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‘The Warning Lights Are Blinking Red Again’

Intelligence officials are issuing the same warnings about our election infrastructure as they did before 9/11. The nation must respond.

July 16, 2018

It is a tactic of war that goes back two millennia: When confronted by an enemy of overwhelming might, sow confusion and dissension in its ranks. In a speech Friday, the nation’s top intelligence official said that the danger of Russian cyberattacks today is similar to the warnings the U.S. had before 9/11. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” 

Only hours earlier, Special Counsel Robert Mueller unveiled a detailed and wide-ranging indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for meddling in the 2016 election. The goals and methods of that attack were made clear. The Russians are using a 21st century version of the ancient playbook, and we are called upon to respond.

One clear goal of the attack was to use our political and social divisions against us. Russian hackers stole or created identities of conservative and progressive activists to sow misinformation and aggravate mistrust. For example, in the days after the election, the operatives promoted two simultaneous rallies. One rally was designed to support the newly elected president. The other rallied behind the banner of “not my president.”  One operative, posing as “Blacktivist,” urged African-American voters to vote for Jill Stein rather than Hillary Clinton. Others discouraged Muslim Americans from voting.

As if the misinformation campaign were not enough, just before the election, Russian intelligence targeted election systems in 21 states and were successful in breaching at least one, Illinois. In one state, the Russians stole information related to the records of about 500,000 voters. Although there’s no evidence vote tallies were changed, the number of records breached would have been sufficient to swing either Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania from Trump to Clinton. Significantly, the hackers were instructed to focus on purple states. 

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefing reported that “Bin Ladin…has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S” and “FBI information…indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings.” CIA Director George Tenet said “the system was blinking red.” Unfortunately for the nation, the response was inadequate. After 9/11, a staffer at the National Security Council apologized for not doing enough in response to those warnings. In 2001, only a handful of people had access to the information that should have prompted a vigorous response. Today, we all know so much more about the nature and direction of the next attacks. We all must do more.

With the intelligence community warning of ongoing attacks and the Mueller investigation documenting the goals and methods of the previous one, there is only one reasonable course of action: act aggressively both to protect our institutions from assault and to bridge the divisions that the Russians sought to foment. 

Today, standing mute next to President Putin, President Trump made it shamefully clear that he has no appetite for a vigorous defense of our nation from a clear and committed foe. So, our next line of defense must come on three fronts: 

Establish a bipartisan commission on the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by conservative North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, recently issued bipartisan findings that made clear the reasons for such a panel: that Vladimir Putin himself authorized meddling in the last election; that the meddling was designed to help elect President Trump; and that Russian agents attacked our election infrastructure and the Democratic National Committee in order to pursue those ends. The Senate should build on that work and create a bipartisan commission that would find the facts so needed in a public debate that has been debased by “alternative facts.”   It would also help to bridge the bitter partisan divide that the Russians have continued to exploit by committing leadership of both parties to protecting the sanctity of the franchise for all of us. After 9/11, the nation established a bipartisan commission in which Republicans and Democrats were effectively co-leaders. We would do well to learn the lessons of that commission and apply them in the face of these attacks.

Recognize that the states are a new battleground for assaults on our national security. Individual states, counties, and municipalities manage and protect the bulk of our election infrastructure. As Coats made clear in his speech, a successful attack in just one state could cast doubt on the midterm elections or on the next presidential election. There is no doubt that both will be hotly contested and both targets are too tempting for the Russians to ignore. Indeed, the weak Presidential response to the Russians may embolden others to meddle as well. There is not enough time before the next elections to replace vulnerable voting systems. As a result, each state should develop a set of counter-responses that will ensure elections can go forward securely. First and foremost, every voting machine should leave a paper trail so that the actual votes cast are the votes that are actually counted. Now that we know better, we must do better.

Adequately fund needed updates to our voting system. It has been more than 15 years since President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). That measure required states reform their voting systems and infrastructure by, among other things, updating and upgrading their voting information, voting equipment, and voter registration databases. He knew full well the danger of assuming office after an election marred by outmoded voting mechanisms. And that was without our nation being under assault. Although Congress appropriated $380 million in additional HAVA grants this fiscal year, that funding level is simply inadequate to counter the threat. As of 2016, the majority of districts in the overwhelming majority of states were using voting machines that were at least a decade old — a time frame that is close to the end of or exceeds their projected lifespan. We spend more on two fighter jets, designed to protect our nation from physical assault. We should spend substantially more to ensure that our institutions are not damaged in a way that our foes’ air force could never manage.

The system is blinking red. American institutions are under assault. We have the capacity to push back. More importantly, it is our duty to do so.

(Photo: Shutterstock)