Steps Congress can take to defend America against foreign influence operations
Last week, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster conceded that, “We have failed to impose sufficient costs… [on Russia for the Kremlin’s use of]…new and old forms of aggression to undermine our open societies.” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of Russia’s Internet Research Agency and related individuals, made clear the extent of the operation attacking our country’s elections and institutions. And yet, more than a year after the 2016 presidential election, and with mid-term elections looming on the horizon, little has been done to increase America’s defenses against the threat of foreign interference in our democracy or impose costs on those who do.
Even in the absence of decisive action by the executive branch, Congress has significant powers to defend American democracy. Many of these actions are common sense measures every member of Congress – on both sides of the aisle – should be able to support.
First, Congress should improve election security and cybersecurity. Many state elections boards lack the funding and expertise to adequately secure their elections systems against foreign intrusion. The $380 million allocated for election security in the 2018 spending bill was a good first step, but states need the technical assistance and support for spending these funds. Congress should codify in legislation the designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure and urgently adopt legislation to improve information sharing throughout government – federal, state and local – on election cybersecurity threats and provide technical resources for election agencies. The Secure Elections Act would be a step toward achieving this goal. Congress should also adopt legislation to improve cybersecurity coordination within DHS, particularly in light of reports that Russian hackers targeted our nation’s power plants and electricity grids.
Second, Congress should improve disclosure requirements for online political advertisements. Americans should have the right to know who is funding political ads they see online, just as they do for political ads on radio, print and television. One bipartisan bill, the Honest Ads Act, would address one part of this challenge by creating a searchable database of political ads published on large online platforms and require disclosure of who is purchasing advertisements. Such disclosure requirements would help ensure that foreign funding is not illegally used to fund political campaigns in the United States.
Third, Congress should tackle illicit foreign money in our political system. Dirty money should be prevented from entering the country. Foreign actors exploit real estate loopholes to conduct transactions through shell companies and use their money to gain political influence, perpetuate corruption, and promote transnational organized crime. Congress can pass legislation to limit the use of shell companies and bring transparency to ownership. Congress should also update and modernize the outdated Foreign Agents Registration Act, as well as provide sufficient resources for the Department of Justice to implement it rigorously. Congress should also expedite consideration of legislation that would expand the jurisdiction of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) so that adversarial governments such as Russia and China cannot gain control of strategic industries in the United States.
Fourth, Congress should support public-private partnerships to tackle the challenge posed by disinformation and abuse of social media platforms. Congress should create a fund with pooled public and private resources that would establish media literacy education and training pilot projects across country, helping to build resilience against foreign or other malign manipulation of our open society. Social media companies and traditional media organizations could play a part in this effort.
Finally, Congress can help to better organize the U.S. government to deal with this challenge and to impose costs on those who seek to attack American democracy. Even after the 2016 elections, we still do not have an effective deterrent to dissuade foreign actors from interfering in our democracy. This can start with breaking down agency stovepipes and bringing together the full array of policy and intelligence expertise across the U.S. government under one roof to deter adversaries’ active measures more effectively. Congress should direct the administration to designate a lead agency to deal with this challenge and urge the president to appoint a top White House official to oversee these efforts.
Congress should pass – and the administration should implement thoroughly – legislation that imposes stringent sanctions on any country or individual that interferes in our democratic institutions and processes. Congress can also ensure that U.S. foreign assistance programs that support democratic resilience in Europe and Eurasia are fully funded.
As the Mueller indictments and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s investigation have shown, Russia’s interference in our democracy has taken advantage of vulnerabilities that have to date not been addressed 15 months after the original crime. Members of Congress should work in a bipartisan manner to close vulnerabilities and to carry out their oversight responsibilities to ensure the Trump administration takes this threat seriously. The security of American democracy is at stake.
Jamie Fly and Laura Rosenberger are the co-directors of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and, respectively, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Hillary Clinton’s former foreign policy advisors.