Russia’s unrelenting attacks on the U.S. justice system

The justice system tolerates, protects, and covers up crimes committed by immigrants

▪The justice system operationalizes the institutionally racist and corrupt police state

▪The justice system directly supports and enables corporate corruption

▪The justice system is a tool of the political elite

The last frame is the most prevalent. It reinforces the idea that democracy is run by the societal elites, and the justice system is a pawn used to justify the government’s corrupt dealings. Recently, this frame was used to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The courts hold the power to shine a light on Russia’s corrupt dealings, which in turn will create a world that is more aware of and less susceptible to Russia’s influence operations. It is not surprising, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin worked to undermine the justice system to pre-emptively cast doubt on the Mueller investigation and similar investigations conducted in the future.

This report focuses on Russia, but other states—and domestic actors—are adopting similar tactics. Further, even though these exploits are greatly aggravated by advancements in technology, that does not necessarily mean that the solutions must be uniquely technological.

Given the ever-advancing nature of threats in this space, it is important to consider broader countermeasures that make democracy more resilient to these sorts of attacks in the future.

The February 2018 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions called for a whole-of-nation strategy to prevent, deter, and reduce the effectiveness of democracy-undermining activities. The contributing experts agreed the strategy should address the following imperatives:

1. Publicize the extent of adversary interference and increase public awareness

2. Promote bipartisan action, increase technical defenses, and increase the cost of disruptive activities

3. Improve transparency into foreign adversary interference

4. Research the extent to which specific adversary techniques influence public opinion and target mitigation approaches accordingly

5. Engage in a national effort to promote U.S. understanding of the importance of democracy and democratic institutions

The whole-of-nation strategy is still needed, and it needs to include a significant international component as well. But the threat to the justice system requires additional, institution-specific attention. In keeping with the five imperatives, the following recommendations broadly highlight preliminary actions that must be taken to safeguard institutions of justice:

▪ Raise threat awareness and invest in impact-oriented research to understand the full

scope of disinformation operations aimed at the justice system;

▪ Improve rapid response capabilities and communication capabilities between institutions like the justice system, appropriate federal entities, and social media platforms; and

▪ Expand civics and media literacy trainings, elevating these efforts as a national security imperative for the sake of building societal resilience.

Russia’s attacks on the justice system provide strong evidence that disinformation operations go well beyond elections, are adapting, touch all parts of society, and show no signs of abating. Russia has signaled its intention to continue undermining democratic institutions like the justice system. We must commit to a coordinated, whole-of-nation response to this national security threat.



Russia’s charge against liberal democracies shows no signs of abating. Information operations targeted against democratic institutions provide an incredibly high return on investment for the Kremlin. As this report has shown via the lens of the justice system, Russia’s disinformation operations are sophisticated and touch all parts of society. Though gradual, the effects of these campaigns could cause serious damage to institutions tasked with up-holding justice and the rule of law. Through various propaganda channels, Russian adversaries infiltrated information streams and promoted content misrepresenting court cases, attacking judges, undermining the credibility of investigations, and more. These stories were packaged into narrative frames, thereby injecting strong, memorable, recognizable sentiments biased against the justice system into the minds of the democratic public.

We know that Putin exploits weaknesses of our own making. The Kremlin did not invent the narratives it pushes. Domestic voices are prevalent contributors to destructive discourse. Moreover, many of the criticisms of our institutions are valid. We must hold our institutions accountable to live up to our aspirations. However, we also must guard against those who would turn our criticism into cynicism and who would encourage us to give up on our institutions. That is part of our civic responsibility. This responsibility is especially acute for our political leaders, who should take greater care in the way they talk about our justice system and other democratic institutions to ensure that they don’t reinforce pernicious propaganda designed to weaken rather than improve our institutions and our country.

At times like today, when our politics are particularly partisan and divisiveness defines our discourse, we depend upon our institutions to sustain our democracy. Our courts are being asked to weigh in on highly charged issues and may be called upon to resolve potential constitutional crises between the Congress and the executive branch. This is a dangerous time to have an adversary actively working to undermine the credibility of those courts.

The challenge to democracies from foreign interference goes far beyond elections. The United States and its allies need to recognize the full scope of this threat and the urgency of countering it.

— Read more in Suzanne Spaulding, Devi Nair, and Arthur Nelson, Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System (CSIS, 2019)