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America’s new 9/11

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On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced indictment charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for illegally influencing the 2016 presidential elections. But these indictments paint a picture of something much broader, akin to the first layer of an onion being peeled back on Russia’s broad, multi-year information operation to defraud the United States and boost Donald Trump’s candidacy.

While this current situation is not marked by catastrophic bloodshed, destruction or debt, we’ve entered a new generation of warfare on America’s national security.

{mosads}Sept. 11, 2001 was a moment in our history when a non-state actor effectively identified one our nation’s greatest security vulnerabilities in the airline industry. The enemy attacked our governments’ inability to communicate across bureaucracy at local, state and federal levels and our lack of comprehensive, “whole-of-government” approach to counterterrorism. The enemy attacked our private sector exploiting the airline industry, finding cleavages where security was lax and making conventional airlines their unconventional tactic. And the enemy spent just $400,000-$500,000 of which $300,000 was deposited into U.S. bank accounts of the 19 hijackers.

This attack catapulted our nation into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, challenged our democracy’s ability to maintain civil liberties while protecting U.S. national security, and is partly responsible for our nation’s $20.7 trillion debt as National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats pointed out on Capitol Hill last week.

But this moment of tragedy culminated in a halcyon of political unity across America. George Bush’s approval ratings went up; Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (which became Public Law 107-40) just three days after the attack; and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was created “to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks” as codified in Public Law 107-306 signed on Nov. 27, 2002. And we’ve been successful at stopping a 9/11-scaled terrorist attack on U.S. soil ever since.

But this time, our democracy is under a different kind of attack. A state actor—Russia—employing cognitive and information warfare to target our free speech and unregulated social media platforms. This isn’t the first time our democracy has been under attack. But this time, we have a president who is pouring acid into every wound of American politics instead of rising above party politics to defend our democracy.

Russia began its psychological warfare campaign against America’s democracy as early as 2014, culminating in the influence of our 2016 elections to get Donald Trump to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The enemy—now a state adversary—attacked our private sector’s lack of regulation by exploiting social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to shape public perception and shift political opinion.

But now what? We have a playbook on protecting our democracy after 9/11, so why aren’t we shifting to meet the enemy and counter this new threat?

So here’s three things we can do to effectively respond to this attack that go beyond just public indictments that give us information on what we already know:


Last summer, the president signed into public the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act which provided the necessary sanctions authority for the president to adequate punish Russia for their interference in our election and deter them from doing it again. But President Trump blew past a sanctions implementation deadline ignoring the will of Congress and failing to actually protect our democracy from something we know is coming again jus last month. Instead, we should be holding Putin and his cronies accountable for their previous actions and deter them from doing it again through a comprehensive sanctions regime as already authorized in a bipartisan way by Congress. 

Reps. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) also introduced the SECURE Our Democracy Act (H.R. 530) which sanctions foreign entities for interfering in U.S. elections and those of our allies. Even though we already passed CAATSA, House Republicans should bring this up for consideration so we can give the president another chance to actually deter enemies like Russia.

Cyber Deterrence & Mutual Defense Treaties:

On May 11, 2017, President Trump issued Execute Order 13800 on strengthening the cybersecurity of federal networks and critical infrastructure. Within 90 days of this issuance, the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security, the Attorney General, the United States Trade Representative and the Director of National Intelligence was mandated to jointly submit a report to the president on our nation’s “strategic options for deterring adversaries and better protecting the American people from cyber threats.” But even though this report has been submitted to the White House, we have seen no public changes in our cyber deterrence strategy. Why not? This is a critical tool to help defend our democracy from Russia’s subversion and information warfare online right now.

We should also be working to formalize agreements to coordinate cybersecurity with our allies, especially outside a military context such as attacks on critical infrastructure. While the State Department announced the creation of a separate bureau to deal with this issue, we must make sure it is given all the tools and resources to help solidify these partnerships. But without a fully funded State Department, as President Trump proposed to Congress in his budget last week, it will be difficult to fill out this space even when it’s needed more than ever.

Establishing an Independent Commission in Congress:

On Jan. 6, 2017 — the same day that Intelligence Community released its report confirming that Russia illegally interfered in our election—Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) introduced the Protecting Our Democracy Act (H.R. 356). This bill establishes the National Commission on Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election to examine “any attempts or activities by the Russian government or other governments, persons or entities associated with such governments, or persons or entities within Russia to use electronic means to influence, interfere with, or sow distrust in elections for public office held in the United States in 2016.” Congress passed legislation to establish the 9/11 Commission. So why won’t House Republicans pass similar legislation to examine the next wave of attacks on our democracy?

We cannot respond to state-actor threats in the same way we counter non-state actors like al-Qaeda. But there are clear and necessary steps that we can and should be taking. But instead, we have a president caught in the fog of twitter war who does not want to admit this happened or that it’s probably going to happen again despite warnings from his inner circle. So, how can we rise above party politics for the sake of our nation? The future of our democracy depends on it, and it’s time we level up—just as we did post-9/11. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Tags Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Joaquin Castro Robert Mueller

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