The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Troubling Conclusions About US Election Infrastructure

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its first of several bipartisan reports about its own investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference on Thursday. This one focused on Russian efforts against U.S. election infrastructure. The finding that dominated headlines was that Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states in 2016. This meant the Russian effort reached far deeper into the U.S. than previously understood by officials. What also caught people’s attention about the report was how heavily redacted it was. 

“There is far too much information in SSCI report on election interference redacted,” tweeted Carrie Cordero, a former senior Justice Department official and now general counsel for the Center for a New American Security. “The executive branch makes declassification decisions. I fear the intelligence community is going backwards on transparency. If that’s right, this is the wrong time, and wrong topic, to backslide.”

The report, with its worrying conclusions, provokes one overwhelming question: What can be done to stop this from happening again? Just Security’s Joshua Geltzer and the German Marshall Fund’s Laura Rosenberger pored over the report’s findings and offered these takeaways: 

Joshua Geltzer, founding executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection as well as a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. He served from 2015 to 2017 as senior director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is striking for one sentence that’s in it and one word that’s not in it. It’s the second of these two sentences that’s a remarkable statement from a bipartisan group of senators who spent the past two years investigating Russian election interference in 2016: 

“The Committee has received extensive testimony about these operations, the vulnerabilities that allowed them to occur, and the threat those vulnerabilities pose to the integrity of American democracy. Yet little has been done to prevent it from happening all over again.”

That, especially with Robert Mueller’s stark warnings during his congressional testimony on Tuesday still ringing in our ears, is a deeply concerning, even depressing, assessment with the 2020 election fast approaching. And it makes it even more unfathomable to think that, almost precisely as Mueller was issuing those warnings to the House on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was, on the Senate side, blocking two election security bills that had been recommended out of committee with bipartisan support. Those bills, if they became federal laws, would offer at least partial assistance in addressing some of the gaps in election security that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report confirms persist. Yet instead those bills now will languish in the Senate.

That deeply partisan act by McConnell in the face of a serious national security threat brings us to the word notably absent from the new report: Trump.

Not once does his name appear in the report, presumably reflecting a demand from Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in order to sign onto the report. In describing why the Russians worked assiduously to probe election systems like voting machines, the report rightly articulates objectives such as “undermining confidence in U.S. democratic institutions and voting processes.” 

But the report refuses to mention another motivation for Russia’s overall campaign of election interference in 2016, even though it’s already been articulated publicly by the U.S. Intelligence Community: to help Donald Trump get elected president. 

So it seems that two-plus years have left our country not only unprepared “to prevent it from happening all over again” but also unprepared to have a candid, partisanship-free conversation about what happened last time. That, too, is cause for concern, even as the report ultimately — and more encouragingly — offers a number of sensible, informed recommendations for improving U.S. election security. We desperately need to make the speedy implementation of at least many of them a bipartisan priority–at last.

Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy. Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council.

This bipartisan SSCI report confirms much of what we already know — that Russia’s attacks in 2016 sought to undermine public confidence in the integrity of our elections, exploited gaps and seams in government, and targeted every state in the nation. While the major findings are not new, the report provides additional detail on the attacks and the vulnerabilities they exploited — including that the cyber efforts began in 2014, in line with when the Internet Research Agency’s social media information operations started.

The report notes important efforts that have been taken since 2016 to address gaps in information sharing and upgrading security protocols, but underscores the need for more work in critical areas. In particular, the report highlights that the Department of Homeland Security and FBI warnings did not provide enough information or go to the right people about the 2016 efforts. The surprise expressed by Florida officials earlier this year when Mueller’s report revealed that a Florida county had been breached in 2016 underscores the continued gaps and need to institute better protocols for information sharing across and between levels of government. 

The report stresses the challenge of ensuring that discussion of threats against elections does not undermine public confidence in our voting systems — something that is particularly important in light of the potential for foreign actors to combine cyber attacks with information operations claiming that an election was rigged. This is the most important reason for additional action — facilitated by additional funding from the federal government — for states to upgrade and secure their election systems (including securing voter registration database, in addition to voting machines), so that the public can have confidence that all possible steps have been taken to secure those systems. 

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

 

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