Suzanne Spaulding is the senior adviser for homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she is leading an initiative on countering operations designed to weaken our judicial system. From 2013 to 2017, she was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
As members of Congress prepare to question social-media executives this week about Russia's use of their platforms, they need to broaden their focus beyond elections. Our courts are at risk, too.
It is well understood that Russia is engaged in a strategic campaign to undermine support for democracy and weaken the United States. A key element of the West's appeal is the idea of an independent judiciary that protects the rights of individuals and ensures the fair and consistent application of the law. This pillar of democracy is particularly vulnerable to information operations because it relies so heavily on public confidence in the legitimacy of its outcomes. Active measures such as those used to undermine elections could also be used to threaten the credibility of our legal system. We need to call out any such efforts and strengthen the nation's resilience to them.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would sue in U.S. courts for the seizure of Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Putin taunted, "We will see how effectively the much-lauded American judicial system works." The next day, the Russian media outlet Sputnik ran an article headlined, "Russia Unlikely to See Justice in US Courts Over Diplomatic Property." This cynical use of the U.S. legal system goes beyond advancing Russia's tactical goal of challenging sanctions against it. If it doesn't get the answers it likes, Russia can simply use the decision to further a narrative that the U.S. judicial system is not as fair and independent as it's cracked up to be.
We are reminded almost daily of Russia's broad use of social media to foment discord in our country. But such campaigns have significant potential to fuel a lack of confidence in the legal system as well. Russian media outlets circulated a false story about a state prosecutor in Berlin failing to prosecute an alleged rape by immigrants. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov doubled down on the false stories, accusing German authorities of a coverup. Echoes of this approach can be found in Russian propaganda activities surrounding an incident in Twin Falls, Idaho, including placing a Facebook ad promoting an anti-immigrant rally at a time when Twin Falls authorities were falsely accused of covering up a child rape by Syrian refugees (there were no Syrian refugees involved and the case did not include a charge of rape). Russian Facebook ads have also sought to stoke the flames of racial division in the United States, including efforts to further polarize discussions of racial bias in the criminal-justice system.
What form would attacks on our judicial system take? Russian active measures often exploit existing weaknesses. Narratives that assert political biases in judges could be exploited by hacking and weaponizing information. Imagine the release of highly unflattering emails by elected judges or of internal judicial deliberations. False allegations could also be spread using social media to exploit polarization over issues in the courts. In addition, cyber-activity could be used to create an impression of institutional incompetence, for example, by altering court documents to undermine their reliability or conducting denial-of-service attacks that shut down court operations. Similar techniques could target investigators and prosecutors, particularly those looking into Russian activities.
In fact, our legal system may be targeted precisely because it can help to counter pernicious interference by foreign adversaries. Russia understands the important role of the judicial system in disclosing and prosecuting corrupt foreign influence. There is evidence that Russia's European influence operations have been most active where law enforcement and the judiciary were attempting to bring corrupt politicians or businessmen to justice or when a government attempted to undertake reforms to make its judicial system more accountable and independent. Tactics included the spontaneous creation of pro-Russia advocacy organizations or, more commonly, the spreading of salacious rumors about judicial branch officials by Russian-owned or -influenced media outlets. Institutions and judicial reform efforts were stymied, the capacity of the legal system was diminished, and public confidence in the rule of law rapidly decreased.
Given Russia's goals and success elsewhere with technology-enabled influence operations, why wouldn't it use these same tactics against our legal system? The Kremlin playbook here is easy to envision, but our strategy to counter it has yet to be built. Immigration and refugee policy, equal treatment under the law and racial justice are legitimate and important issues for Americans to debate and address. A foreign power manipulating these debates for its own ends, however, is a threat to our sovereignty and democracy. We must act before the attacks come.