaling a less hawkish stance than Obama. But it’s not clear she entirely understands the question, as she quickly shifts to describing the dangers of tactical nuclear weapons, which are a separate category of shorter-range weapons and not what she was asked about. She refers to the 2011 arms control treaty negotiated with Russia during her tenure as secretary of state and adds that the accord did not cover tactical nuclear weapons.
The question to Clinton came from Andrew Weber, a former senior Defense Department official who has urged the Obama White House to call off the new cruise missile on grounds that it is a dangerous and unnecessary addition to America’s already vast nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. Air Force reportedly plans to buy a total of 1,000-1,100 of the new missiles at a cost of $10.8 billion, with the first missile due to be completed by 2026. They would allow nuclear capability on advanced, radar-evading bombers like the B-2 and a planned long-range bomber still under development, rather than relying on the old, slow-flying, nonstealthy B-52 bomber.
The new cruise missile has set off a debate between the Defense Department and critical defense wonks — the Pentagon wants more flexibility, while arms control experts worry it will be destabilizing — but is hardly the centerpiece or linchpin of U.S. nuclear policy.
“People are reacting to this like it means something, but it doesn’t,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and contributor to Foreign Policy. “It’s a living room in February where she’s been blindsided and is giving a pat response.”
FP staff writer Elias Groll contributed to this article.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images