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Election security 2020: How prepared is the U.S. to confront foreign threats?

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Laura Rosenberger, Senior Fellow and Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States. Rosenberger details the breadth of foreign interference threats the U.S. faces ahead of the 2020 presidential election from known actors like Russia, China, Iran and others. Morell and Rosenberger assess the preparedness of the U.S. to respond to those threats and the overall resilience of the public in the face of increasingly sophisticated disinformation campaigns. They also examine whether the U.S. should consider responding to those campaigns in kind.   

Listen to this episode on ART19

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Voting in November: "What I worry about is a scenario in which a lot of states are enabling much greater absentee voting or mail voting for the November election -- rightly so, to help support people's ability to safely vote, particularly if we see a second wave of the pandemic in the fall. But that's going to mean a much slower process to count the ballots. And there's a very good chance that we're not going to know the results right away. And you combine that with, potentially, a bit of disinformation about what's gone on and/or a couple of attempts -- maybe they don't even have to be successful on some election election infrastructure here or there, which gets either publicized by the U.S. government or by a foreign actor who's been engaging in that activity. And you have a bit of a toxic mix of the potential for, essentially before the results are even announced, foreign actors to stir up doubt in the outcome."
  • How the U.S. may be vulnerable: "Our divisions are really preventing our government from responding. And we've seen that in the COVID context. And and when you have adversaries that are trying to weaken us by saying that democratic institutions don't work and to undermine them, when we fail to show people that government works and is providing results for them, again, I think that just makes us much more vulnerable to the very kinds of tactics that our adversaries are trying to engage in."
  • How to boost U.S. resiliency: "I get asked a lot, 'What can you American voters do?' Like, 'What can the American people do themselves to help push back on these kinds of activities?' And genuinely, one of the most important things that people can do to resist or push back on foreign interference is to participate in the democratic process. What our adversaries want is for people, for people to walk away from the process and to not engage and to lose faith." 

Intelligence Matters" has dedicated a series of episodes to understanding the fundamentals and national security implications of COVID-19.

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Laura Rosenberger, Senior Fellow and Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Laura, we're just finishing up a series on COVID and the national security implications of it. And we're starting a new series on the foreign threats to our elections this November. And it's great to have you as the first guest in that series. But maybe the place to start is to remind our listeners what the Alliance for Securing Democracy is and why you started it.

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Of course, happy to. So the Alliance for Securing Democracy is a bipartisan and transatlantic initiative that is housed at the German Marshall Fund. And its mission is to better understand and develop the means to counter the threats that authoritarian regimes are posing in their efforts to undermine and interfere in democracies. That's a pretty big write and I'm happy to sort of break it down.

But we focus largely on the non-military space, the range of non-traditional asymmetric tools that are used and often what's called the hybrid space, or some folks talk about it as the gray zone. But these are tools and tactics that are being used as sort of weapons against our societies and our democratic institutions.

And at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, we take the view that those attacks on our democracy are very clearly a national security threat and something that we need to be very focused on -- both building resilience against and countering and doing that, just to sort of put a fine point on it, from a bipartisan perspective, really believing that these are issues that require policymakers from across the political spectrum to be united in defense of our democracy, because, frankly, it's our democracy that gives us the ability to disagree with one another. And we'd like to continue to do that. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Before we kind of dive down into the threat to the elections, let me just ask you a couple of questions about COVID. Can you characterize what the Chinese and the Russians are doing with regard to information operations on COVID?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Sure. And I'm gonna take them a little bit separately, because what the Chinese and Russians are doing are a little bit distinct. So the one thing I want to kind of build context for here is that, I think in the U.S. we've often talked about disinformation or information operations in the context of elections, which is what we're going to come to. But these kinds of operations are actually broader tools for authoritarian regimes in particular, or undemocratic actors to use the information environment for either geopolitical gain or commercial gain or, you know, basically exercising some form of leverage and coercive activity in that space. And COVID has been no exception. 

We have seen Beijing, Moscow, Tehran use a whole range of of undemocratic regimes really seek to use this moment both to advance their own objectives and in some cases as an opportunity to, again, cast doubt in people's minds about democratic institutions or democratic governance or to really degrade the idea of truth. Essentially, this idea that the whole world is relative, it's impossible to know the facts behind anything -- and that is a really destructive framework for democracies, which really rely on quality information for our deliberative debates. 

And so in the COVID context, we've seen China in particular go on a very aggressive external information campaign to essentially deflect blame from its own failings in its initial response to the virus and to portray itself as the better partner, or the preferred partner, for other countries around the world. And in a few of the more aggressive posts or comments that we've seen as part of the strategy, actually saying straight out, 'China's model is proving out better than the Democratic model.' 

And so I think that's one piece of it. We've also seen actors from the Chinese party, including Chinese officials and state media, engage in active disinformation operations. So, spreading in particular the idea that the virus may not have originated in China, in fact, that it may have come from a U.S. bioweapons lab, or maybe it actually started in Italy much earlier than it started in China; these multiple conflicting conspiracy theories about where the virus may have started. Again, that feels a lot like the idea here is in part to present, you know, the notion that we may never really be able to know where the virus started. And so, you know, 'Who can possibly know? Don't blame China. We may never know.' 
So that's really a lot of what we've seen from China and some of that's a departure from what we've seen it do in the past and its information strategy. 

Russia has kind of actually done a lot of drafting off of what China and its information organs have been doing. So Russia has has done a lot of its typical promotion and amplification of conspiracy theories. Some of it, again, about the origin of the virus, a lot of it just being very critical of how certain other governments have been handling the virus. But what we've really seen in many ways is Russia kind of taking a bit of a backseat to the very aggressive information strategy we've seen from China. 
And the last piece I'll mention is part of that, that I think is notable, is one of my colleagues just published a piece talking about the triad of disinformation that we have seen around COVID19 between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And I'll note that occasionally Venezuela gets thrown in there as well, where we're seeing these regimes really echoing one another's disinformation and amplifying each other's narratives in a sort of unholy alliance, if you will, around really dubious information.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Laura, foreign interference in the 2020 election: give us kind of the big picture. How are you thinking about the overall threat to the election and our democracy during this special period? And how does it compare so far, at least, to 2016 and 2018?

LAURA ROSENBERGER:vSure. Well, I think, you know, when we talk about foreign interference in the election, let me start by breaking down the component parts of what we're talking about and what that might involve. 

So one component part is the information operations or disinformation piece, which we were just talking about in the COVID 19 context, but we've also seen very much in the past in terms of the campaign or election process. Now, I think one thing for folks to bear in mind is a lot of what we've seen in general in terms of, for instance, Russia's information operations around the 2016 election was actually engaging on content that really on its surface didn't have anything to do with the election directly, it was much more aimed at amplifying divisions within our society and maybe sort of suppressing people's interest in participating in the democratic process. But the information operations piece is one component of that. 
There's also, of course, concerns about cyber attacks and cyber attacks on several different pieces related to elections campaigns. One, of course, is election infrastructure. And we now know, in fact, that in the 2016 cycle that Russian military intelligence actors actually made attempts to get into parts of the election system of all 50 states. So threats on election infrastructure -- and that's not just the voting machines, by the way, that can be things like the voter rolls, that can be things like websites for reporting election results, all of that's part of election infrastructure. 

Of course, we also have seen cyber attacks to steal information and then weaponize it in a public release from political candidates, parties and those affiliated with them in the past. So that's another piece of it. 
And then a third piece of it that I think we talk about less, but that certainly, I think merits some focus is the ability for covert foreign money to get into our political system, and to be funneled to candidates in a non-transparent way or to the many different organizations that in a U.S. election context can take part. So the many PACs and super PACs and there's 527 organizations, all these different parts of our system that can advocate for a particular candidate or on particular issues. We have some vulnerabilities there. 
So that's the sort of threat landscape, if you will, in terms of of the tools. How do I see those playing out in 2020? 

Well, one of the biggest concerns I have about the 2020 election is, in fact, the degree to which our own domestic divisions have number one, made it very challenging for us to respond effectively to any foreign interference if it were to occur, and if it is occurring, which I think most assessments are that it is at least some level. And two, that divided societies really provide such a ripe environment for these kinds of manipulative tactics. And I guess actually one more point on that is that, again, this relates to the COVID conversation, that this sort of polluted information environment that we see in general, whether it's around COVID, whether it's around a whole host of other issues, again, really makes for a little bit of a tinderbox, if you will, where it doesn't take that much to really exacerbate or blow open some of the challenges that we have domestically. 

So the big picture piece for me is that when it comes to Russia, for instance, the way I think about this is that, their operation in 2016 kind of set a blaze. We were already smoldering and they came in and really sort of set off a blaze. And that blaze, we've now just continued to feed ourselves at this point. I see now a little bit of accelerant being skirted around the edges to amplify the blaze that's raging in one way or another, just a little bit. But I think that it's it's that directed, more narrow scale, over the top stuff, on top of what we're already doing to ourselves.

MICHAEL MORELL: So when you think about who the actors might be, Laura, obviously Russia. Is there anybody else that you're looking at that you're worried about playing this game as well?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: So Russia, of course, I think remains the most aggressive when it comes to operations that are really taking aim at elections and election infrastructure and electoral processes. There are other nations seats that certainly have the capabilities to engage in some of these kinds of tactics. Iran is one. They have a pretty well-developed disinformation strategy that we see surfacing pretty regularly. Now they're a little ham-handed and they get caught a lot, but they do certainly have that capability. And they also have some not insignificant cyber capabilities that they could use should they choose to do so. Now, while they have the capabilities, I think the question is, have we seen the intentions there? And the answer is that we've occasionally seen some political-related content in some of the posts, if we were to talk about the information operations space, some of the posts that have been identified by social media companies as originating from Iranian state backed information operations, again, sort of maybe toying around with some of how they can engage in the political space. But it seems mostly like experimentation at this point rather than anything that's super, super concerted. 

China is, of course, another actor that has significant capability here. We talked, in the COVID context, about some of these information operations that they're engaging in. On that front, though, most of what we see from China in the info op space remains largely overt.

There have been instances of reports of covert activity, including in the COVID context. The use of automated accounts to boost usually pro-China content under false personas is typically what the reports talk about. But, of course, the intelligence community, at least according to The New York Times, concluded that Chinese operatives were involved in amplifying false text messages about COVID lockdowns several months ago in the US.

So we've seen some development of that more covert capacity, which is probably what is much more needed if you're going to engage in sophisticated election interference kind of operations. And of course, China is well-known to engage in significant cyber activity, in particular targeting commercial interests and intellectual property. And there's been reports about whether China is engaging in cyber theft of vaccine-related research. 

But that's, again, on the capability side. On the intentions side, my own view is that I've seen very little that indicates that Beijing would have an interest in aggressively or concertedly interfering in our election. And in general, we haven't seen much from them historically in terms of election interference. We have, of course, seen them engage in some of these activities on Taiwan, although the 2020 presidential election on Taiwan actually had much less of that kind of activity than folks were anticipating. 

We've also seen some activity using that financial bucket that I mentioned earlier, to cultivate certain pro-China politicians in places like Australia, where there have been several large scandals about some of this Chinese political interference there. But again, that's been much more about cultivating individuals as part of a longer-term strategy versus around a particular election. So while we're certainly in a point where China is becoming much more aggressive externally and it's possible that they could decide that it's in their interest to engage in a full-on election interference operation, I, to date have seen no evidence of that or of their intention to do so.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Laura, can you do a quick reminder for our listeners on what the objectives are at the end of the day of these adversaries who are trying to weaken our democracy?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty simple, actually. It's to weaken us. Their fundamental goal is to weaken us by undermining our democratic institutions and democratic processes that are so core to who we are as a nation and our ability to protect and advance our interests. Some of that involves actually undermining – we talked earlier about undermining the idea of truth. Some of that really involves undermining people's faith in the election process itself as something that's free and fair, or in the outcome of the election. But that's really the core goal. You know, I think different actors may have had additional goals that come along with that. Certainly, the intelligence community concluded in 2016 that Russia had a few additional goals, including to, you know, hurt the candidacy of Secretary Clinton and to help the candidacy of Donald Trump. But the the piece about undermining our institutions, I think, is one that is is sort of the supreme one as a means of weakening us.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then what about what about methods? Are we seeing an evolution of tactics on the part of the adversaries? Do you do you see them adapting to our defenses? Are we playing the the old war and they're playing a new war? How do you think about that?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Yeah, Michael, I'm really concerned about that. You know, I think certainly -- to break it down just a little bit -- I should say, to start, I don't think that the plays that we will see from Russia in 2020 or if others decide to get in this game as well, that they will look like the 2016 plays. 

Certainly the kind of large scale Russian Internet research agency, social media activity that we saw in 2016, we really don't see much of that anymore. What we tend to see at this point certainly from from Russian actors in the social media side is much more targeted operations, operations that seek to cultivate intermediary actors to carry out their operations on their behalf. 

So, for instance, one of the most recently identified such operations involved Russian actors recruiting nonprofit organizations in Africa to engage U.S. social media users on issues of race and racism. So that was a more targeted operation. It was using these proxies in a very different way. A lot of that's to evade detection. We've seen, of course, the social media companies take some steps to crack down on these activities. And so some of this is really about evading detection. 

We have seen the recruitment, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes wittingly, of actual individuals within a targeted society. So, for instance, in Ukraine, around their elections a few years ago, there was evidence that Russian actors basically bought Facebook pages of real Ukrainians in order to use in those kinds of operations. 

But it's these much more targeted operations -- sometimes leaning in more to actually push a very particular narrative versus this more broad brush, kind of divisive, chaos-inducing sort of tactic. 
And the last piece I would say, and this is a little bit hard to know with certainty from an open-source-only perspective without access to other reporting, but it does appear that we have seen more engagement in these tactics by Russian intelligence agencies in addition to the Internet Research Agency, which is, of course,  a non-government, but sort of closely connected entity. And we saw the G.R.U. engage in some of this in 2016, largely alongside the WikiLeaks effort. But the other thing we saw then that we see a little bit more of now is the development and promotion of sort of fake think tanks, fake journalists, fake experts, essentially, who then masquerade as real authorities. And and that's typically operations that we've seen run by Russian intelligence units in carrying those out. 

So a little bit of a shift in method and a little bit also of who's doing the engagement there. And again, that may be because the intelligence agencies have a little bit of a more honed ability to to hide their tracks on that front.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Laura, what about approaches to election systems? Are we still seeing that? And have we seen any different kinds of approaches than what we saw in 2016?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: So we haven't seen any reporting yet, at least publicly, in this election cycle of attempts on election systems. There were some reports around the 2018 midterms of attempts, nothing successful, and in a few other elections that have happened in the interim period. In 2020, we haven't seen any reports so far of the targeting of electoral infrastructure. It is an area where we frankly have a lot more visibility than we did in 2016. So there's been something called Albert Sensors installed on networks that enable much better detection of network intrusions around election systems to hopefully alert authorities much earlier if such attempts are being made. 

So we certainly haven't seen that yet, but I'll say, to just sort of paint out one of my nightmare scenarios which relates to election infrastructure, it relates to disinformation, and it also, frankly, at this point relates to COVID -- is your listeners may recall that when the app that was being used for the Iowa caucuses malfunctioned, there was this immediate panic, not just about the delayed reporting, but, you know, the speculation immediately went to, 'Was there a hack? Was was there malfeasance here? Did somebody seek to actually sabotage things, whether foreign or domestic?' 

And you had people on the news media who were speculating about such things. And you actually had a couple of candidates who raised questions about whether that had occurred. And in fact, what we know is that simply it was a really, really poorly designed app that completely just malfunctioned. And we had all the data and it took a much longer period, but we found out who won the Iowa caucuses. And we have a lot of faith in the integrity of that data.

What I worry about is a scenario in which a lot of states are enabling much greater absentee voting or mail voting for the November election -- rightly so, to help support people's ability to safely vote, particularly if we see a second wave of the pandemic in the fall. But that's going to mean a much slower process to count the ballots. And there's a very good chance that we're not going to know the results right away.
And you combine that with, potentially, a bit of disinformation about what's gone on and/or a couple of attempts -- maybe they don't even have to be successful on some election election infrastructure here or there, which gets either publicized by the U.S. government or by a foreign actor who's been engaging in that activity. And you have a bit of a toxic mix of the potential for, essentially before the results are even announced, foreign actors to stir up doubt in the outcome.

And in fact, we know that this was a play the Russians were prepared to run in 2016, had Donald Trump lost, #DemocracyRIP was the hashtag they were planning to use and they were going to talk about the rigged election and all of that. 

So, that's an area where I think we need to be doing much more between now and November to prepare the public, to prepare the media, to prepare candidates to resist that kind of temptation, to feed into any process that would raise doubts without any cause about the outcome of the election.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Laura, you've talked earlier about the things that we do ourselves that make us more vulnerable. And you mentioned, obviously, the many divisions, right, that we've allowed to fester. Are there more specific things that you worry about that we're doing that open us up and make us vulnerable? Or is it just that general point?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Well, I think many of them fall under that general point, but I certainly think there's some specific things that we're doing. The first thing is I think that we have a a media environment and an information environment where virality is supreme, and that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be the most fact-based assertion or that it has to be the most sort of balanced perspective. In fact, it's the very opposite that is what tends to break through. 

And so there you then have the incentivization for some political actors to weaponize information themselves, to use disinformation in their own campaigning, in their own rhetoric, and really devalue truth. And so that is one thing that makes me very worried. Again, that makes us much more vulnerable. 
I think another thing that we're doing, frankly, is politicizing foreign interference. The more that we politicize foreign interference, the more we're playing very directly into the strategy of our adversaries, which is to divide us. One of the most important things we could do that would undercut the effectiveness of these activities is to stand together. And responding or politicizing foreign interference really actually does our adversaries work for them, and makes it very, very difficult for us to respond. 
I think another thing that we're doing is making it harder to vote. Again, really it is the antithesis of of having sort of a strong and robust democratic process. And it feeds people's perceptions that the process isn't fair or that it's rigged. 

And the last thing that I think that we're doing to ourselves in a way that makes us more vulnerable is that, in fact, our divisions are really preventing our government from responding. And we've seen that in the COVID context. And and when you have adversaries that are trying to weaken us by saying that democratic institutions don't work and to undermine them, when we fail to show people that government works and is providing results for them, again, I think that just makes us much more vulnerable to the very kinds of tactics that our adversaries are trying to engage in.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let's let's let's switch gears here a little bit and talk about how prepared we are for this as a country. And if you think about, Laura, a scale from one to 10 in terms of zero being not prepared at all and 10 being exactly where you'd want to be, where do you think we were in 2016? Where do you think we were in 2018? And where do you think we are today on that scale? How do you think about that?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: I want to complicate your scale a little little bit, which is not what you want me to do. But what I would say is there is how prepared we are in terms of the steps that we've taken to address these issues, And then there is how prepared we are in terms of our own societal resilience. And I think those are two somewhat different components. 

On the first part, in terms of the steps that we've taken to to recognize and address these issues, I would say in 2016 we were pretty much at a zero, maybe a one. And, you know, there is a report -- well, there's been a series of reports from the bipartisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has documented, you know, a number of different aspects of Russia's interference operations in 2016, including the challenges that the Obama administration faced in putting together a response, which I think really shows just really how flatfooted we were. We were caught.

In 2018 I guess maybe we were at a 3 in terms of level of preparedness, maybe today we're at a 4? Maybe a 5? But the five would be, I think, still a little bit with this caution of like, the last battle, right. That we've maybe prepared a lot for what we've seen, but we don't know what's coming. Yeah, a lot more to go. A lot more to go on that. 

But on the resilience piece and how prepared are we as a society to be able to resist these kinds of these kinds of activities? I actually think we've gone backwards there. And I think that we're even more vulnerable today and less resilient today than we were than we were four years ago.

But I want to make one point here, which I think is really important, which is that that lack of preparedness should in no way hinder people's interest and desire to participate in the democratic process.
In fact, I get asked a lot, 'What can you American voters do?' Like, 'What can the American people do themselves to help push back on these kinds of activities?' And genuinely, one of the most important things that people can do to resist or push back on foreign interference is to participate in the democratic process. What our adversaries want is for people, for people to walk away from the process and to not engage and to lose faith. And so engaging in the process is one of the most important things that people can do to, in fact, resist this kind of activity and make it far less effective.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Laura, you've been you've been great with your time. Is this a new normal that we're going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future? Or do you think we're gonna get to a place where we're able to get our arms around this and make it not worth the while of the adversaries, raise the cost to them of doing this and shut this down? What's your sense? What's possible?

LAURA ROSENBERGER: I think it's probably somewhere in between those two things. I do think that this is largely a new normal. And I should say that, you know, the kinds of of operations we've been talking about today, I believe, are taking place in the context of a much broader contest that is taking shape between authoritarian systems and democratic systems on the geopolitical stage. And the use of these kinds of tactics, the engagement in these kinds of operations are one means for our authoritarian competitors and adversaries to undermine democratic systems. And so, if you think about it from what their interests are and what our interests are, it's not really going to be in their interest in that kind of system struggle to back off of these sort of operations.

Now, does that mean that we just need to deal with them and put up with them and accept them at the level that we currently see them? No. Do I think that we can, number one, do a lot of things to reduce their effectiveness, largely focused on building resilience within ourselves? Absolutely. Can we raise the cost and maybe deter at least particularly some of the high-end aspects of these activities? Yes. Is one of the most important things we could be doing working together with our Democratic allies who are facing similar challenges around the world? Absolutely.

And so I do think that we can do a lot more to both blunt these activities and maybe get them to see a reduction in them, at least in terms of scope and scale. But I don't think that we're going to see the ability to eliminate them.

And so I think that means, you know, taking some sort of real stock within our own toolkit of how we can in ways consistent with democratic principles and in ways that bolster democratic institutions, actually define some of our own advantages in this contest with authoritarian actors that enable us to push back more aggressively on their system, which, of course, they're also, in many cases seeking to push out to other parts of the world. So that's kind of how I see it in that bit of a complicated picture.

MICHAEL MORELL: It is. One more one more quick question, Laura. Should we play this game? Should we push back by pushing disinformation into their societies or not? What's your sense? 

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It's a losing prospect for us, for a couple of reasons. One, I mean, this is an asymmetric battlefield. By definition, we are at a disadvantage here. Authoritarians value the control and manipulation of information. We value its free and open exchange. And so for us to try to outdo them, it's just a losing prospect. We're never gonna go as far, number one. And number two, democracy will be the loser. And so, if winning at all costs to see objective, sure, maybe. But if defending and protecting and advancing democracy is the goal, which I believe it should be, then we should not be engaging in these kinds of tactics. 

Now, should we be seeking to have a much more focused information strategy, that's affirmative, rooted in truth, rooted in transparency, that's aimed at preventing information voids from developing where others can fill it with dubious information -- we should absolutely be doing that. But trying to go tit for tat here, it's it's just a race to the bottom and we will lose.

MICHAEL MORELL: Laura, thank you so much for joining us. You're incredibly insightful and this is an incredibly important issue. So thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Well, thanks, Michael, for having me.

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