THE INTELLIGENCE community’s top brass made one thing clear before a Senate panel on Tuesday: “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said. Russia, he continued, sees its past efforts as successful “and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
It says a lot that such truth-telling should seem remarkable. But for an administration run by a man who regularly stokes doubt about such facts, this was a refreshing dose of honesty from a group that included several of President Trump’s appointees. Though Mr. Trump may see talk of 2016 election meddling as a political threat — and, perhaps, further Russian involvement as a potential political benefit — there are many in the government who are appropriately alarmed at the hostile actions of a foreign adversary. The question is whether they will do enough, particularly without strong White House support, to counter the next Russian influence campaign.
Part of the problem was visible in the contretemps over the Nunes memo, propelled in part by Russian social media accounts, which the president ultimately used to issue trumped-up claims about law enforcement malfeasance in its Russia investigation. These tactics mirror other documented Russian influence efforts here and in European democracies aimed at inflaming preexisting social tensions. But the sowing of doubt and division is only one aspect of the threat. Even more alarming is the possibility that Russian cyberintrusions could disrupt voter-registration files, vote counting and election infrastructure, or cast doubt on election results.
The proper response to Russian aggression, as it was decades ago, is containment and deterrence, leveraging superior U.S. capabilities and relationships with strong allies. This starts by making it much clearer that Russia will pay a price for interference. In the absence of strong presidential leadership, Congress passed a raft of new sanctions on Russia over White House objections. But a Senate report found last month that the administration has slow-walked its implementation. Though CIA Director Mike Pompeo averred Tuesday that the administration is taking steps that he could not discuss openly, there is nevertheless a large policy hole that Congress must fill.
One bill, from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), would slap punishing sanctions on any foreign power interfering in another federal election. Lawmakers should pass the bill immediately, sending a strong signal to the Russians well before November.
States, meanwhile, should be seeking federal assistance, where needed, to shore up their systems against cyberattacks so as to prevent a repetition of the penetrations Russia carried out in 2016. They should also expedite the move toward voting machines that leave auditable paper trails. Congress should have provided more funding for this long ago, but state officials cannot wait another cycle before upgrading.
The private social networks that Russian influence operations often exploit have a responsibility, too. Foreign bots and trolls need to be weeded out and disinformation identified faster.
The president, whose only expressed concern following the 2016 election was about nonexistent voting fraud, may never admit to the real problem. That means everyone else in positions of responsibility must work harder.
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