Authoritarian threats to American democracy demand urgent action

Two years after the Russian government attempted to undermine the 2016 presidential election, the United States still does not have a comprehensive strategy to address the threat posed by foreign interference in our democracy.

Successive U.S. administrations of both parties and Congress have neglected this threat and left Americans exposed to foreign manipulation.

With the 2018 midterm elections on the horizon and the 2020 presidential election following, we need a new strategic approach for government and society to defend American democracy, one that puts it at the forefront of the U.S. national security agenda and brings the public and private sectors together to complement each other’s efforts.

{mosads}First, the U.S. government must make clear at the highest levels that malign influence operations against the United States and its allies constitute a national security threat, and that the U.S. government will respond accordingly. The Executive Branch, in particular, should use all tools at its disposal – more stringent sanctions, cyber tools, and diplomatic consequences – to raise the costs of interference in democracies. The U.S. government should also strengthen coordination with democratic allies and partners in Europe and around the world to improve defenses, deterrence, and responses to this threat.


Second, government must close existing vulnerabilities. The Executive Branch and Congress should bolster the cybersecurity of electoral and other critical infrastructure and protect the integrity of our political system by closing loopholes exploited for money laundering and other forms of foreign illicit finance and covert political influence. Congress should also institute mandatory reporting requirements for administrations to inform lawmakers of foreign attacks against U.S. elections, including individual political campaigns. This would help separate politics from efforts to reveal and respond to foreign operations against U.S. elections.

Third, government needs to be organized to address a threat that transcends the jurisdiction of any one agency. We recommend appointing a senior-level foreign interference coordinator at the National Security Council to oversee interagency policy efforts and establishing a Hybrid Threat Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate intelligence collection and analysis of foreign interference tools, tactics, and technologies.

Fourth, tech companies need to do their part. Transparency needs to become the norm in the tech sector. Social media companies have released some data about the manipulation of their platforms by foreign actors, but they must be more proactive in providing the public information about their technology, privacy policies, and business models. Congress should help foster a culture of transparency, for example by passing legislation that ensures Americans know the sources of online political ads. Congress can also help ensure Americans’ personal information is protected on social media platforms and not vulnerable to exploitation.

Fifth, tech companies and government need to establish a more constructive relationship to share information and prevent emerging technologies from being exploited by foreign adversaries and cyber criminals. Even as we struggle to address the weapons deployed against American democracy in 2016 through today, new technologies, such as “deep fake” audio and video doctoring, will make the next wave of state-sponsored disinformation even harder to detect and deter. Platform companies need to collaborate more proactively with each other and with government to mitigate threats that undermine democratic institutions.

Sixth, the media should be more cautious when reporting on leaked information and using social media accounts as journalism sources. Illegal hacking operations are now a feature of democratic political life, but journalists should be particularly careful when deciding if and how to report that information, lest they further a state-sponsored agenda. Media organizations should also establish guidelines for using social media accounts as sources to guard against quoting falsified accounts or state-sponsored disinformation.

Finally, the public and private sectors need to work together to strengthen democracy from within. We need to instill a healthier respect for one another, regardless of our differences, by improving our civic discourse, practicing more responsible behavior on social media, respecting the vital role of the media, and calling on our elected officials to take action to defend our democracy on a bipartisan basis.

Left unaddressed, the threat from authoritarian interference will only grow over time. All sectors of society are failing to address this urgent national security threat. Through bipartisan efforts by the administration and Congress, and through the involvement of the private sector, the media, and Americans across the country, we can meet this challenge and strengthen our democracy.

Julianne “Julie” Smith served as the deputy national security advisor to the U.S. vice president from 2012 to 2013, acting national security advisor to the vice president in 2013, and principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.

Mike Rogers is a former member of Congress (R-Mich.), officer in the Army, and FBI special agent. In the U.S. House he chaired the Intelligence Committee, becoming a leader on cybersecurity and national security policy. Today Mike is a CNN national security commentator, and hosts and produces CNN’s “Declassified.”

Tags Computer security Cryptography Cybercrime Mike Rogers National security Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections Security

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