After brazenly interfering in the 2016 US election, Russia now “perceive[s] . . . its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.” That was the warning delivered by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on behalf of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) as part of the worldwide threat briefing that took place February 13, 2018.
Speaking alongside CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray, among other senior intelligence officials, Coats stressed to Congress the “need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is going to be happening, and the resilience needed for us to stand up and say we’re not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we ought to run our country.” Later that same week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) further pulled back the curtain on the extent of the threat when it released a thirty-seven-page grand jury indictment that charged thirteen Russian nationals and three companies and described in detail a large-scale, coordinated Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election and sow division in the US electorate. In a second indictment, released in July 2018, the DOJ charged twelve Russian military intelligence officers with leading extensive hacking efforts to steal troves of presidential campaign communications and state boards of elections voter data and the strategic release of stolen documents to affect the election.
While 2018 has seen significant details emerge, including reports that the Office of Special Counsel is examining data acquired by Cambridge Analytica regarding social media usage, core elements of the narrative and the national security community’s high level of confidence in the bottom line have been emphasized to the American public for over a year. Indeed, what Coats conveyed in February 2018 about Russia’s future aims—and what the indictments from the Special Counsel illuminated about Russia’s past actions—closely tracked the position of the US Intelligence Community at a similar congressional hearing more than a year earlier.
The bottom line assessment that Russia interfered in the past and will continue this type of activity in the future has long been broadly held in Congress by members of both political parties. They are informed by the fact that national security experts of all persuasions have expressed concern that the aftermath of the 2016 election will only embolden Russia and other US adversaries to try again in the future. Indeed, while the context and many of the witnesses were different, the warning from Coats essentially repeated one conveyed at a hearing two months into the new administration when then FBI director James Comey and National Security Agency (NSA) Director Mike Rogers testified before Congress in March 2017 and sounded the alarm about interference in the 2018 election in unusually stark terms.
If the leading intelligence officials had warned more than a year and a half ago of a likely foreign attack on any other aspect of American society, it is hard to imagine anything less than an all-out bipartisan effort in Congress and in the White House to secure the nation. In July 2018, Coats warned that US digital infrastructure “is literally under attack” and that “the warning lights are blinking red.” And yet, over the past year, the dire predictions on this topic from experts are not generating national action—and few concrete proposals appear to have any significant traction among policy makers.
The inaction is increasingly part of the problem, as Russia and the Putin regime are able to exploit the fact that the country’s political attention has been fixated on—and deeply polarized by—the investigation into what happened in the 2016 election. The Russia inquiry has occupied the field and diverted attention away from planning for the future. Without question, there are difficult policy choices to make, including defining the red lines these activities cross, building a credible public case for what happened, and identifying a proportionate and effective US deterrent. Many of these challenges are exacerbated by the virtual realm in which the hostile activities took place. This makes it more difficult for the activities to be “seen” by the public than in the case of a kinetic attack and complicates the task of rallying the public behind a decisive response. (Some of these challenges are discussed at greater length below.)
This paper contends, however, that the inaction partially stems from political and bureaucratic obstacles to preparing a US response to any future interference—including obstacles to overcoming public apathy, the concern that any measures taken might favor one political party, and federalism questions that arise whenever the federal government considers proposals affecting state election conduct. The summer’s imbroglio over President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki—at which Trump drew immediate criticism for his statement that “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that hacked the 2016 election only to quickly assert that he had meant the exact opposite—is but the most vivid example of how the public debate related to all things Russia reflects not just drastically different policy assessments and prescriptions but also vastly different depictions of the facts. Additionally, efforts to prevent election interference in the future raise important questions about the role of social media companies and other private actors in protecting their platforms against exploitation by foreign adversaries—as well as the limits of the federal government’s ability to act.
Addressing future interference now and not in the run-up to the 2020 US elections is critical to mounting a more effective response to any future interference.