By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
DECEMBER 2019—The Senate recently passed legislation directing the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center “to provide state and local officials with access to security tools and procedures, as well as participation in joint cybersecurity exercises.” According to Sen. Gary Peters, one of the bill’s cosponsors, the measure will “ensure all levels of government can bolster their defenses and protect themselves from sophisticated cyberattacks.” With Russia using cyberspace to mount a relentless campaign of misinformation and influence operations against America’s political system and election infrastructure, state election agencies need those tools and the federal government needs to take concerted action in order to protect our republic.
Before getting into what that action might entail, it’s important to detail the scale and scope of Russian interference in America’s political system.
Using cyber-technologies as well as traditional spy-craft, Russia in 2016 conducted a strategic-influence operation that penetrated the Clinton campaign, Democratic National Committee and Trump campaign; attempted to hack into the Republican National Committee; used “weaponized leaks” to undermine confidence in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, as Time magazine reports, “spread propaganda on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram” and “staged rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania.” Putin’s Russia also attempted to exacerbate racial tensions in America and tried to influence policymakers through compromising material.
Although Russia did not tamper with ballots, Russia’s actions raised its profile and cast a shadow over our elections. For instance, 68 percent of Americans express concern that Russia will interfere in future elections.
Beyond our borders and balloting sites, Freedom House reports that Russia has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through…theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.” Targeted allies include the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, Canada, Lithuania, Poland and Britain, as Newsweek reports. A European Union investigation adds that Russia used disinformation operations to influence political outcomes in France. All told, Russia has carried out strategic-influence operations targeting political systems in at least 27 countries,
In addition, Russia has tried to sway public opinion via false-front organizations and via manipulation of American media outlets. Kristofer Harrison, who worked in the State Department and Defense Department during the administration of President George W. Bush, points to examples at Bloomberg, Reuters and the New York Times.
Moscow’s goal in these actions, according a U.S. intelligence report, is to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” Policymakers on both sides of the aisle rightly describe Russia’s behavior as “an act of war.”
Putin’s goal—in 2016 and 2020—is not so much to choose winners and losers, but rather to sow chaos and distrust, to undermine our institutions, and to weaken whoever ends up winning on Election Day. Consider how Russia’s hacking into U.S. political campaigns, manipulation of social media and use of weaponized leaks first eroded support for the Clinton campaign; then undermined the legitimacy of the Trump administration; and finally, as former CIA official Mark Kelton concludes, helped “advance Putin’s overarching goals of degrading American power, denigrating American ideals, and driving a wedge between President Trump and the U.S. intelligence community.”
Many of Putin’s methods may be new, but the challenge posed by foreign influence in the U.S. political process is old.
Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 68 that given “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” the Constitution should erect “every practicable obstacle” to prevent “intrigue and corruption.” Likewise, in his farewell address, President George Washington thundered against the “insidious wiles of foreign influence,” “mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and “avenues to foreign influence.” “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” he observed, urging his countrymen “to be constantly awake” to such dangers.
It pays to recall that Russia is led by a former KGB intelligence officer trained in the dark arts of disinformation and influence operations. In this light, NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 that provided a roadmap for waging the Cold War, seems strangely relevant. NSC-68 noted that Moscow’s “preferred technique is to subvert by infiltration and intimidation,” that “every institution of our society is an instrument which it is sought to stultify and turn against our purposes,” that institutions “that touch most closely our material and moral strength are obviously the prime targets,” that Moscow’s objective is to prevent those institutions “from serving our ends and thus to make them sources of confusion in our economy, our culture and our body politic.”
Those words were written in 1950, yet aptly describe 2019.
To be sure, revelations of Russian interference in America’s political-electoral system are deeply troubling. But they are also clarifying: Given Russia’s actions in 2016, there should be no question as to whether Putin is a friend, no illusions that Putin can be mollified by promises of “resets” or post-election “flexibility,” no debate over the threat posed by a revisionist Russia.
The good news amidst all the troubling news is that key institutions—Congress, intel agencies, state and local election bureaus—have been awakened to the dangers posed by Russia’s strategic-influence operations. Day by day, these institutions are exploring and exposing Russian intrusion into the U.S. political system. In addition, news outlets that were once openly dismissive of those who dared argue that Putin’s Russia was/is a threat now seem alert to Russia’s malign actions.
With all that as a backdrop, it’s abundantly clear that President Barack Obama’s too little, too late and toothless “cut it out” warning to Putin as well as President Donald Trump’s jarring echo of Putin’s promise that “it’s not Russia” have failed to address the threat.
The Senate bill aimed at shoring up state and local cyber-defenses points the way toward the kind of action needed to protect our political system from Putin.
To preserve the integrity of America’s political-electoral institutions, Congress should create a joint committee of seasoned members dedicated to a) monitoring, investigating and exposing attempts by Russia and other foreign entities to interfere in the U.S. political-electoral system; b) identifying individuals and entities in the U.S. that collaborate with or work on behalf of hostile governments like Russia; and c) securing sustained funding to help state and local election agencies shield themselves from foreign intrusion.
That last point highlights the genius of America’s decentralized election system. Its highly diffuse nature—with the electoral process governed not by some national agency, but rather by 50 states and 3,141 counties—makes it difficult for a foreign power to manipulate outcomes. Even so, evidence of Russian efforts to penetrate local election systems and acquire firms that handle voter-registration data are raising flags. Federal resources can help expose these efforts and harden these targets.
Turning from defense to offense, Congress should reopen the U.S. Information Agency, which was shut down in 1999. Related, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, former commander of U.S. European Command, recommends strengthening and unleashing the Russian Information Group (a joint effort of U.S European Command and the State Department) and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (a project charged with countering foreign disinformation).
The U.S. government must also offer moral support to democratic opposition movements. As President Ronald Reagan argued, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Toward that end, Washington should provide a sturdy platform to human-rights activists, journalists and political dissidents from Russia; use high-profile settings to highlight Russia’s democracy deficit; and draw attention—relentlessly and repeatedly—to Putin’s assault on human rights, civil society, religious liberty and political pluralism.
To his credit, Trump took this very tack vis-à-vis North Korea during his 2018 State of the Union address. It’s time to use the bully pulpit in the same way against Putin. If the president is unwilling to do so, leaders in Congress and at relevant agencies must fill the vacuum, as DNI Director Dan Coats did during his tenure and as FBI Director Christopher Wray has done.
America’s republic is not the only nation under assault. Just as Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy,” the world’s leading democratic groupings—the G-7, European Union, NATO and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia—should create a pool of resources to rebuild the infrastructure of democracy, expose Moscow’s meddling, and help those in the Kremlin’s crosshairs preserve their democratic institutions. The forces of tyranny were far stronger, and the world’s roster of democracies far smaller, back then. Yet Reagan was not intimidated. Instead, he boldly argued that “We must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” America took those actions in the 20th century; it must do no less in the 21st.
Photo: The US Department of Homeland Security National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) in Arlington, Virginia, November 6, 2018 (Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)