The Justice Department plans to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy under a new policy designed to counter hacking and disinformation campaigns such as the one Russia undertook in 2016 to disrupt the presidential election.
The government will inform American companies, private organizations and individuals that they are being covertly attacked by foreign actors attempting to affect elections or the political process.
“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who announced the policy at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. Rosenstein, who has drawn President Trump’s ire for appointing a special counsel to probe Russian election interference, got a standing ovation.“The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda,” he said.
The Obama administration struggled in 2016 to decide whether and when to disclose the existence of the Russian intervention, fearing that without GOP participation it would be portrayed as a partisan move. Concerns about appearing to favor the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, weighed on President Barack Obama, who was reluctant to give then-GOP-nominee Donald Trump ammunition for his accusation that the election was rigged.
“If this disclosure requirement had been around in 2016, I firmly believe that it would have served as a meaningful deterrent after Russia’s interference was first discovered, and it would have informed voters more quickly and more forcefully that a foreign government was trying to affect their vote,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who two years ago pressed the Obama administration to call out Russia’s activities.
Rosenstein said the Russian effort to influence the 2016 election “is just one tree in a growing forest. Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.”
He cited Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who last Friday said that Russia’s actions have continued. “As Director Coats made clear, these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,’ ” Rosenstein said.
At the Aspen Forum on Thursday, a Microsoft executive said that Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, has targeted at least three candidates running for election this year. Tom Burt, the company’s vice president for customer security and trust, said that his team had discovered a spear-phishing campaign targeting the candidates. Spear-phishing is a technique hackers use to trick victims into clicking on malware-laced links in emails that enable access to the victims’ computers.
Twelve GRU officers were charged last week by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with conspiracy for their role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the transfer of thousands of emails to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which published them at key moments in the campaign.
Pressure has been building on the Trump administration to commit to informing the public when the government becomes aware of a foreign influence operation targeting U.S. democracy, with lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees debating passage of such a requirement that would give it the force of law.
“It’s absolutely crucial that the intelligence community lean forward, push the envelope on sharing as much of that information as possible, because one of the biggest challenges we have is on education of the public, of the electorate, on foreign, read Russian-
influence operations,” said former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who last year at Aspen called for such transparency.
He called the move “quite significant” and said “making that a standard policy across the government is a good one.” Other agencies, he said, “will take a cue” from the Justice Department, which is part of the intelligence community and receives information from spy agencies.
The policy, which is part of a report issued on a new Cyber Digital Task Force, set up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, also specifies that in considering whether to disclose information, the department must protect intelligence sources and methods, investigations and other government operations.
“Partisan political considerations must play no role in efforts to alert victims, other affected individuals or the American public to foreign influence operations against the United States,” the policy states. A foreign influence operation will be publicly disclosed “only when the government can attribute those activities to a foreign government with high confidence,” it said.
Rosenstein noted that influence operations are not new. The Soviet Union used them against the United States throughout the 20th century, including in 1963, paying an American to distribute a book claiming that the FBI and the CIA assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
The new task force for the first time spelled out five types of threats covered under foreign influence operations.
Hackers can target election systems, trying to get into voter registration databases and voting machines. Foreign operatives can pursue political organizations, campaigns and public officials. They can offer to assist political organizations or campaigns, while concealing their links to foreign governments. They can seek to covertly influence public opinion and sow division through the use of social media and other outlets. And they can try to employ lobbyists, foreign media outlets and other foreign organizations to influence policymakers and the public.
“Public attribution of foreign influence operations can help to counter and mitigate the harm caused by foreign-government-sponsored disinformation,” Rosenstein said. “When people are aware of the true sponsor, they can make better-informed decisions.”
Foreign governments “should not be secret participants” in U.S. elections, “covertly spreading propaganda and fanning the flames of division,” he said.
The task force works closely with the FBI, whose director, Christopher A. Wray, last year established a Foreign Influence Task Force to focus on the same issue. The Justice Department task force is broader but includes as a key component foreign influence activities.
To counter foreign influence, the department will aggressively investigate and prosecute such activities, and will work with other departments, such as Homeland Security, to share information about threats and vulnerabilities with state and local election officials, political organizations and other potential victims so they can take measures to detect or prevent harm, the report said.
It also noted that the Justice Department supports other agencies’ actions, such as financial or diplomatic sanctions and intelligence efforts. The department also is forming strategic relationships with social media providers to help them identify malign foreign influence activity.
Shane Harris contributed to this report.