Mueller report is over, but authoritarian threat to our elections is not: How to fight it

The conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election does not close the door on the authoritarian threat to American democracy. In fact, the threat is ongoing and the imperative for government to take meaningful action to counter it has never been more pressing.

The 2020 presidential campaign has barely begun, and recently declared candidates — including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rouke and Bernie Sanders — have already been targeted by disinformation campaigns that spread false information about them using computational propaganda and fake social media accounts, tactics that resemble the Russian operation against the 2016 election.

The 2018 midterm elections faced these same challenges. Russia, China, and Iran all sought to influence the midterms, targeting Americans on the left and the right with disinformation on social media. That’s the assessment of four top Trump administration security officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray.{mosads}

Concerns that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian government-sponsored troll farm, was spreading disinformation about the vote were so great that CyberCom waged an offensive cyber operation to take it offline around Election Day. Russian hackers didn’t stop at disinformation. U.S. Cyber Command chief General Paul Nakasone indicated to Congress they also attempted to compromise electoral infrastructure.

Homeland Security’s cybersecurity director Chris Krebs told Congress that thinking about how hostile powers will adopt new tactics to target the 2020 election “keeps [him] up at night.” Yet President Trump has been notably silent on the issue, and the conclusions of the Mueller investigation should not be misused to downplay ongoing interference in our democracy or the need for government to take action.

Unfortunately, the administration lacks a strategy to deter our adversaries and without one, they will only be emboldened to continue meddling in our democracy. Executive Order 13848, signed by President Trump in September, and legislation previously passed by Congress give the administration broad discretion to implement sanctions and other measures against foreign actors undermining American elections. Despite statements by cabinet officials that authoritarian regimes targeted the midterms, the administration has not implemented punitive measures against them.

Meanwhile, DHS reportedly reduced the size of its task forces on election security and countering foreign influence after the midterms, ignoring the fact that interference in our democracy does not begin and end with a particular election. If DHS task forces are not operating at full strength now, how can it tackle current threats to the 2020 election, let alone foreign attacks against our democratic institutions more broadly?

This decision is indicative of the lack of coherence in the administration on the foreign interference challenge. To streamline policies on this issue, the president should appoint a senior-level coordinator at the National Security Council who has eyes on activity in individual government agencies, can task the agencies with the authority of the White House, and can bring the agencies together to develop meaningful policy options for the president.

Congress has its own role to play in defending our democracy, but partisan politics has impeded the adoption of legislation to addresses vulnerabilities in our democracy. It should pass legislation like the bipartisan-sponsored Secure Elections Act to improve coordination between the federal, state, and local governments on cyber threats to voting systems and databases, and make more federal resources and expertise available to the states.

Second, Congress could adopt legislation like the bipartisan Honest Ads Act to improve disclosure requirements for online political ads would help Americans understand who is sponsoring the ads they see on social media, just as political advertisers on other media have to disclose their sponsorship.

Finally, since tech platforms can no longer credibly be left to self-regulate, Congress should consider possible legislation to ensure existing tech platforms and emerging ones do not undermine the integrity of U.S. elections, while protecting Americans’ rights to privacy and free speech.

Foreign interference in American democracy is, unfortunately, the new normal. But it doesn’t have to be accepted as fair game – and shouldn’t be. Americans need their government to take action to defend our democracy from foreign actors seeking to subvert it. Without credible action by the U.S. government soon, Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes will only be emboldened during the 2020 campaign and beyond.

David Salvo is the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy (@securedemocracy), a bipartisan transatlantic organization with the stated aim of countering efforts to undermine democratic institutions in the United States and Europe.

Tags Bernie Sanders Dan Coats Donald Trump Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Foreign electoral intervention Robert Mueller Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections Special Counsel investigation United States elections

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