DOJ’s new initiative: Alerting public to foreign-influence activities targeting U.S. democracy

The Post reports that Tom Burt, Microsoft vice-president for customer security and trust, on Thursday told the audience at the Aspen Forum that the GRU — Russia’s military intelligence, which has been ordered by Vladimir Putin to orchestrate the broad hacking and disinformation campaign to undermine Western democracies — has targeted at least three candidates running for election this year. Burt said that his team at Microsoft had discovered a spear-phishing campaign targeting the candidates.

Last Friday, the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged twelve high-level GRU officers for their roles in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and in coordinating with WikiLeaks the publication of thousands of emails on WikiLeaks. The stolen emails were published at key points in the campaign in order to inflict maximum damage on Clinton. The special counsel, among other things, is investigating whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign helped the GRU and WikiLeaks select which emails should be published, and when they should be published.

Former DNI James Clapper told the Post that “It’s absolutely crucial that the intelligence community lean forward, push the envelope on sharing as much of that information as possible, because one of the biggest challenges we have is on education of the public, of the electorate, on foreign, read Russian-influence operations.”

He called the DOJ move “quite significant” and said that “making that a standard policy across the government is a good one.” Other agencies, he said, “will take a cue” from the Justice Department, which is part of the intelligence community and receives information from spy agencies.

The new initiative stems from a report issued by a new Cyber Digital Task Force, set up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February. The report stresses that when considering whether to disclose information about foreign-actor interference, DOJ must protect intelligence sources and methods, investigations, and other government operations.

“Partisan political considerations must play no role in efforts to alert victims, other affected individuals or the American public to foreign influence operations against the United States,” the DOJ policy states. A foreign influence operation will be publicly disclosed “only when the government can attribute those activities to a foreign government with high confidence,” it said.

The Post notes that the Cyber Digital Task Force for the first time spelled out five types of threats covered under foreign influence operations.

  Hackers can target election systems, trying to get into voter registration databases and voting machines

  Foreign operatives can pursue political organizations, campaigns and public officials

  They can offer to assist political organizations or campaigns, while concealing their links to foreign governments

  They can seek to covertly influence public opinion and sow division through the use of social media and other outlets

  They can try to employ lobbyists, foreign media outlets and other foreign organizations to influence policymakers and the public.

“Public attribution of foreign influence operations can help to counter and mitigate the harm caused by foreign-government-sponsored disinformation,” Rosenstein said. “When people are aware of the true sponsor, they can make better-informed decisions.”

Foreign governments “should not be secret participants” in U.S. elections, “covertly spreading propaganda and fanning the flames of division,” he said.

Last year the FBI established a Foreign Influence Task Force to focus on foreign-influence activities, but the DOJ Cyber Digital Task Force has a broader mandate.

DOJ says that to counter foreign influence, the department will aggressively investigate and prosecute such activities, and will work with other departments and agencies to share information about threats and vulnerabilities with state and local election officials, political organizations, and other potential victims so they can take measures to detect or prevent harm.