Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before congressional committees last week on the contents of his office’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, making the case that foreign interference is “among the most serious” threats to democracy; it is ongoing; and there is more we can and should do to deter it. Just one day after his testimony, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) reinforced Mueller’s assertion that foreign interference “deserves the attention of every American,” releasing volume one of its own investigation into Russia’s interference in 2016. Here are three things you need to know:
First, when it comes to election security threats, U.S. officials need to develop better communication protocols – both across and between levels of government and with the public. One striking revelation from the SSCI report is that, though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were regularly communicating with state officials regarding foreign cyber-attacks, the warnings they delivered “did not provide enough information or go to the right people.” As a result, important threats were never addressed, leaving some states unnecessarily exposed to interference. The report also revealed that government officials were hesitant to alert the public of interference attempts, worrying that such announcements would undermine confidence in the election process. Some state officials even suggested that the government “stop talking about the issue altogether.” But informing and educating the public of interference efforts can play an important role in helping to inoculate them against the effects.
Second, more resources should be allocated to the states, which run our elections, for upgrading outdated election infrastructure, conducting postelection audits of votes, and addressing cyber vulnerabilities. The SSCI report notes that several states currently use outdated paperless voting machines, which cannot be audited. Six of these states do not plan to upgrade their voting machines before 2020, according to the report. As evidenced by a recent report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the Brennan Center, Pitt Cyber, and R Street, several states also face million dollar funding shortfalls when it comes to replacing outdated voting equipment – let alone implementing measures such as upgraded cybersecurity, personnel training, or post-election audits.
Given the scope of the Russian attack in 2016 – the SSCI report indicates it is likely t hat Russia targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states – securing our election infrastructure is a nationwide urgency. Hostile nation-state actors have the capacity to target states with a wealth of sophisticated cyber tools and tactics, and, as one state official describes, “it’s not a fair fight.” The federal government needs to do more to help states reach the appropriate capacity to safely manage the country’s elections. At a minimum, this should include more support for upgrading election infrastructure, helping with postelection audits, and addressing well-documented cyber vulnerabilities.
Third, last week’s discussions pointed to the need for better coordination across the federal government on the foreign interference challenge broadly. Russia’s 2016 interference campaign effectively “exploited the seams between federal authorities,” the committee noted. Special Counsel Mueller drew a similar conclusion, calling on the various agencies to “not only share information, but share expertise, share targets, and use the full resources that we have to address this problem.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)’s establishment of an election threats executive was a welcome and promising step. But foreign interference is not limited to elections and our responses shouldn’t be either. The White House should establish a Hybrid Threat Center within ODNI to help coordinate intelligence analysis across the whole of government, not just the intelligence community. The White House should also establish a senior Foreign Interference Coordinator at the level of Deputy Assistant to the President with the appropriate staff and capacity to provide oversight to the counter interference efforts occurring at the various federal agencies.
The time to take action against foreign interference is now. As Special Counsel Mueller highlighted last week, America’s adversaries are targeting our democracy “as we sit here.” The U.S. government’s poor performance in countering foreign interference in 2016 represented a “failure to imagine” the threats that faced our democracy. Now, over two and a half years later – and just eight months from the first casting of votes in the 2020 presidential election – that failure to imagine is becoming a “failure to act” to secure our democracy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.