Why the US is losing the information war to Russia

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, Russia has attacked the United States.

To judge by the muted national reaction, in fact lots of Americans may not have noticed that, according to reports this week by cybersecurity experts for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Russia “launched an extended attack on the United States” and is waging an “Information World War.”  

It’s a war unlike any in the American experience, which is why people may have trouble grasping that indeed we are at war. There are no bomb craters, casualty report, or even a visible battlefield. To find evidence of the war, you have to read the dense, statistic laden reports explaining how Russia infiltrated and weaponized our social media platforms and then, in the manner of the 9/11 hijackers, turned American technology against the American people. 

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The reports describe Russian cyberattacks before, during and since the 2016 presidential election that are far more extensive, sophisticated and focused on the fault lines of American society than had been previously known. By using their trolls to stir up racial division and animosity and suppress the black vote, the Russians poured salt into the already agonizing wounds of American history. Its notable that black voter turnout fell in 2016 for the first time in a presidential election in 20 years.

Experts disagree whether the Russian cyberattacks elected Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. We may never know but it’s doubtful that Vladimir Putin would have invested Russian resources in the cyberattacks unless they had some prospect for tipping the 2016 election to Trump. But even by raising doubts about electoral integrity in a presidential election, Russia scored a victory.

One certainly hopes the United States at least has sent a deterrent shot across the Russian bow by demonstrating its own counter-cyberattack capability against selected Russian targets. 

Don’t count on it. Such a measure would require the approval of Trump, whose attitude is, “Russian attacks? What attacks?” Trump called the Russian interference in the 2016 election a “hoax” and accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence over the assessments of the American intelligence community. It’s hard to win a war when the commander-in-chief abandons his post.

Congress isn’t doing its job either. Democrats get it better than Republicans but seem to think it’s enough to improve our cyber defenses. Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerIntelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' House approves bill to secure internet-connected federal devices against cyber threats MORE (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, called for “much needed and long overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.”

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After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, no one suggested that we should just send advanced radar and more antiaircraft guns to Hawaii.

The press isn’t much better. In most media it was a one- or two-day story. The Comey-Trump tit for tat appeared to gather more attention in Trump-obsessed outlets than did the Senate Intelligence Committee reports.

The public mood appears defeatist. A Pew Research poll in October found that a majority of Americans are not confident that the election system is secure from cyber threats. But there is no public clamor for strong, decisive action to stop the attacks. 

Maybe it just has to get worse before the United States acts decisively. In 2016 the Obama administration issued a National Cyber Incident Response Plan, which included a five-level grading system for assessing the severity of cyberattacks. We are probably at least at Level 3 (likely demonstrable impact on civil liberties or public confidence) or even Level 4 (likely significant impact on national security or civil liberties).

Perhaps someone in the government will act, or the public will finally get angry, if Russia gets to Level 5, which is defined to include an imminent threat to “the provision of wide-scale infrastructure services” or to “national [government] stability.” 

But by then it may be too late. The United States is losing this war because it’s not fighting back.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.