The warnings are loud, clear, and unambiguous.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told us last week that Russia is attempting to “degrade our democratic values and weaken our alliances.” A few days later, after the Mueller indictment came down, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster noted to a Russia delegate of the Munich Security Conference, “as you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence [of Kremlin interference] is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain.” Most alarming were the comments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who warned Russia would and is seeking to influence this year’s congressional elections and he felt the U.S. couldn’t do much about it.
That’s just not true. Over the past year, I’ve testified four times to Senate committees regarding Russian influence operations and briefed nearly every arm of the government on what the U.S. could do to protect itself against Kremlin meddling moving forward. There are a variety of ways in which American companies and the American government could meet Vladimir Putin’s challenge—from hardening our electoral systems to banning social media bots to imposing sanctions on the Russian troll farmers.
America’s political debates have been dominated by revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Putin’s cheap and effective information campaign not only may have shaped the outcome of the U.S. election, but spawned overlapping investigations consuming government resources and time, exasperated sharp political divides inside America eroding citizens’ confidence in democratic governance and institutions.
To date, no consolidated, coordinated plan for responding to Russian influence has been revealed to the public. All reporting suggests the executive branch remains frozen, lacking direction from administration leadership and a president who remains silent on Russia’s attack on America—while shouting about how unfair the investigation into that attack has been.
Members of Congress from either political party should rightly wonder if the Trump administration has their back against Russia as they run for office in 2018. Those members of Congress who have sought to illuminate Kremlin activities and move to check Putin’s advance will likely be targeted with hacks, smear campaigns, and information deluges seeking to sway voters to their opponents with more sympathetic views toward Russia and President Trump.
Here’s what we have to do to back them up.
Defending electoral systems remains the most essential task in protecting the integrity of U.S. democracy. Russia successfully changed vote tallies in Ukraine in 2014. In 2016, its hacking campaign against multiple U.S. states combined with their social media promotion of bogus voter fraud and election rigging claims sought to erode American trust in the authenticity of election results.
The U.S. government has been painfully slow in designating election systems as critical infrastructure, but now that it has, it should move aggressively to standardize and improve cybersecurity of digital voting machines and voter databases.
States do not have adequate protections or detection capabilities against sophisticated hackers. Many of the states targeted by Russia, 21 in total according to the Department of Homeland Security, were unaware of the Kremlin’s cyber signatures. Moving forward to rapidly share information from more capable federal cybersecurity to underfunded state and locals could help detect and mitigate sophisticated nation state intrusions.
Above all, all voting systems should immediately institute paper ballot backups that provide a verifiable audit trail to confirm results. Despite the Kremlin’s targeting of American electoral processes, five states—Delaware, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and New Jersey—still rely on digital voting without paper backups.
Meanwhile, Congress can step up quickly, by immediately passing the Honest Ads Act requiring public disclosures of all political and social issue advertising in social media consistent with print, radio, and television standards.
Congress could clamp down on the White House dragging its feet on Russia sanctions it passed last year, or even levy more sanctions in light of the Mueller indictment of the Internet Research Agency. For example, Congress could sue the president or block any funding for presidential programs pushed by Trump, but that might prove risky.
The inverse approach would be to levy sanctions against even more oligarchs and prominent Russians connected with Putin, forcing the White House into an even more precarious position. Specially selected targets of Russian sanctions might include not only those indicted this past week, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, but family members closer to Putin and his moneymen, like those identified in the Paradise Papers.
Congress could also follow the example of European countries by seeking to fund education programs and research improving citizen resiliency through improved understanding of civics and methods for evaluating information.
Social media companies can and must restore the integrity of their platforms against foreign influence operations. The Kremlin’s campaigns have severely tarnished American trust in their platforms. Along with providing transparency in advertising, social media companies must aggressively work to ensure the authenticity of accounts on their platforms by verifying real humans operate accounts. Anonymity can be maintained, but companies must know who the entities are posting and communicating on their platforms.
Social bots—anonymous, false personas broadcasting false or manipulated truths in high volumes—distort reality for human users. Social bots, estimated to be up to 15 percent of accounts on Twitter, according to a study released by USC and Indiana University last year, should be banned from all social media platforms immediately. (Social media firms say they don’t tolerate such accounts, but the bots’ persistence tells a different story.)
Twitter, Facebook, and the like should share data and signatures on nation state influence accounts and patterns to help collectively clean their systems. Finally, they should work with an independent news rating agency to help educate their users about the type and quality of information sources they encounter in social media.
Encouraging, coordinating, and facilitating these efforts will not be easy. That’s why the executive branch’s first task should be to put someone in charge of mitigating Russian influence. As of now, no single agency or individual in the federal bureaucracy owns the problem of Russian interference.
The White House should designate a point person and establish a task force, not a loosely formed working group lacking clear responsibility, to fully scope the problem of foreign influence operations in the digital age. Similar to how National Counter Terrorism Center emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the task force should be given an interim budget of roughly two years, to create a plan of action and then undertake actions to shore up America’s gaps.
The director of the national response to Kremlin’s assault on America would create a national implementation plan, assign tasks across the interagency, report progress directly to the White House and would in the second year establish an enduring plan and organizational structure for countering foreign information warfare on Americans.
The end results would be a standard playbook for responding to foreign influence efforts, a strategy for reasserting America’s footing in public diplomacy, responsibilities in information warfare across the interagency, and options for asymmetric counterattacks against those that seek to undermine democracy via cyberspace, whether it be hacking or influence.
This may sound simple—remedial, even. But I can’t tell you how many folks in government still aren’t quite sure if this is their job—or if anyone is really in charge.
Even if the federal government fails to designate a task force to mitigate Russian influence, many agencies could immediately take actions to deter the Kremlin. The FBI could develop a hacking response playbook for Russian breaches seeking not only to determine the source of a breach but the potential for which stolen information might be used as kompromat in a Kremlin influence campaign.
The State Department internationally, and the Department of Homeland Security domestically, should create a rapid response system refuting falsehoods levied by the Kremlin and others spreading bogus conspiracies undermining trust in American democratic institutions. Responses would not be done through public press conferences, but via rapid social media responses and direct refutations in real time similar to successful counterpropaganda efforts employed against al Qaeda in Iraq during the 2000s.
The National Security Agency, U.S. Cyber Command, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security should collaboratively and aggressively detect and notify American targets of hacks. (Currently, victims are simply told that they’ve been targeted. They should be told who has likely breached them, and their vulnerability to compromising smear campaigns as part of a coordinated nation state effort.)
The Department of Defense’s combatant commands should reinforce alliances with NATO and the European Union sharing intelligence on both hacking and social media signatures, as well as the tactics, techniques, and procedures the Kremlin’s trolls employ on democratic citizens and online communities.
Preparing defenses against the Kremlin’s propaganda playbook, once accomplished, will open the way for countering Russian interference. If U.S. intelligence and the national security adviser do believe Russia continues to interfere in American democracy, then they should respond in kind and without hesitation.
The U.S., however, should not copy the Kremlin’s influence operations approach on Russians. Stealing and releasing the personal information of hundreds or thousands of Russians, invading their social media platform VKontakte with false Russian personas, or spreading false information to malign Russian leaders undermines the democratic principles America stands for.
Instead, the U.S. should focus on two avenues of counterattack: oligarchs and activists. Russia’s oligarchs who rule the kleptocratic society can only enjoy their wealth if part of the international system. Instituting further sanctions on Russia and in particular those tied to the government places pressure on President Putin, who must appease those who suddenly have limited reach due to his pursuit of international power at their expense.
Even if the sanctions are not immediately invoked by the Trump administration, publicly sanctioning Russian figures hurts their brand internationally creating distance between them and the international banking system and raising the costs of oligarch operations.
Despite enjoying relatively high popularity recently, President Putin has repeatedly crushed populist protests and suppressed the candidacy of Alexei Navalny. Putin’s force on American politics, ultimately, will only be muted when matched by a counterforce. The U.S. could return to its old principles of promoting democracy abroad, bolstering opposition activists like Navalny who fight Kremlin corruption. The Kremlin interfered in our elections. Why not return the favor, but do it in line with the founding principles of democracy and America?
But with all of the ideas I’ve noted, one thing, one man, undermines all of these actions. President Trump stands in the way of any meaningful defense against Russia’s meddling and in fear of responding to Russia’s Putin, whom he seems to adore.
Trump’s refusal to so much as hear the word “Russia” prevents our country from stopping the assault of authoritarians on democracy. Even further, Trump’s worldview mirrors that of Putin, working like the Kremlin to blur the lines of fact and fiction in America, increase his power by removing challengers, and harming democratic institutions through information attacks.
The U.S. cannot meet the challenge of Russia, and will not be able to defend itself against what all foresee, because its top executive, the man elevated to America’s top seat in part with Kremlin help, cannot accept reality and continues to try and distort it.
At this point, more than a year into his first term and under pressure from all sides, Trump will not move, and Americans are right to wonder why their president won’t act. Is it incompetence? Fear? or something even worse? What if the president of the United States doesn’t seek to counter Russia’s influence because the Kremlin has become an ally against all of Trump’s enemies?
I’ll close by noting what I also said when testifying to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee last March: Russian influence operations work because the commander in chief uses them against his opponents. Until this changes, America and Americans will continue to bow to Putin.