Experts say latest Russia case exposes US election vulnerabilities

The indictment of a Russian national accused of trying to interfere in U.S. elections shows that not enough has been done to stop the country from launching a multimillion-dollar effort to influence American voters, experts say.

Both officials and experts have been warning for months that Russia is trying to influence voters after the country launched a cyber and disinformation campaign in the 2016 election. They say Friday’s indictment of a Russian national, revealing details of the alleged attempts to sway the public, combined with a U.S. intelligence warning of ongoing influence campaigns, is arguably the strongest message to date that the U.S.’s penalties against the country haven’t been enough to shut down the campaigns.

“This indictment makes it clear once again that the Russians spent millions of dollars in an organized effort to interfere in our election, and exacerbate divisions in our country, yet the president has done nothing,” David Kris, the former assistant attorney general for national security during the Obama administration and founder of Culper Partners consulting firm, said in an email to The Hill.{mosads}

“It is helpful that the American people are more aware of this influence campaign but that is not enough,” he continued. “This administration needs to hold Russia accountable and work to prevent them from doing this again.”

The 39-page complaint details how a Russian troll farm — included in an indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year — has moved forward with its work ahead of November’s midterm elections, despite the public charges and revelations on how it conducts its campaigns.

Friday’s complaint charged Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova with allegedly overseeing finances for “Project Lakhta,” a Russian umbrella group focused on political influence campaigns, including the Kremlin-linked troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.

Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities linked to the Internet Research Agency earlier this year, charging them with fraud and conspiracy in their efforts to influence the 2016 election.

But this latest indictment suggests the influence campaigns have continued, even after the group was publicly named and charged. The complaint alleges that the Russian accounts even used news of the indictments to try to spark political divisiveness.

“Russians indicted today: 13,” one of the accounts tweeted, according to the court document. “Illegal immigrants crossing Mexican border indicted today: 0 Anyway, I hope that all those Internet Research Agency f*ckers will be sent to gitmo.”

Around the same time the complaint was released on Friday, several top U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, warned of “ongoing campaigns” by Russia, China and Iran “to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.”

Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi told The Hill in a statement that the department “has certainly been aggressive at investigating interference and influence-related crimes and bringing charges when we are able across a wide range of influence and interference incidents.”

While experts noted that the Justice Department has previously brought charges against Russians for election interference, they still maintained that the U.S. has not done enough to counter election interference.

President Trump has been criticized in the past for taking too soft a stance against Russia, including when he appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election interference at a press conference in Helsinki earlier this year. Trump later backtracked that comment.

National security adviser John Bolton said Monday that he told officials at the Kremlin that he didn’t believe Russia had any impact on the 2016 election, but warned them against future attempts.

“The point I made to Russian colleagues today was that I didn’t think, whatever they had done in terms of meddling in the 2016 election, that they had any effect on it, but what they have had an effect in the United States is to sow enormous distrust of Russia,” Bolton told a Russian radio station. “And it’s a major obstacle to achieving agreement on issues where our national interest may converge, so I said, just from a very cold-blooded cost benefit ratio, that you shouldn’t meddle in our elections because you’re not advancing Russian interest, and I hope that was persuasive to them.”

But experts said the latest indictment shows how the government needs to take an even tougher approach with Moscow.

“The most significant thing is that it shows for the first time in a criminal charge … that the Russian campaign to interfere in our elections is not last elections news, but it’s a problem of right now,” said John Carlin, a former U.S. assistant attorney general for national security during the Obama administration. “This includes conduct aimed at our current elections in 2018.”

Carlin, the author of “Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat” and chairman of Morrison & Foerster’s global risk and crisis management practice group, said that while the U.S. has sanctioned Russia over its past election interference, it still hasn’t done enough to make the penalties for launching the interference campaigns outweigh the benefits.

He said that lawmakers should also pass legislation that would ensure sanctions be implemented in instances where foreign election interference was found to have happened.

Trump last month signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against foreign companies, organizations or individuals determined to have interfered in U.S. elections. The House passed a bill that would sanction nation-state-backed hackers earlier this year, and the Senate is also considering legislation aimed at deterring foreign nations from interfering in elections.

“I don’t think we’ve levied a response that should be equal to, but I think, greater than the harm that they’ve already inflicted,” Carlin said. “And that’s what it’s going to take to change behavior.”

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has testified before the Senate on Russian disinformation campaigns, said the complaint “showed that because we didn’t respond as a nation to Russia, they just continued to do it after the election.”

He said that after the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency moved to a larger headquarters where they were able to add to their staff and increase their work; the court document alleges that Project Lakhta’s proposed operating budget from January 2018 to June 2018 alone was more than $10 million.

“They not only saw the success in it, they increased their operations,” Watts said.

Josh Geltzer, the former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration and the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said he believes the White House has been “woefully dismissive” of foreign election interference threats.

However, Geltzer said the complaint shows that other parts of the executive branch, like the Justice Department, are continuing to investigate election interference. In addition to Mueller’s complaint against the Internet Research Agency, the special counsel has also indicted Russian military officers for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.

DOJ has also pressed charges and made allegations against other foreign hackers like North Korea.

Geltzer said he hopes the latest charges mean that the federal government will continue to pursue the actions against other nations who attempt to influence U.S. elections, and that future penalties against foreign countries are “more aggressive and more thorough.”

“It shows a willingness of a piece of the U.S. government and particularly the executive branch to forge ahead and investigate this sort of behavior and bring some criminal charges when that’s appropriate,” Geltzer said. “And there may be countries in the world who, at least at first, don’t find being named and shamed to be as bad as other countries might. But over time that can change.”

Tags Donald Trump Robert Mueller

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