Biden’s hard stand on foreign election interference signals funding fight
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a hard line against foreign election interference by pushing back against persistent cyber adversaries like Russia and Iran.
Biden took a hard line on the issue in the lead-up to last week’s election, warning as recently as October that countries seeking to interfere in U.S. elections would “pay a price.”
But beefing up cyber protections could set off a funding battle on Capitol Hill, one that has led to partisan deadlock in recent years over whether to provide states with steady security funds.
For some of Biden’s congressional allies, the first step is just talking publicly about the threat.
“Something that has been absent here is the president’s willingness to talk about election interference. That will not be the case under President Biden,” Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Armed Services’s subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities, told The Hill.
Earlier in the 2020 campaign, Biden laid out steps his administration would take on election interference, including sanctions, responses in cyberspace and asset freezes.
“I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice,” Biden said over the summer. “If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government.”
Jamal Brown, the national press secretary for the Biden campaign, said Monday that Biden intended to follow through on that pledge.
“President-elect Biden recognizes that foreign interference in our electoral process is a direct assault on our democracy, and will take action to deter and defend against attacks that impact our economy, our national security, and our way of life,” Brown said.
“Faith in our free and fair elections is the bedrock of our democracy and Biden will bring cybersecurity back to the fore as a national priority to ensure this faith is strengthened,” he added.
Biden’s stance on foreign election interference stands in contrast to that of President Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats and election experts alike for not doing enough to push back against the 2016 Russian interference, which included hacking and disinformation.
Still, the Treasury Department levied sanctions against individuals and groups involved in election interference, including the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm behind many election disinformation efforts.
Trump also confirmed during an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year that U.S. Cyber Command took steps to disrupt internet access for the building in St. Petersburg that houses the Internet Research Agency on the night of the U.S. 2018 midterm elections, halting efforts to spread disinformation as Americans went to the polls.
But those actions did little to shake the image of Trump standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Helsinki, where Trump refused to denounce the 2016 Russian election interference efforts.
The New York Times reported last year that former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to discuss Russian election interference with Trump but was told not to bring up the subject due to the president’s sensitivity to the topic.
That sensitivity extended to Capitol Hill, with Republicans and Democrats disagreeing over how to respond to potential election interference.
In the four years since Russian agents interfered in the 2016 election, Congress has appropriated more than $800 million to help states address election security, along with approving a handful of measures, including one signed into law by Trump last month making hacking a federal voting system a federal crime.
“I think part of the challenge has been that the Republicans have been somewhat constrained by the White House not wanting to engage on this issue,” said Michael Daniel, a former special assistant to President Obama and cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council.
“In some ways this may give the Republicans more space to negotiate,” Daniel, who is now president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, said of the incoming Biden administration.
Election interference was a key concern in the lead-up to last week’s election, particularly after the announcement by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in October that Iran and Russia had successfully gained access to U.S. voter registration information, and in Iran’s case had used that information to target threatening emails at voters in at least three states.
But Election Day was mostly quiet in terms of security incidents, something experts credit to increased coordination between all levels of government in recent years and upgrades to cyber defenses.
Congressional funds were used to purchase new election equipment and invest in cybersecurity, though election experts have said the $800 million was not nearly enough to cover the full expenses of securing the process.
With a new administration in power and a new Congress, funding is likely to be back in the spotlight.
“I am hoping that that is going to be much easier going forward. As you know, there was money this year that went out to the states … but there needs to be more,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a top lawmaker on cyber issues, told reporters during a press call Friday.
He cautioned that “we don’t want to create a moral hazard, we don’t want to have the states rely entirely on the federal government for what is essentially a state responsibility,” and emphasized that states should provide some level of matching funds.
Langevin on Friday described the $800 million from Congress as “just a down payment,” emphasizing that “what we need is $2 billion or $3 billion for new election equipment and things like securing our voter registration systems.”
“I believe that President Biden will take a very active interest in securing our election equipment and processes, and he’ll push back against any enemy or adversary that is looking to interfere in our elections, and be willing to respond with sanctions … that would make any enemy or adversary think twice,” Langevin added.
Daniel said he would push for continuous federal funding for election security, instead of funding bills here and there. A committed revenue stream, he said, would sidestep partisan battles going forward.
“The best thing is to put this squarely in the nonpartisan bucket. The past is the past and we are where we are now, and the real goal is to figure out how to continue to ensure the integrity of our electoral processes,” Daniel said. “That is really where the focus has to be.”