Leaders should act now to counter national security threat to US elections

Leaders should act now to counter national security threat to US elections
© Greg Nash

Foreign interference in upcoming U.S. elections is secondary right now to the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the country, but ultimately American leaders must address the problem. It is also is tempting to view foreign interference in the upcoming American elections as mischievous political meddling. Yet, these covert operations are much more than that. They are urgent national security matters that attack the U.S. national election process in ways that undermine the very foundation of American democracy.

The critical question today is: What will the current U.S. leaders and the national political parties do about it? 

In 2016, the primary culprit was the Putin regime in Moscow who favored Donald Trump for president. Recent congressional testimony indicates that Russian interference continues into the 2020 presidential campaign, and Moscow apparently added Bernie Sanders to its list of supported candidates. However, the administration just softened its position on interference in a carefully choreographed assessment after President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE publicly attacked the briefer who presented the earlier judgment.

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More recently, CNN exposed Russian internet operations in Africa spreading divisive hate messages among targeted audiences in the U.S.

Foreign attacks on American elections are not just political issues. They are an urgent bipartisan national security threat. Today, Putin’s favorite may be Trump. Tomorrow, it could be foreign interests with a preference for Democratic candidates.

The Republican Party seems unlikely to aggressively counter Russian or other foreign influence since the president calls the entire covert Russian election interference operation a “hoax” and removes or intimidates any government official who hints otherwise.

The Mueller Report and the associated U.S. national intelligence assessments established that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Yet, the Trump administration’s response has been half-hearted and ineffective. None of the sanctions placed on the Putin regime so far are enough to offset the advantages to Russia of the growing isolation of the U.S. from our traditional democratic allies, the weakening of NATO, Russian strategic advances in Syria and elsewhere and the political polarization in the U.S.

Further, Attorney General William BarrBill BarrACLU calls for special prosecutor to investigate removal of protesters in front of White House First federal prisoner in 17 years executed hours after Supreme Court decision Supreme Court clears way for federal executions MORE has undermined the Mueller Report and continues to challenge the legitimate U.S. counterintelligence operations and assessments that exposed the 2016 Russian interference in U.S. elections.

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Skepticism of current threats to U.S. security is hardly the attitude of those committed to the defense of American elections against foreign attacks.

National security is a major responsibility of the Attorney General. Congress should be grilling Barr and his associates on why they are not conducting aggressive investigations to expose and respond to covert foreign influence operations rather than downplaying the threat to this nation’s democracy.

Given the current attitude of the Trump administration, the Democratic Party has the chance to become the voice of transparency, truth and national defense on foreign interference. The questions are whether they will seize the opportunity and whether they will be serious about it.

Here are some ideas for the major political parties to consider if they are to seriously tackle foreign interference in American democracy:

  • As a matter of official party policy, reject all foreign support — financial or otherwise — to the party’s political campaign at every level.
  • Commit to complete transparency of financial contributions provided either directly to the campaign or through Political Action Committees (PACs).
  • Terminate all relationships with individuals or PACs accepting financing or other foreign assistance in their campaign and refer violators to legal prosecution.
  • Be completely transparent on the source of information placed on the internet or other public outlet by the campaign;
  • If elected, commit to:
  1. Strengthening U.S. laws on foreign interference in U.S. elections and increasing penalties for violators;
  2. Creating a comprehensive strategy with harsh penalties to respond aggressively to any future foreign influence in U.S. elections;
  3. Significantly improving assistance to state and local governments on standards, technical support and resources to ensure the security of voting and vote counting.

In the meantime, individual voters can take measures to limit the effects of covert foreign disinformation. They can recognize that political activists in all parties will interpret facts to the advantage of their candidates. The core issue is whether or not the parties are transparent in the sources of their information and the facts of their underlying assessments. In addition, voters can demand that candidates absolutely reject foreign financial and other support and commit to defending American elections and transparency.

Voters can also recognize the dangers of the internet. Each must determine for him- or herself whether information and conspiracy theories on the web are from established American sources or whether they are from foreign organizations and individuals with no record as a legitimate source of information.

For now, the public can strive to understand how foreign interference works and be cautious. At the national level, candidates for president and for Congress should make commitments to strong measures to ensure U.S. election security in the future and to put forth clear deterrence actions that will prevent foreign powers from undermining American democracy in the future.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. 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."