Election securityWhite House MIA on midterm elections security

Published 1 November 2018

The United States is less than a week away from the 2018 midterms, but the Trump administration has not put together a substantive, coordinated effort to fight disinformation or possible election interference. Law enforcement, homeland security, and intelligence officials held one 90-minute meeting at the Justice Department late last month and left without any answers. No one from the White House attended. In the absence of White House leadership or an overarching strategy, some agencies have taken individual actions. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has stepped forward and convened her own meetings with agency leaders on election security issues.

Politico reveals that even though we are less than a week away from the 2018 midterms, the Trump administration has not put together any kind of substantive, coordinated effort to fight disinformation or possible election interference. 

Law enforcement, homeland security, and intelligence officials held one 90-minute meeting at the Justice Department late last month and left without any answers. No one from the White House attended. 

In the absence of high-level White House coordination, the administration is letting individual agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security make decisions about how to respond to foreign governments’ attempts to use social media and other propaganda to undermine U.S. elections, according to people who have been briefed on or participated in the administration’s discussions of the issue. That means broader strategic questions remain unresolved because of White House turf wars, agencies’ competing priorities, political sensitivities and a lack of experience with a relatively new threat, the people say.

Meanwhile, intelligence and law enforcement agencies warned this month that Russia, China and Iran are waging “ongoing campaigns” to influence American elections and policies.


Lisa Monaco, who served as Barack Obama’s second White House homeland security adviser, said the federal government needs a broad strategy to address the problem — along with “someone to bring all of these agencies and departments together and make sure they are implementing that strategy.”

“Otherwise,” she said, “there is a danger that well-meaning agencies are executing operations that may have unintended consequences for other operations, for sources and methods, or for diplomatic relations.”


In the absence of an overarching strategy, officials from agencies such as DHS and the FBI have met repeatedly over the past year to discuss issues such as when to announce evidence of foreign influence operations and who in the government should take the lead. Some agencies have taken individual actions, such as a recent effort by the Pentagon’s Cyber Command —reported last week by the New York Times — to contact individual Russian operatives to discourage them from interfering in U.S. elections.

But the administration’s approach doesn’t resolve questions that inevitably arise when the agencies’ perspectives and priorities clash, such as the FBI’s need to keep investigations secret versus DHS’ greater focus on building public awareness.


With White House leadership lacking, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has convened her own meetings with agency leaders on election security issues, though several sessions focused more on developing a messaging strategy than solving operational problems, the 21 September meeting attendee saidDirector of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ team has held weekly meetings on the topic.

The Committee to Investigate Russia notes that one fascinating aspect of the 21 September meeting the White House did not attend, as described by an attendee to Politico, is the consensus that the White House would not be the right messenger to inform the public of “influence operations.”

Some participants suggested the Election Assistance Commission, a tiny agency that mostly serves as a clearinghouse for sharing best practices with election supervisors. But the general view was that it should be DHS, the FBI and the intelligence community.


Even absent White House issues, election security presents massive coordination challenges, because every agency approaches it from a different perspective.

The FBI treats election security probes like digital crime scenes, where investigators must preserve evidence and keep facts secret so prosecutors can build a case. DHS handles election-focused influence operations and cyberattacks like disaster zones, where public awareness and public-private cooperation can resolve incidents and reduce future risks. And CIA and NSA spies vigorously oppose declassifying their intelligence and sharing it with outsiders like state and local officials, fearing that publicizing what the U.S. knows would compromise the sources and methods used to learn it.