USA Politics

As midterms approach, will US offer unified defense of its elections?

putting it in perspective

Lower and middle levels of government appear to be readying defenses against meddling, say experts. Robert Mueller’s indictment shows the United States knows a lot about what the Russians have been doing. The problem right now is the top, say critics.

From left, Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California discuss legislation requiring congressional approval to lift sanctions on Russia, Feb. 15, 2017.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP/File

Russia will try to meddle in the upcoming 2018 US mid-term elections. That’s something the nation’s intelligence agencies and most member of Congress agree on. Will Washington be unified in defense of America when they do?

That’s an important question, because it will take effort from the whole government, from top to bottom, to counter Russian electronic intrusions. Moscow’s strategy is multifaceted and well financed. Kremlin-linked social media trolls and bots, as revealed in last week’s indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller of 13 Russians and three Russian companies, are just one part of a larger strategy to further divide a nation already riven by its own partisan divisions.

Lower and middle levels of the US government appear to be readying their defenses, say experts. Mr. Mueller’s indictment shows the United States knows a lot about what the Russians have been doing. Officials have many retaliatory tools at their disposal, from indictments and sanctions to perhaps even cyber retaliation.

The problem right now is the top, say critics. President Trump personally seems to avoid specific denunciation of Russian hacking and cyber attacks. He instead treats it as a personal and domestic political issue, denouncing his predecessor while insisting that Russia’s interference had little to do with his own campaign.

“What I would like to see is presidential leadership ... the professionals in the administration have a lot of options for dealing with Russian aggression, and they need to start thinking [about how to proceed],” says Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of State for Europe from 2005 to 2009, and former ambassador to Poland.

Among other things, Mr. Mueller’s Feb. 16 indictment revealed in great detail the efforts of Russia’s Internet Research Agency to create false and robotic social accounts to try and heighten existing social and political divisions in the US.

This influence campaign will continue, according to US intelligence officials. It’s cheap, low-risk, easy to deny, and effective.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past effort as successful ... and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at a Feb. 13 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

'McMaster Incident'

At the agency and Cabinet level, officials are generally united in presenting the Russian operations as something worrisome the nation needs to counter. The problem is that sometimes their boss muddies that message.

Take last week’s “McMaster Incident.” At an annual security conference in Munich, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said, among other things, that evidence of Russian meddling in the US elections was “incontrovertible.”

Hours later President Trump tweeted out an addendum: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”

Democrats have seized upon such behavior as evidence for their contention that Mr. Trump puts his own well-being above that of the United States. At a Senate Armed Services Committee cyber subcommittee hearing last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut read DNI Director Coats’ statement on the Russia threat into the record, and noted that it was an assertion broadly accepted in Washington.

“It has been broadly accepted by everybody but the president of the United States, and in my view, that is the elephant in this room, that the president refuses to acknowledge this threat to our national security,” said Senator Blumenthal.

Overall record on Russia

It is indeed “distressing” that the person on the top seems unwilling to rhetorically lead his own government in a quiet conflict with a long-time adversary, says Mr. Fried, currently a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

That said, the Trump administration’s actual record in dealing with Russia as a whole “is in fact not all that bad,” says Fried.

Trump officials have maintained the Obama administration’s deployments of US military units to NATO’s eastern front, meant to counter Russian adventurism in the region. They have offered to sell advanced weapons to Georgia and Ukraine – a step the Obama team did not make. They have enforced Russia sanctions that were in place when they took office, including those put in place following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine.

But Trump officials also reportedly considered rescinding the Ukraine-related sanctions when they took office. They have been slow to implement a new set of sanctions passed nearly unanimously by Congress last summer, claiming that the mere passage of the law had a “deterrent” effect.

Within the current US government, there seem to be levels that treat Russia-related moves differently, says Fried. At the level of professionals – assistant secretaries on down – they proceed normally.

“When it reaches a political level ... things go sideways and get weird,” he says.

When it comes to further actions the US could take against Russian meddling, more indictments might be step one. Mueller’s moves may not actually haul Russian nationals into US courts, as Moscow will surely resist extradition. But it limits international travel for those named and puts Moscow on notice about how closely the US can track its actions.

Russia-linked bots and trolls may face new controls as the election approaches. The former are automated, and have no First Amendment rights. The latter are trickier, as “trolls” can be real people. But if they are located in Moscow they might at least be forced to reveal as much.

Some experts urge cyber-literacy campaigns to help US voters understand and recognize real information, and discern what might be a Russia-linked social media account.

“What I’m most concerned about is that we have nine months. And the American people are not educated as to what is going to happen to them. And that’s where I think our focus must lie,” said Heather Conley, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program, at the Senate cyber subcommittee hearing last week.

Prospect of US retaliation?

Then there is the possibility of in-kind retaliation. In recent months US officials, purposely or not, have dropped a number of hints that the US has struck back against Russia, quietly, with its own cyber meddling.

Notably, at last week’s Senate threat hearing, Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine complained to CIA Director Mike Pompeo that the US would have to have an offensive component to dealing with Russian meddling that didn’t seem readily apparent. Director Pompeo said that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Your statement that we have done nothing does not reflect the responses that frankly some of us at this [witness] table have engaged in,” Pompeo said.

Cyber weapons might not be good for deterrence, in the sense that nuclear weapons are, says Michael Poznansky, an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and expert on how leaders exploit secrecy for security. You can’t outline in advance what sort of damage you might inflict in return for an attack. That would expose too much about retaliatory capabilities that rely on secrecy for effect. It would put adversaries on notice as to what sorts of systems they need to harden against intrusion.

If coercion with cyber weapons is possible, it is likely attacks will play out in secret, says Dr. Poznansky. That may be what’s going on now.

“It’s possible the United States is doing stuff to Russia ... without publicizing it, which has the unintended consequence of making it seem to the American public like there is not a lot of leadership or flexing of US muscles in response to attacks,” he says.

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