America must be serious with Russian election interference

America must be serious with Russian election interference
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The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament released a report on Russian influence in recent elections. The British media covered such security drawbacks, calling them willful ignorance or outright blindness. But this is more of a perfect storm that combines politics with the failure from imagination. What is clear is that Moscow sought to interfere in the European Union referendum, the Scottish referendum on independence, and the British election which Boris Johnson won for prime minister.

Yet the last few leaders of the United Kingdom all failed to see the Russian forest for the trees. Politics and hubris combined to ignore the threat. The security services found themselves in an awkward and unfair position. On the one hand, British intelligence warned of Russian activity but wanted to avoid wading into politics. This hot potato, as the British report labeled it, was perhaps best handed over to the Electoral Commission or the British agency that handles the media, both entities that are terribly prepared to handle the campaigns run by Russian intelligence and internet trolls.

This dynamic is not exclusive to London and is acutely felt in Washington. President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE appears reactionary to anything related to Moscow due to his fear that recognition of Russian influence in the election four years ago, or any point thereafter, would taint his administration or undermine its legitimacy. This is to say nothing of the confusing White House policy toward Moscow, which in the marked absence of any clear articulation of priorities, leaves conspiracy theories to run rampant on the internet.

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American intelligence also continues to warn of more influence activities coming later this fall. With fewer than 100 days before voters head to the polls, officials have warned that election security remains a priority in the intelligence community. However, there is only so much the intelligence community can do to bolster election security before this fall arrives.

Historian David Shimer wrote his book about how President Obama feared direct election tampering much more than foreign influence of voters in a major misunderstanding of the threat, and one that must have been better informed by American efforts to influence foreign elections. If Washington is not serious about foreign interference in American elections, be it from Russia or elsewhere, the very foundation of our democracy is at risk.

Congress needs to hold hearings on Russian and Chinese disinformation operations, what they are, what they mean, and how they are manifested online and otherwise. This means that members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should take off their partisan hats and serve the country as they should. There has yet to be a worldwide threats briefing, although one may be happening soon, but Congress must do more.

While it is overly hopeful and maybe even naive, Congress must set aside politics and with one voice declare that foreign interference in American elections is unacceptable. This cannot be a watered down statement, but a forceful declaration by both the Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill that such activity is unacceptable to the United States.

Congress must also raise pressure on the social media platforms that have continued to wash their hands of any responsibility. Lawmakers should not turn a blind eye to the use of social media platforms as means for election interference. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that it took advertisers pulling funding to change the behavior of Facebook on hate speech. What about Moscow gladly using it to interfere in the American election?

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The State Department, the Treasury Department, and intelligence leaders must be authorized to retaliate whenever interference is found. Whether with sanctions, naming and shaming, selective release of compromising information on foreign leaders and their dealings, or other mechanisms, consequences for foreign interference must be established. Russia and China will continue such activity since there is no real punishment.

As many experts have noted before, the United States must work to build a more educated population, one that is more immune to disinformation and propaganda. This is not about teaching the public what to think, but instead how to better engage with the information online and elsewhere that is shared. It is a generational endeavor, but it has to start now.

Foreign election interference should not and must not be a partisan issue. This is a threat to the foundation of our democracy, one that will taint and will affect both parties. American citizens must have confidence that this political system is strong, that their votes matter, and that candidates are elected freely and fairly. Anything less than that is unacceptable.

Joshua Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.