But there’s a backstop: The U.S. Cyber Command is quietly pushing ahead with the effort it began two years ago to “defend forward” against Russian influence operations — which means getting inside Russian cybernetworks to detect and disrupt attacks.
Cyber Command’s operations against Russia in recent months have been “very aggressive and very effective,” said one defense official — to the point that they’ve disoriented some Russian operations planners. Thanks to these efforts, it will be “virtually impossible” for the Russians or anyone else to penetrate voting systems in the roughly 8,000 jurisdictions around the country, the defense official said.
When it comes to the Russian election threat, Washington is a tale of two cities. Military commanders are doing their jobs independently and professionally. Political appointees in civilian agencies appear to be more susceptible to White House pressure. For a vivid illustration of the difference, compare two documents that emerged over the past month.
First, take a look at the article published in Foreign Affairs on Aug. 25 by Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the Cyber Command chief, and Michael Sulmeyer, his senior adviser. They wrote that Cyber Command has expanded the “hunt forward” strategy that “disrupted a concerted effort to undermine the midterm elections” in 2018. They pledged: “Together with its partners, Cyber Command is doing all of this and more for the 2020 elections.”
Nakasone bluntly told a House committee in March that Russia’s “willingness to launch destructive cyber operations and pervasive influence campaigns . . . remains the top concern when it comes to the 2020 elections.”
Measuring Cyber Command’s success is impossible. We don’t know what the Russians or others are planning this year, or whether they’ve been deterred. But the public commitment by Nakasone, who has strong backing from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should give the public some confidence in the integrity of our election system. In the end, this public trust is the key ingredient.
Now look at a second document, disclosed Sept. 8 by the House Intelligence Committee about alleged political interference at DHS. It’s a whistleblower complaint from Brian Murphy, the DHS official who oversaw intelligence and analysis until he was fired in August. In the blur of news this month, Murphy’s complaint hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
Murphy charged that in mid-May this year, DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf instructed him “to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.” When Murphy protested to his superiors, Wolf reiterated on July 8 that the intelligence about Russia should be “held” because it “made the President look bad,” according to the complaint.
Murphy was dumped after allegations that DHS had improperly gathered information about peaceful protesters in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere. But his complaint suggests that he was a political fall guy. Murphy said in the complaint that he wasn’t aware of any such surveillance actions, and that he would have refused to authorize them — but that Wolf told him his reassignment “would be politically good for Mr. Wolf.”
Wolf has rejected the whistleblower’s allegations. “We’ve been very clear about making sure that we call out Russia,” he told Fox News. It’s true that DHS has maintained a strong election security program — supervised by Christopher C. Krebs, head of its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — which maintains close contact with Cyber Command. But Wolf’s behavior undermines confidence in DHS’s political independence.
Trump’s campaign of denial on Russian activities has been relentless. He fired Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and his successor, Joseph Maguire. His appointees sought to prevent intelligence agencies from providing public briefings about Russian meddling. It’s unnerving that Trump remains so protective of the Kremlin, to this day.
With fewer than 50 days until the election, what safeguard does America have against foreign adversaries who would exploit our current divisions? The best protection is a responsible electorate. But it’s reassuring that our military — which swears its oath to the Constitution, not to any individual — has our backs.