Even as Congress and the FBI investigates Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Congress urgently needs to act to prevent and deter Russia and other countries from intervening in future U.S. elections — starting with the 2018 congressional midtem elections.
The stark reality is that, viewed from Moscow, last year’s meddling worked. Regardless of whether Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta actually affected votes last November, Russia succeeded in undermining millions of Americans’ confidence in our electoral process and sent a blunt message to U.S. politicians and political operatives that they risk cyber attacks if they cross Moscow.
That success — combined the absence of any meaningful U.S. response to date — can only encourage Russia and other U.S. adversaries to try to subvert American elections in the future.
Congress needs to address this threat by enacting legislation to prevent and deter future foreign intervention in U.S. elections. Time is of the essence — the 2018 elections will begin in earnest by the end of 2017 and foreign governments need to know that there will be real costs to meddling with American democracy.
Congress can take three basic steps to begin preventing and deterring foreign powers from seeking to subvert our America’s elections.
First, Congress must ensure that Americans receive timely information about foreign efforts to meddle in U.S. elections. Congress should direct the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), working with the U.S. intelligence community, to publish regular reports on foreign government efforts to use covert and illegal means to affect U.S. elections, much as in December the FBI and Homeland Security released a report on Russia’s cyber hacking and propaganda during the 2016 election.
Congress should direct the FBI and DHS to publish a report documenting foreign efforts to covertly and illegally influence U.S. elections, such as using cyber intrusions and covert propaganda, at least once during election “off years,” such as 2017, and at least twice during election years — both prior to Election Day and following U.S. elections in November.
The FBI and DHS should also be directed to publish supplementary reports if they become aware of significant new information about foreign government intervention in the immediate run-up to an election. Americans have a right to know what foreign powers are using covert and illegal means to influence how Americans vote and what those foreign powers are doing.
Second, it is imperative that Congress convince foreign governments that there will be swift and painful consequences for intervening in U.S. elections. Congress should direct the U.S. Treasury Department to prepare and impose meaningful economic sanctions on any foreign governments that the FBI and Homeland Security determine have used covert or illegal means to try to influence U.S. elections.
In order to be an effective deterrent, the sanctions will need to have real bite: targeting both specific foreign government officials involved in meddling in U.S. elections and also major state owned enterprises and other sources of revenue controlled by a foreign government that covertly and illegally intervenes in U.S. elections. Anything less would risk leaving foreign governments with the distinct impression that the benefits of meddling in U.S. democracy can outweigh the costs.
Third, Congress and individual U.S. states need to harden our defenses. There is no compelling evidence that Russia successfully tampered with voter rolls or voting machines last November, but there is evidence that Russia attempted to access voter information in several states — raising the specter that in the future a foreign government might try to disenfranchise voters by altering voter rolls or tampering with voting equipment. Congress needs to provide U.S. states with funds and technical support to improve the cyber security of state election offices and voting machines.
Congress has a long history of acting to prevent foreign powers from subverting American democracy. Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938 to expose German propaganda in the lead-up to World War II and in 2002 Congress banned foreign contributions to not only U.S. politicians, but to U.S. political parties and Congress also prohibited foreigners from making independent expenditures designed to influence U.S. elections.
As we confront a new set of foreign challenges to U.S. democracy — state directed hacking of American elections and covert propaganda efforts — Congress needs to enact new laws to ensure that all Americans can remain confident in our elections in the years to come.
Peter E. Harrell is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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