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The Russian connectionU.S. needs stronger response to Russian interference in presidential election: Expert

Published 18 August 2017

One of the greatest threats to the United States, Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist Paper #68, was “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” — “by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” John Cohen, former principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, says that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election shows how prescient Hamilton was. “During my entire career in homeland security, counter-intelligence and law enforcement, I have not seen a greater existential threat to America’s sovereignty and national security,” he says. “That so many political partisans appear so willing to overlook this threat is alarming – and reflects the national division that may have been one of the goals of the Russian campaign.”

Despite overwhelming evidence that Russia conducted a sophisticated campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election last year, many political commentators are downplaying the gravity of what happened. Are Americans taking last year’s events seriously enough, and are we prepared to protect our 2018 elections from interference?

Rutgers Today spoke with John D. Cohen, a Distinguished Professor of Professional Practice in Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. With more than thirty years of experience in law enforcement and national and international security, Cohen served as the acting undersecretary and principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Rutgers Today: Why should Americans be concerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election and the ways it is being discussed by political pundits and across social media?
John D. Cohen: Our founding fathers believed that one of the greatest threats to the United States was “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist Paper #68, “by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”

We can debate whether Russian intelligence services succeeded in changing the results of our 2016 presidential election. But the fact that the attack occurred is undeniable. It included cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee’s data system and a campaign chairman’s email account, and the release of hacked information by a third party. The Russians also sought to hack into dozens of state voter registration systems. Their efforts also included the sophisticated use of social media, targeting specific areas of the United States, to spread misinformation for the express purpose of influencing voters’ opinions about issues and candidates.

This attack embodied one of the greatest horrors our founders imagined. During my entire career in homeland security, counter-intelligence and law enforcement, I have not seen a greater existential threat to America’s sovereignty and national security. That so many political partisans appear so willing to overlook this threat is alarming – and reflects the national division that may have been one of the goals of the Russian campaign.

RT: Law enforcement and intelligence officials say America’s 2018 midterm elections are at risk of further Russian interference. Is America doing enough to defend against this possibility?
Cohen: I believe the federal government, Congress and the American people should be doing much more to protect the integrity of our 2018 elections and other future elections. We should have already begun a comprehensive, national effort to protect our election systems and voter information. This should include tight coordination between the DHS and state and local officials to identify and address areas where election and voter registration systems may be vulnerable to cyberattack, to share intelligence about potential threats and to support upgrades to enable rapid detection and mitigation of attacks as they are unfolding. Political campaign headquarters also must be equipped with advanced cyber-security tools and encryption capabilities.

RT: What role should Congress play in protecting against further interference?
Cohen: Members of Congress and other elected leaders must put country before party. They should articulate that it is unacceptable for any foreign entity to interfere with an American election – and for individuals within the U.S. to collaborate with such interference. Congress must ensure that its own inquiries and the special counsel investigation are protected from outside influence. The nation needs a full accounting of how the 2016 attack happened, who was involved and what lessons can be learned to protect against the next attack.

RT: What role do the American people have in protecting the integrity of their own votes in 2018 and beyond?
Cohen: We know that Russian agents used a well-organized network of “trolls” and social media technologies to conduct what the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described in its January 2017 declassified report as the “boldest” influence campaign targeting the U.S. Russia sought to influence voters with targeted misinformation. We don’t know to what degree American voters allowed themselves to be influenced last year, but each individual voter’s best defense against future influence campaigns is awareness and vigilance.

Each of us must use judgment and skepticism in the way we consume information, whether it appears on social media or is repeated by a political commentator. Before forming an opinion on a story, we owe it to ourselves to examine our own biases and try to learn whether the information comes from a reliable source.

Our response to the Russian attack on America’s sacred electoral process is not subject to interpretation based on our political affiliation or who we voted for last year. The fact that this sophisticated attack occurred and – according to all experts – will be repeated next year should be of utmost concern to every American.