LAWMAKERS DO not need to listen to Robert S. Mueller III to know that Russians mounted a sweeping and systematic campaign to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. They need only to listen to their own colleagues. A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee offers bipartisan confirmation of Moscow’s meddling — and the imperative to protect against it.
The report, released Thursday, adds an alarming coda to a story already familiar to many Americans: Russians likely scanned voting systems in every state to assess whether they were vulnerable to manipulation. Officials have found no evidence that any results were changed or machines compromised, but the authors admit that conclusion is an uncertain one. Russia might have intended to lay the groundwork for a future strike, perhaps in 2020. Or it merely might have sought to sow doubt about the election’s legitimacy by proving its ability to interfere.
The report confirms the need for a whole-of-government approach to combatting foreign interference in U.S. elections. A woeful lack of coordination crippled authorities from detecting and deterring incursions three years ago, and it continues to do so today. The warnings about Russian activity that the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation gave election officials were not only too little; they were also too general, offering localities no reason to see the threat as a systematic assault by a hostile nation. Some of those warnings did not even go to the right people.
When the federal government disclosed two years ago that Russians had targeted 21 states, authorities communicated with their state partners so poorly that many assumed they were among the lucky 29. Some even sent out press releases. Now it turns out all 50 states were probed.
A whole-of-government approach is impossible to achieve when the head of government is hostile to any meaningful action. President Trump appears to interpret any defense against or even mention of Russian interference as an attack on the validity of his victory. That means even the positive steps those in his administration have taken have been piecemeal. Senators give the DHS credit for stepping up its efforts to aid states with cybersecurity, but more facilitation of federal-to-local cooperation is needed. News this month that Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats has appointed a single individual to coordinate within the intelligence community was encouraging in one respect and terribly discouraging in another: It told us no one was doing the job before.
Voting systems for 2020 remain unsecured, and without federal standards in place, states are purchasing new software that will be out of date by the election. Congress could step in — if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not insist on blocking every relevant bill that comes his way, no matter how bipartisan. Democrats in the House have passed a package that mandates the adoption of paper ballots along with audits to ensure voting machines have not been tampered with; their counterparts in the Senate, led by Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), have introduced a companion bill that also sets standards for critical infrastructure such as registration databases and results-reporting websites. Other legislation would allow national party committees to provide cybersecurity help to cash-strapped campaigns. But none of these much-needed proposals is likely to go anywhere.
Mr. McConnell has long argued that federal government should not interfere in a realm traditionally reserved for states. The Intelligence Committee’s report largely holds that line in its final recommendations, with a handful of Democrats dissenting. But the preceding 50-some pages prove the opposite: Local officials have neither the money nor the expertise to counter a foreign-sponsored disinformation campaign, just as a small-town sheriff, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) puts it, could not be expected to defend against an aerial assault from a foreign enemy. “There could well be a desire for chaos in the elections,” Ms. Klobuchar told us. It is clear that is what Russia wants. Is it what the president and his allies want, too?