Mueller and the Russian threat

Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE warned Americans about the critical threat of Russian attacks on U.S. democracy in his recent valedictory press conference.

Mueller’s statement is the latest alert on the urgent requirement for a comprehensive and tough national security strategy to deter and respond to future assaults on the U.S. Constitution by foreign entities. 

Part One of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election describes a brazen, wide-ranging attack by the Putin regime on the U.S. democratic system of government.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mueller found that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. national election was sweeping and systematic. In part one, the report identified two major areas for Russian interference. The first was an aggressive social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate Trump says he's not prepared to lose in 2020 MORE. Mueller states that Russian operatives on social media controlled multiple Facebook groups and Instagram accounts that had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants. Russian Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, all favoring one candidate or sowing discord within American society.

The second area of Russian interference was computer-intrusion operations (“hacking and dumping”) against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton campaign which stole documents for public release. The investigation also lays out an extensive and sustained open and covert Russian effort to infiltrate the Trump campaign at multiple levels.

The Special Counsel made no legal judgements on “collusion” or “cooperation” since neither action is a specific offense or liability found in U.S. federal criminal law.

With no indictments against the president or his campaign for collusion with Russia, the U.S. national media and public attention has shifted to the second topic of his report — obstruction of justice — and the potential for impeachment. 

In the long run, protecting American democracy against a broad-based and covert attack by Russia, China and others is probably more important than impeaching the current president.     

ADVERTISEMENT

I wrote last September that the failure to adequately defend American democracy from hostile and covert influence campaigns is national security negligence. Since then, not much has changed. So far, the government’s response to Russian interference has been fragmented, late and half-hearted. 

Here are a few ideas on what a national strategy would and should contain:

  • Laws to strengthen prohibitions against foreign involvement — including financial contributions — in U.S. elections. Americans who collude, cooperate or conspire to assist foreign entities in undermining democracy should face serious legal penalties.   
  • A set of public affairs options to openly respond to attacks on democracy by a foreign power. Governments, including ours, can and do publicly oppose leaders of foreign governments. In case of open or covert efforts to influence U.S. elections, an American government should have a range of public options based on facts to respond. In the case of Russia, exposing the corruption and mismanagement of the Putin regime to the Russian public is one option. 
  • Major investment in the capacity to detect and respond to cyber and influence attacks with a range of response options from irritating interference to cyber destruction available to respond to hostile attacks. 
  • Measures to reconcile freedom of speech with foreign covert manipulation of information on social media. At a minimum, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar internet sites should add a permanent disclaimer to every user that it cannot ensure the accuracy of information or validate the source of sites on their platforms. 
  • A set of open and classified deterrence options to ensure that those who might attack the U.S. system know there will be retaliation ranging from sanctions and legal actions on individuals to cyber counterattacks and other measures to inflict an unacceptable level of pain on the interfering nation’s institutions and commercial activities.
  • An international component in which the U.S. works with democratic allies to set up a common approach to detection and response. NATO is the logical place to concentrate on an initial international approach to attacks on democracy.

If there is an issue today that should receive priority bipartisan support, preventing covert foreign interference in the election process in the United States should be at the top of the list. National leadership is essential to defend American democracy as the 2020 elections approach, and only the White House can oversee the development and coordinate the preparation of a comprehensive strategy.

The president should lead the development of a national strategy. Unfortunately, such a comprehensive national security program is probably too much to ask of an administration that benefitted from Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

I can only hope that post-2020 is not too late to address this critical national security issue.

James W. Pardew is a former US ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.