The Russia connectionTen legislative proposals to defend America against foreign influence operations

By David Salvo

Published 23 April 2018

More than a year after Russia’s broad hacking and disinformation campaign of interference in the 2016 presidential election, and with midterm elections looming on the horizon, Congress and the Trump administration have not taken any clear action to increase U.S. defenses against the foreign interference threat. There are important steps we can, and must, take to defend our institutions against adversaries who seek to undermine them. Many of Russia’s tactics have exploited vulnerabilities in our societies and technologies, and loopholes in our laws. Some of the steps necessary to defend ourselves will involve long-term work, others will require clear action by the Executive Branch to ensure Americans are united against the threat we face, and steps to both deter and raise the costs on such actions.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 16 February indictment[1] of the Internet Research Agency, along with thirteen key individuals and two related entities, was another reminder for Americans of the coordinated attack mounted on our country’s democracy. In addition to the use of information operations outlined in the indictment, the U.S. intelligence community has documented Russia’s use of hacks on campaign related entities,[2] with stolen information weaponized and released via Wikileaks and other outlets, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has confirmed that at least twenty-one states had parts of their electoral infrastructure probed in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.[3] The Internet Research Agency purchased political advertisements and sponsored organic content on social media platforms aimed at amplifying socially divisive issues. This content reached over a hundred million Americans,[4] and the trend of exacerbating social divisions has continued on Twitter, in particular, over the past year and a half. Meanwhile, Russia and China are investing in advanced technology companies in the United States, acquiring both technical know-how and vast amounts of data that could facilitate the targeting of Americans.[5]

Director of National Intelligence Coats recently testified, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”[6] And other governments like China are learning lessons from Russia’s success. Americans were caught off guard by Russia’s actions, but now that we know the breadth and scope of their malign influence operations, we must plug vulnerabilities that Russia and other foreign actors will continue to exploit if we are to defend our democracy against foreign interference.