In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released an assessment that concluded with “high confidence” that the Russian government, under the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, interfered in the United States’ 2016 presidential election. It stated that the goals of the influence campaign, which was conducted primarily by means of cyber, was to denigrate Hillary Clinton in order to damage her electability and a potential presidency. The assessment also determined that the Russian leadership developed a clear preference for the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, and they aspired to aid his election campaign by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him.
An important observation noted within the ODNI report into Russian activities and intentions during the 2016 presidential election was that the operation was “multifaceted”. The messaging strategy executed by Moscow was one that blended both covert intelligence operations, relying heavily on cyber operations in order to obtain compromising information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with overt efforts using third-party intermediaries to plant and disseminate false information. The ultimate goal being to release information in such a way that it would sow and exacerbate divisions among Americans in order to affect electoral outcomes.
As time passes, the evidence of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election only grows. The claims of the U.S. intelligence community are supported by numerous other American officials and agencies including both current and former officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and in the U.S. Congress. After previous denials, Facebook released a report in April of 2017, detailing the problem of “fake news” on their website and, although it didn’t credit Russia as the source of this disinformation, noted that the company’s data “does not contradict” the findings and attribution by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Twitter also recently doubled the number of U.S. users that may have interacted with a Russian propaganda account during the election, alerting 1.4 million people.
Despite the consensus with regard to the gravity and consequences of the Russian intervention, a comprehensive response by the U.S. government has been lacking thus far. Collating interviews with individuals that were subject to hacking, intelligence officials involved in the investigation, as well as members of the Obama administration that were part of deciding on the best response, a New York Times investigation found “a series of missed signals, slow responses, and a continuing underestimation of the seriousness of the cyberattack.” This emanated from a multitude of actors within the U.S. government bureaucracy including by the FBI, Democratic National Committee (DNC), and Obama himself who was reluctant to react and took relatively limited action after the election.
Under the Trump administration, the situation has not been largely entertained. Indeed, not only does Donald Trump refuse to recognize the evidence that the Russian operation took place, but he has repeatedly refuted them including calling the allegations a “hoax.” Blackwill and Gordon noted in an article for Foreign Affairs that “throughout his campaign and presidency… Trump has demonstrated a curious affinity for Russia in general and Putin in particular, often praising him and rarely challenging his policy position,” and perhaps it is this sympathy for Russian perspectives that can account for the lacklustre response to the issue his administration has demonstrated so far.
In view of the current administration’s disregard for it, the U.S. Congress has had to take the lead. Most prominently, it passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA) last July, which codified into law a series of sanctions that had been imposed under previous administrations and effectively blocked Tump from repealing them without congressional consent. CAATSA also introduced a series of other measures including authorising new sanctions applicable in response to cyber-intrusions, extended restrictions on Russian energy firms, extended the list of sanctionable sectors of the Russian economy, and mandated that sanctions target individuals assisting Russia to undermine the cybersecurity of democratic institutions.
Unfortunately, these potentially effective new tools have not been used by the administration and, while devoid of a vigorous response, it is likely that the Kremlin’s meddling will continue and even encourage other states to pursue operations along the same lines. A recent news report from the Campaign Legal Centre, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation, indicated as such and stated that elections in the United States were still vulnerable despite the abundant news coverage that has been dedicated to the apparent Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential vote. “There is every reason to believe that the experience of 2016 will be repeated in elections to come,” the Campaign Legal Centre warned. “The desire for foreign actors to influence or disrupt U.S. elections is not going away,” and “the question now is what we are going to do to stop them.”
One essential move that has been touted by analysists is for Washington to impose real costs on Moscow as a deterrent against future attacks. Thus far, the minimal sanctions that the United States has applied have been insufficient in communicating a strong message as to the severity of this kind of activity. Using the authorities provided in CAATSA, the administration does have the tools to improve this, such as by collaborating with European allies to freeze assets and impose visa bans on additional Kremlin officials known to have been involved in election interference. Similar sanctions could also be extended to participating Russian organisations, including “troll farms” and their funders.
Bolstering defences against influence operations intended to affect electoral outcomes is also vital. Of course, this must begin with strengthening the cybersecurity defences of federal networks and critical infrastructure at a technical level, but must also extend to increased training for government employees with regards to basic cyberattacks they may encounter, such as “phishing” emails. As salient conduits of information, safeguarding against future attacks also demands the participation of social media websites, who are already taking steps themselves to improve. For example, Facebook recently announced an effort to combat disinformation on its site via crowdsourcing to determine trusted sources of information. Such initiatives are necessary, but greater transparency must also be exhibited. This is especially true with regards to political advertising, as it should be made public who purchases them and for what audiences.
As cyberspace becomes increasingly relevant in world politics, effectively addressing the challenges arising from its use cannot be ignored. Trump’s own National Security Strategy concluded that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies” and that “Russia challenge[s] American power, influence, and interests.” Given the volume of evidence supporting the claim that Russia interfered in the United States’ 2016 presidential election, the Trump administration must take proportionate action in order to prevent its repetition.