When Vladimir Putin decided to use front organizations to leak confidential emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and deploy bots and troll farms to rev up domestic hate groups and divide progressive ones, this was nothing less than an act of war. More than a year later, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that more is coming in 2018 and 2020. But America’s response still leaves much to be desired.
For starters, we are getting no leadership from the top. Actions that a normal American president would consider an extreme national security provocation, Donald Trump welcomes as politically convenient. The Kremlin’s hacking is aimed not just at undermining democracy; it’s aimed at undermining Democrats.
Trump, no slouch at undermining both, has a foreign enabler. He still has not acknowledged the Kremlin’s role, much less warned Putin of consequences.
So while his generals, his intelligence chiefs, the Department of Homeland Security, and most Republicans in Congress take this threat very seriously, Trump is still delighted to surf it. While Robert Mueller is still sorting out what occurred in 2016, Trump’s tacit acceptance of ongoing Russian threats is every bit as much of a potentially impeachable offense as his initial wink-and-nod understanding with Putin.
Last week, officials of the Department of Homeland Security confirmed to the annual conference of top state election officials that Russian operatives has penetrated at least 21 state election systems. As far as DHS could tell, there was no disruption of voter rolls (yet), but, as they put it, the Russians were “knocking on the windows,” and in a couple of cases had gotten inside the house.
In effect, there are three overlapping but distinct kinds of threats. Besides penetrating election systems, the Russians have demonstrated that they can selectively hack and leak emails. They also created fake forms of activism, and in 2016 Russian fake sites tricked Americans into reading or forwarding no fewer than 126 million political messages.
There are those who argue that Russian meddling in America democracy is just not that big a deal, and in any case is not likely to have tipped the election. These include the Russian émigré writer Masha Gessen, and political scientist Henry Farrell.
Their argument is, first, that Putin doesn’t have as much control as many in the West think, and that the hacking and trolling operations were the work of a loose network of Russians, not the Kremlin. This conclusion seems to me dangerously naïve. In a state as authoritarian as Putin’s Russia, it is inconceivable that something as sensitive as a counter-intelligence operation aimed at destabilizing American democracy could have gone on without Putin pulling the strings. Putin of course is himself a former KGB agent.
Some also contend that even if the Kremlin did engage in this meddling, it’s unlikely that it tipped the election. That also seems naïve.
The Kremlin-directed hacking of the Clinton campaign’s emails created great turmoil in the campaign, and set off a sequence of events leading to then–FBI Director James Comey’s damaging statement that Clinton, though not guilty of a crime, had used poor judgment. All of this served to put Clinton the defensive at a time when Trump should have been on the defensive.
The fake social media campaign was also damaging to Clinton. One of the Russian tactics was to depress black turnout, with the pitch that Trump and Clinton were equally bad and that black voters should stay home. And black turnout indeed fell.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much damage these efforts did. But it only needed to flip fewer than 100,000 votes to have flipped the election.
Even among those who do recognize the seriousness of this assault on democracy, there are divisions on how best to proceed. Late in the Obama administration, when Obama felt constrained not to appear to be tilting toward Hillary Clinton, the administration introduced some half-hearted travel and financial sanctions against individual senior Russian officials. Putin laughed these off as a cost of doing business.
But if a future American president wanted to seriously raise the cost to Putin in order to deter future election hacking, the options seem limited. Escalating within the realm of cyber-warfare isn’t plausible. Both superpowers have the ability to disrupt each other’s large complex systems that depend on the internet, but that would lead to a kind of mutually assured destruction.
More promising might be the idea of denying Russia access to the West’s banking or air transport system. Ever since the Patriot Act increased compulsory financial reporting to detect terrorist money laundering, the government has had the capacity to shut down financial transactions with blacklisted organizations or even counties.
A problem, however, is that some of our closest allies, such as Germany, have a web of business, energy, and banking deals with the Russians. Chancellor Angela Merkel may be a hard-liner on warning Putin against Russian hacking of European elections, but German business is not about to jeopardize these deals.
So we are left with playing defense. The good news is that even Republican state election officials now recognize the threat.
Last November, the outgoing Democratic Secretary of Homeland, Jeh Johnson, defined election systems as part of critical national infrastructure. There was much complaining from Republican state election officials, led by Kansas’s notorious secretary of state Kris Kobach, who did not want DHS any more than they wanted the Justice Department to be looking over their shoulders.
But then, two heartening things happened. Trump’s DHS did not repeal Johnson’s order; and nearly all Republican state election officials came around. In a sense, despite Trump, part of the “deep state” excoriated by Steve Bannon has been doing its job.
It remains to be seen, in this game of Spy versus Spy, how well 50 states will be able hold off the anticipated Russian cyber-invasion, and how Russian meddling will interact with homegrown voter suppression, ballot purges and other Republican mischief.
The other set of players in this drama, Facebook and other social media platform companies, have been enablers of a lot of Russian hacking. For the most part, they’ve displayed a studied indifference to the need to be part of the defense.
The defense Facebook is most forcefully pursuing is its own business model. Their concern is that if they aggressively intervene to identify and block Russian bots and trolls, they might open themselves to (long overdue) regulation of their other abusive, though lucrative, practices. Obviously, if the smartest AI people in the world, in Facebook’s employ, can figure out micro-targeting of your shopping and personal network habits, they can figure out who is a troll farm. More on that in next week’s column.
The Russian manipulation of these platforms only strengthens the case for regulating them. Trump, however, is generally opposed to regulating business, and the fact that Facebook in effect enables Putin is one more reason to leave it alone.
The United States, with its array of public- and private-sector players, a maze of divided state and federal agencies, and a president who is dysfunctional at best and treasonous at worse, is something of a sitting duck. We spend about ten times what the Russians do on conventional military weapons. But Putin has devised a diabolical form of dirt-cheap cyber guerilla warfare that turns America’s strengths into vulnerabilities.
If Mueller’s investigation doesn’t lead to Trump’s ouster first, this president’s passivity bordering on acquiescence in the face of these acts of war by a foreign power needs to be a prime issue in coming elections. Let’s hope that Trump’s hold on the deep state is sufficiently tenuous and intermittent that our Homeland Security professionals can do their jobs of safeguarding American elections.
The deeper challenge is the interaction with Russian threats and social media companies’ indifference with pre-existing assaults on American democracy, most of them led by pre-Trump Republicans and corporate plutocrats. Even as we protect against foreign mischief, we need to redouble our vigilance against purely domestic enemies of democracy.