A Model for Countering Foreign Disinformation and Interference in Elections

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded, among other things, that the United States government’s failure to prevent the attack was due to failures “in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.” The report’s findings and recommendations set in motion a series of sweeping changes to how the government organized itself to address a grave national security challenge. While the nature of the threat posed by foreign disinformation and interference in elections is different in many ways, the threat it poses to our democracy is nonetheless severe. Yet, more than three years after Russia attacked the U.S. by interfering in the 2016 presidential election, the government’s response has suffered from a similar failure of imagination and mismanagement, leaving the country far too vulnerable to another foreign attack on our elections in 2020.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush led a bipartisan effort to establish a national mission center focused on counterterrorism, now embodied as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). How the U.S. government organizes to respond to the threat of foreign disinformation and interference in elections demands no less than a coordinated, comprehensive approach akin to the NCTC. Given that President Donald Trump has publicly and privately solicited foreign assistance to help his candidacy in the upcoming election, it is up to Congress and his successor to take steps to implement such a plan.

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To be sure, the U.S. government has taken a number of important steps since 2017 to address the threat. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, stood up an election security initiative and coordinating council to facilitate the sharing of threat information, provide cybersecurity assistance, and coordinate responses with state and local officials. The FBI established a Foreign Interference Task Force to “identify and counter malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States,” with a focus on investigations and operations, information sharing, and partnerships with the private sector. As part of this task force, the FBI’s Protected Voices initiative is specifically designed to provide tools and resources to political campaigns, companies, and individuals to defend themselves against cyber-enabled disinformation operations. Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) established an election security initiative, which included the creation of an Election Threats Executive, whose responsibilities include integrating all election-related activities, initiatives, and programs across the Intelligence Community in support of other federal departments and agencies. And finally, the Department of Defense, through the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, created an Election Security Group to “disrupt, deter, and degrade adversaries’ ability to interfere and influence U.S. elections.”

Collectively, these initiatives are a step in the right direction. And the ODNI’s Election Threats Executive office, in particular, provides a solid starting point. But not all of these initiatives—most notably, efforts to share intelligence and threat information with state and local officials—have been fully operationalized, as the Government Accountability Office concluded in a recent report. Moreover, similar to our pre-9/11 approach to terrorism, these activities appear largely siloed, in some cases duplicative, and lacking in an overall strategy and approach to countering the threat in a comprehensive, sustainable way. Simply put, there’s no quarterback and no game plan for the U.S. government. Most importantly, the current approach does not appear to be working, as evidenced by recent reports that Russia is again working to intervene in the presidential election with the aim of helping Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Trump. Fortunately, there’s a model the U.S. government applied in the counterterrorism context that provides a potential template for addressing this threat over the long run.

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The lessons from 9/11 are instructive and should be internalized in considering what an effective whole-of-government response might look like in the context of countering foreign disinformation and interference in elections. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, “The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century.” One could easily replace reference to “the 9/11 plot” with “Russian interference in the 2016 elections” and arrive at the same conclusion. Based on the work of the 9/11 Commission, one of the most significant reforms was the establishment of the NCTC. Among other things, the NCTC has responsibility for: coordinating and integrating the counterterrorism activities across the federal government; chairing interagency meetings on terrorism threats; producing integrated, coordinated analytic assessments on terrorism issues; managing a 24/7 operations center to provide real-time situational awareness of threats and incidents; and providing relevant information to federal, state, local, and tribal officials. The director of the NCTC, a Senate-confirmed position, also plays an important role by serving as the principal adviser to the DNI and the president on terrorism and regularly briefing Congress and the public on terrorist threats at home and abroad. Moreover, the director of the NCTC is uniquely charged with conducting strategic operational planning for the U.S. government’s counterterrorism activities, and for reporting directly to the president with respect to such matters. Given the number of vacant national security positions in the Trump administration, it’s worth noting that both the NCTC director and deputy director are currently serving in “acting” capacities. Nevertheless, NCTC is the U.S. government’s quarterback for addressing the terrorism threat. The success of the NCTC has led to the establishment of similar national mission centers focused on counterintelligence and cyber.

So, what would a NCTC model look like in the context of countering foreign disinformation and interference in elections? Building on the foundation of the ODNI’s Election Threats Executive office, such a center could include, among other things: serving as the lead analytic arm for coordinating and producing assessments of threats to U.S. elections; being the focal point for providing threat information to state and local officials; managing an operations center that provides real-time situational awareness of foreign disinformation operations and other threats aimed at elections; and chairing interagency meetings on the capabilities, plans, and intentions of our adversaries and emerging threats to U.S. elections—an important role given the absence of an assistant to the president for Homeland Security in the current White House. Like the NCTC director, a Senate-confirmed director of the center could be charged with leading strategic operational planning, and serve as the primary interface with Congress, our allies, and the public on foreign disinformation and other interference threats to U.S. elections. She or he could also be an advocate within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill for mission prioritization, strategy, and funding. Finally, similar to NCTC’s staffing model, the center could include experts from throughout the government who are trained in all-source intelligence, cybersecurity, information operations, covert action, and U.S. elections in order to develop a cadre of civil servants with deep expertise on foreign disinformation and other election threats.

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While the executive branch could unilaterally establish such a center through an executive order, this momentous undertaking should involve congressional action to make the effort more meaningful and enduring. Congress should pass legislation to establish and fund the center. But Congress must not stop at this point—the threat demands more than just a well-structured and well-equipped organization. Because foreign disinformation and interference in elections are ultimately aimed at swaying the population, it is of paramount importance that Americans be made aware of and understand malicious foreign activities. To this end, Congress also should pass a public reporting requirement. Mirroring other similar transparency legislation, such a measure should mandate that ODNI—or a future national mission center focused on countering foreign disinformation and interference in elections—provide a report to relevant congressional committees and the public within a certain period of time after determining with high confidence that a foreign actor is planning or engaging in election disinformation or interference. Congress could permit inclusion of a classified annex in the report to Capitol Hill in order to protect sources, methods, and other truly sensitive national security information. But to the extent possible, the unclassified portion—which ODNI or the future center should provide simultaneously or within a short period of time after sending to Capitol Hill—should contain, at minimum, the actor(s) undertaking the effort, the assessed motives, the methods or messages employed, and the targets.

This public reporting requirement would also serve the purpose of removing the president’s or congressional leadership’s political desires from the decision to disclose. As recent news has demonstrated, Trump, or any future president, may perceive an incentive for keeping Congress or the public unaware of foreign disinformation or interference. After all, according to reports, Trump recently dismissed the acting DNI for precisely this reason—i.e., an ODNI official informing Congress of Russia’s preference for Trump in the 2020 election. A statutory obligation, however, would provide ODNI (or the future mission center) an excuse to disclose foreign disinformation or interference without needing to worry as much about drawing the ire of any interested parties, such as the president of the United States. And to the extent there’s confusion, as there appears to be in this case, over what precisely the IC may have briefed to congressional committees behind closed doors, a public reporting requirement would help set the record straight. Moreover, the public reporting requirement would help address the type of dilemma—concerns about appearing to use levers of government to put a “thumb on the scale” in the election—that President Barack Obama faced in 2016 when deciding whether and how to publicly disclose Russian interference. Here, too, the administration would be able to point to the statutory reporting requirement.

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The mere establishment of such a center should not be viewed as a panacea. The creation of the NCTC has not eliminated the terrorist threat to the United States, but it has improved our ability to manage the risk. Indeed, much more can and must be done—by both the executive and legislative branches—to comprehensively address the threat of foreign disinformation and interference in elections. A good start would include passing election security-related bills that have been held up in the Senate. But this center could be a crucial piece of the puzzle, helping to drive the mission and deliver a coherent, whole-of-government approach to the problem.

Absent a more concerted effort and national strategy to safeguard our democracy from foreign adversaries, the 2020 elections—and future elections—will remain vulnerable to the same attacks we witnessed in 2016. As former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified to the House Intelligence Committee last year regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

This article was written in Benjamin Haas’ personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of Human Rights First. 

About the Author(s)

Brett Holmgren

Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council; previously served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and a CIA counterterrorism analyst.

Benjamin Haas

Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First, Former Army Intelligence Officer, Graduate of West Point and Stanford Law School - Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).