The former managers of Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns are leading a new initiative called “Defending Digital Democracy” in the hopes of preventing a repeat of Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s 2016 campaign chief, and Matt Rhoades, who managed the 2012 run of GOP nominee Romney, are heading up the project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in one of the first major efforts outside government to grapple with 21st century hacking and propaganda operations — and ways to deter them.
“The Russian influence campaign was one of the most significant national security events in the last decade, and it’s a near-certainty that all the other bad guys saw that and will try to do something similar in the United States in 2018 and 2020,” said Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Belfer Center, which launches the initiative Tuesday.
The bipartisan project aims to develop ways to share key threat information with political campaigns and state and local election offices; create “playbooks” for election officials to improve cybersecurity; and forge strategies for the United States to deter adversaries from engaging in hacks and information operations, among other things.
Russian government hackers broke into the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016, and some of that material was later leaked to WikiLeaks and published online, sowing discord within the Democratic Party. The hacks were part of a larger campaign to influence the election to undermine Clinton’s candidacy and help Donald Trump win the White House, according to a January report by U.S. intelligence agencies.
It was, intelligence officials said, the most brazen effort yet by the Russians to interfere in an American election and exploited the Internet to “weaponize” political information and manipulate public opinion. They did so by posting hacked emails online and corralling armies of bots to spread and amplify news articles on social media that contained material damaging to Clinton’s campaign — some of it false.
The Russian government has intervened in other countries’ political institutions — in the Netherlands and France, for instance.
“Over the last two years nearly every election on both sides of the Atlantic has been affected by foreign cyber attacks, including Hillary Clinton’s in 2016,” Mook said in a news release. “This project will find practical solutions to help both parties and civic institutions that are critical to our elections better secure themselves.”
Cyberhacks “affect people of all political stripes,” Rhoades noted in the news release. In 2012, Chinese hackers targeted Romney’s campaign. “That means we all need to work together to address these vulnerabilities.”
During the 2016 campaign, the Obama administration struggled to win buy-in from several GOP state election officials for offers of help from the Department of Homeland Security to secure their electoral systems. Several officials objected on grounds that such help would represent a federal takeover of the states’ role managing elections.
The initiative leaders say they have spoken with state officials from both parties, and hope that as a bipartisan, nongovernmental group they will be able to win cooperation and trust where the federal government could not.
“We want to be able to fill a gap where it looks like there is one, and make a difference,” said Rosenbach, who was Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s chief of staff from 2015 to 2017.
The project is bringing together key political players and experts in national security and the tech sector to attack the problem. They include Google’s director of information security, Heather Adkins; Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos; Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the cyber firm CrowdStrike; the National Security Agency’s former director of information assurance, Debora Plunkett; Stuart Holliday, former U.S. ambassador for special political affairs at the United Nations; and Nicco Mele, director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.