The Most Extraordinary Lesson of Two New Reports on Russian Disinformation: What They Reveal About White House Paralysis

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just released two new reports on Russian disinformation, revealing in unusually rich detail the scope of Russia’s interference not only in the 2016 U.S. presidential election but also in our day-to-day democratic dialogue since. One report was prepared by New Knowledge, and the other by the University of Oxford and Graphika. Each report’s specific findings are well worth close study by anyone concerned with foreign interference in U.S. elections and our broader democratic processes; so is an excellent summary offered by New Knowledge’s cofounder Renée DiResta. (Full disclosure: Renée and I both serve on the editorial board of Protego Press.)

But the most extraordinary aspect of these vital new reports transcends any particular finding. It’s the institutional origins of these reports. It took a congressional committee commissioning reports from outside entities (private and academic) to produce, almost two full years into the Trump presidency, the fullest public accounting the American public has received of the serious new threat our democracy faces. That’s downright remarkable.

It’s also inexcusable insofar as the executive branch is concerned. At the most basic level, the American people deserve to know what happened in the 2016 election, what’s been happening since, and what the new threats are that we’re facing. What’s more, the spread of disinformation is the rare type of national security threat for which informing the public actually can diminish the threat: if Americans know what to look out for online and what not to accept at face value on social media, the power of disinformation deliberately spread by hostile actors is reduced. (There’s some comparison to be made here to terrorism, whose second-order effects can be mitigated by public education and cultivated resilience; but the comparison is imperfect, as there’s still a direct lethality to acts of terrorism.) In France, schools are teaching students how to spot disinformation on social media; but, here in the United States, the President periodically refuses even to acknowledge the threat. Indeed, he often aggravates the threat, by amplifying and disseminating disinformation; but that’s not my focus here. Rather, as we sift through these reports’ extensive findings, we must remind ourselves that we’re now set to enter the third year of flat-footedness on the part of this administration when it comes to addressing disinformation spread by foreign adversaries. In that sense, the very issuance of these reports and the novelty of what they still reveal serve as an indictment of the White House’s persistent inaction. And, while it’s not clear if technology companies would share with the executive branch exactly the same data provided to Congress for purposes of producing these reports, surely the executive branch could produce something comprehensive and informative based on the data to which it does (or could) have access.

The Trump administration’s shortcoming on this issue is no mere oversight on the President’s part, of course. Trump seems to have made clear to those around him that even acknowledging the threat posed by foreign election interference is unacceptable, lest doing so calls into question the validity of Trump’s own victory in 2016. A few months ago, National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that “the President has taken command of this issue;” but we’ve seen precious little from Trump’s executive branch to substantiate that before or after.

That sin of omission makes it all the more important that the Senate Intelligence Committee has taken a bipartisan approach to investigating this particular set of issues and now has provided all of us with these two compelling, if disturbing, new reports. When a President refuses to protect and defend our nation from a new type of national security threat, others must. The new reports make for astonishing reading—but, at the end of the day, what’s most astonishing of all is that we haven’t seen this before from our own executive branch. 

About the Author(s)

Joshua Geltzer

Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@jgeltzer).