Opinion | National Security

While the world battles the coronavirus, our adversaries are planning their next attack

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Every nation is engaged in fighting the coronavirus. The pandemic has caused tens of thousands of deaths, and many nations are using drastic measures to fight its spread. While we seek to make common cause with our allies in this effort, it is worth remembering that our adversaries often use crises to further their agendas. Indeed, we already see leaders across the globe - many struggling with similar problems in their own nations - seeking to spread disinformation about the source and scope of this global pandemic. 

In the past few weeks alone, we have seen a doubling-down by China, Russia and Iran to conduct active media campaigns blaming the United States for the coronavirus. It is critical that our institutions, public and private alike, collaborate closely on efforts to tamp down the spread of false narratives, particularly as we approach the 2020 election cycle.

Our response to this threat is critical because these foreign-influence activities are not just aimed at convincing the Chinese, Russian and Iranian populations to ignore what is happening in their home countries. They also are designed to exploit, magnify and leverage divisions in our own population. These nations are engaged in a consistent effort to undermine Americans' confidence in our government, its leaders and our democratic institutions, to limit our ability to make key decisions and to distract us from our opponents' malign activities around the globe. And these efforts - which are likely to become more prevalent in coming weeks and months, and which will leverage both traditional means as well as cyber operations - present a very real threat to our national security.

The spread of the coronavirus has impacted the world in ways that go well beyond the threat to human health and the changes in our daily lives. It has fundamentally altered the relationship between governments and their citizens. In the United States, we have rapidly (and significantly) become more reliant on the government for information, access to lifesaving medical care and economic support. That has the potential to expand government's reach into our personal lives as we try to get visibility on the spread of the virus, raising significant privacy concerns. Given our penchant for self-reliance and jealous protection of our liberty, this expanding dependency and encroachment inevitably causes angst, particularly as questions persist about the government's ability to provide. The massive uncertainty created by the virus likewise has the public on edge and, when combined with the very real economic challenges it presents, this uncertainty and angst can quickly turn to fear and, in some cases, to anger or frustration.

This creates opportunities for those who seek to undermine confidence in democracy and our rule of law. We've seen some of these nations trumpeting the idea that authoritarian forms of government have an advantage over democracies. This is, of course, a false narrative but one that could gain traction. We likewise see nations such as Russia and China combining efforts to blame the United States with the public provision of aid to us and our allies, making themselves seem like saviors when, in fact, they are simply sowing seeds of doubt in the ability of governments to confront the threat at home. Nation-states rarely, if ever, act out of pure altruism, and that is true even during a global pandemic.

The problem goes well beyond just coronavirus-focused efforts. Our adversaries know that by calling into question the very legitimacy of our government and its leaders, as well as their efforts to combat the disease, they can stoke public division and anger and distract us from their efforts elsewhere. Thus, as we head towards the general election in November, we are likely to see these efforts become even more aggressive

For example, as various states consider changes to the timing and nature of elections, the potential vectors for further disinformation increase significantly. We've already heard concerns about the impact of delayed elections and new methods of voting. One can easily imagine our adversaries conducting influence operations to stoke fears about the motivations of state and federal leaders and to raise questions about the additional risks and vulnerabilities that new systems present. While many remain focused on the threat of vote manipulation, the fact is that votes do not need to be modified to successfully undermine political legitimacy. All that is really needed is the specter of undue influence by foreign actors, as we saw in the 2016 election. In many ways, this type of disinformation and political manipulation is more insidious and harder to identify than actual efforts to modify results.  

Given all of this, we must stay vigilant and must build the confidence of the American people in our systems and institutions. This starts with the larger effort to combat the coronavirus and return to some modicum of normalcy. In this effort, it is critical that leaders at all levels work together to counter this threat, recognizing that division and dissent amongst our leadership only plays into the hands of our adversaries. When it comes to elections themselves, there also is more to be done; while the federal government has been fairly effective in describing the general threat to states, most still need significantly more investment - and sustained federal support - to harden their systems. We know that, in prior elections, Russia targeted these systems for exploitation, and we can expect more such activity going forward.

Likewise, states need to move from defending in isolation to defending collectively. While having states lead elections has served us well - offering diversity and experimentation that make our system more resilient - we know that our adversaries are conducting nationwide campaigns, using similar tactics against various states. As such, taking a joint approach to defense makes good sense, particularly since no one state alone can realistically expend the kind of resources necessary. To that end, states must not only create a common operating picture of disinformation efforts and cyber attacks, but the federal government must contribute actionable information about the attacks being crafted overseas. Perhaps most important, we must recognize that threat-sharing is only effective to the extent that it helps us identify new threat vectors, rapidly close gaps and collaborate in real-time to combat the threats.

Finally, we must remember that this threat is a challenge to our allies, too. As people are forced to stay in their homes and face economic stresses, with governments struggling to keep up, the confidence in governments abroad may likewise fray. This makes our allies more susceptible to the type of manipulation that is the bread-and-butter of our opponents. As such, similar efforts to share knowledge and collaborate rapidly must be implemented with our allies. Now more than ever, it is critical that we not take our eye off the ball when it comes to the threats posed by our adversaries, and that we work collectively to defend against these threats around the globe. 

Gen. (Ret.) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the U.S. National Security Agency, the founding commander of United States Cyber Command, and founder, chairman and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, a startup technology company that focuses on behavioral network traffic analytics and collective defense.

Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush, and senior vice president for strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity. Follow him on Twitter @jamil_n_jaffer.

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