On Monday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) confirmed to Politico that it is working to establish a Foreign Malign Influence Center. The center, which was first authorized as part of the 2020 Defense Authorization bill, will serve as a hub for analyzing and informing policymakers about foreign attempts to exert influence in the United States. Experts have long recommended the creation of the center, and Politico reports that ODNI is continuing to review proposals to determine its appropriate size and structure. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines expressed optimism that the center could serve as a starting point for “whole-of-government efforts” to combatting malign influence. To ensure that the center is able to fulfill this goal, ODNI should focus on empowering the center to look beyond elections, cut across bureaucratic stovepipes, collaborate with the private sector, and quickly share information with both allies and the public.
Thinking Beyond Elections
The Foreign Malign Influence Center should be staffed and resourced to address the full spectrum of malign influence efforts beyond just election interference. While elections are important flash points for foreign influence, focusing too heavily on them risks missing the true goals of autocratic influence operations, which are to undermine democratic alliances, institutions, and values. In the wake of the 2016 election, Russian interference efforts in the United States did not slow down; in fact they increased—along with the budget for the Internet Research Agency (often referred to as Putin’s “troll farm”). Autocratic actors work continuously to attack democratic institutions and undermine free societies, seizing on social and economic issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic, as well as political ones. The Foreign Malign Influence Center should be empowered to assess the full scope of this threat.
Cutting Across Stovepipes
The legislation authorizing the center calls for it to include “analysts from all elements of the intelligence community” and for it to have access to “all intelligence and other reporting” on foreign malign influence available to the U.S. government. This cross-government coordination is essential, as different stakeholders and agencies within the U.S. government will have visibility into different pieces of foreign influence efforts. For example, the Department of the Treasury will have unique visibility into autocratic malign finance, while the embassies of the State Department are likely to have unique knowledge of adversarial narratives targeting populations around the world. It is essential that the center have access to all of this information. ODNI should also ensure that communication flows both ways. Responding to the full spectrum of autocratic interference operations will require cross-government coordination. The center should work to close the gaps between bureaucratic jurisdictions to ensure that policymakers are seeing a broad picture of malign activity and that they are prepared to respond in coordination with other elements of the government to counter threats.
Collaborating with the Private Sector
While the center’s position within the intelligence community will give it powerful insight into malign activity, ODNI should ensure that it maintains open lines of communication with the private sector to gather a holistic threat picture. As Laura Rosenberger describes, social media companies “have unique visibility into activity on their platforms” that government analysts can and should lack due to government limitations. Similarly, in the cyber domain, critical infrastructure and cybersecurity companies are on the frontlines of defending against malign activity and are often the first to detect autocratic cyberattacks. Maintaining a cooperative relationship with the private sector will be essential to tracking autocratic manipulation online and to ensuring that private companies are able to counter malign activity that targets them and their users.
Sharing Information with Allies and the Public
Finally, the center should be empowered to quickly declassify and share information with allies and partners abroad, as well as with the public, to the greatest extent possible. As a recent letter from nine four-star generals indicates, U.S. policymakers are falling behind autocratic adversaries due to their inability to quickly expose and inform allies about influence operations. Sharing information with allies is essential to help organize coordinated responses to malign activity and to help partner nations build more effective resilience to foreign influence. Similarly, exposing malign activity to the public helps raise awareness of autocratic tactics and reduces the potential impact of influence operations.
ODNI’s work to establish a Foreign Malign Influence Center is welcome news. Such a center will need to play an important role in catalyzing whole-of-government responses to autocratic threats and will be essential for coordinating with allies and partners. To ensure that it is able to accomplish these goals, the Director of National Intelligence should structure the center to look beyond elections, cut across bureaucratic stovepipes, collaborate with the private sector, and share information with both allies and the public.