Susan M. Gordon spent 31 years as a U.S. intelligence officer and was the principal deputy director of national intelligence from 2017 to 2019.

As you read this, foreign adversaries and competitors are actively seeking to manipulate the outcome of our elections.

There is zero doubt about this.

But the elections are the battlefield, not the war. The objective of these attacks varies by actor; in aggregate their intent is to disrupt our institutions, erode our internal and external power base, and undermine the most fundamental strength of our nation — our belief in ourselves and our system of government.

Let’s stop helping them.

We — the government, business leaders, and most importantly, individual citizens — must be better educated about the threats we are facing. When we turn on ourselves rather than seek accountability, when we tear down our own institutions rather than insist on better performance, and when we turn real social issues into divisive rhetoric rather than work for change, we are doing exactly what our rivals hope.

Until we understand the intent of our adversaries and shine a light on their activities as part of a concerted effort to defeat them, foreign governments will continue to use the digital public square — and our elections — as the vehicle to sow instability among us in order to further their nefarious intentions.

The threats are known. The three major actors cited by the intelligence community in its recent report of efforts to affect our elections — Russia, China and Iran — each have different intent, approaches and abilities. When the intelligence community reports, for example, that the Russians favor President Trump and the Chinese favor former vice president Joe Biden, it is not about any individual candidate, but about whose policies best serve their interests.

Russia’s intent is to undermine American democracy. During the Cold War, it conducted a global campaign of disinformation and disruption that continues today. The Russians are sophisticated, experienced and relentless, and they now have digital tools to amplify their efforts. That we exposed their activity will not deter them; rather, they will morph their efforts to find new ways to seed our digital systems with doubt and uncertainty.

China’s efforts, by contrast, focus on shaping U.S. policy and exploiting U.S. institutions to its advantage — particularly economic advantage. Its goal is to first exploit, then erode, the United States’ power and standing and increase its own global influence. While not specifically election-focused, its assault on our tech firms’ intellectual property is designed to chip away at our technical lead in the world. And the scope and volume of China’s activity create their own challenges.

Iran’s interests are narrower and more focused on Tehran’s internal priorities: to lessen economic pressure on itself, to impede our ability to build coalitions against it, and to reduce our presence and influence in the Middle East so that it might have more freedom of action.

Though foreign actors have been trying to advance their interests and manipulate our decision-making forever, the digital world we now live in — and its lack of clear governance — exacerbates the threat and amplifies the effect in some unexpected ways. Digital attacks allow a reach, speed, stealth and volume of action that is difficult to achieve in the physical world. Moreover, the effect of any single message in the digital public space can spread so quickly and amplified to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from lies. And even when inauthentic activity is detected quickly, whose responsibility is it to counter?

Fortunately, our election infrastructure is better organized to both detect and protect from attack than it was in 2016 or 2018. Public information sharing (which must continue), integration of security efforts across agencies and proactive countermeasures have all improved our defensive posture. And the private sector has awakened to how adversaries use its platforms to influence our thinking and to sow distrust and division. Business leaders are starting to invest in ensuring the authenticity and credibility of users and the information that their companies circulate so freely.

Nonetheless, we continue to help our rivals. Maddeningly, the national conversation around election security has turned vitriolic, diversionary and unhelpful, and we are doing our enemies’ work for them. When intelligence assessments are described as biased, when federal institutions are decried as inept or corrupt, when vague fears of widespread tampering with our physical election infrastructure are advanced, and when disagreement over policy and approach turns to accusation of illegitimacy, our enemies’ destructive goals are advanced as we busily attack ourselves.

So despite important gains, we have things to do as a country to thwart those who would corrupt our most fundamental privileges — the right to vote and to express ideas freely. Our leaders, our federal government and Congress, our states and localities, our private sector and our citizens all have roles to play in defending against the grave, persistent threat we face.

We need to keep exposing adversaries’ actions and intent, organize defenses at every level, pursue effective deterrence, commit sufficient funds so no one has to sacrifice security, recognize responsibility that comes with capability, and be discerning about the pedigree of the information we receive.

And most of all, don’t believe that our system is so broken that it can’t work. That’s exactly what our rivals want. Instead, let’s work to make our system and our actions be worthy of our ideals.

Watch Opinions videos:

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (The Washington Post)

Read more: