Lanhee Chen: Tech executives are set to testify before Congress about Russian disinformation, which is a good start but not nearly enough
Lawmakers should be conducting a serious audit of our nation's intelligence and cybersecurity capacities to protect our democratic processes, Chen writes
Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He served as the policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and an adviser to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
As technology executives prepare to testify this week before Congress about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, expect to hear plenty about what companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google could have done then and can be doing now to prevent disinformation from appearing on our screens. And amid a news cycle dominated by news of indictments and a guilty plea for false statements to the FBI in connection with the Mueller investigation, these companies should take this opportunity to come forward, to share what they know with investigators, and to review policies and procedures to make sure their platforms are less susceptible to intrusion.
However, our concerns (and theirs) must also extend far beyond the technology companies and the additional oversight and disclosure they need to provide. After all, the amount of money spent by Russian sources on American social media advertising during the 2016 election was dwarfed by overall spending on television ads, grassroots mobilization, and other campaign activities during the presidential race.
While Congress should get to the bottom of what happened during the election, and the role that technology companies could have played to stop it, lawmakers must also turn the spotlight on themselves and others in government. For too long, they have taken the threat from Russian disinformation and other similar efforts far too lightly.
Lawmakers should be conducting a serious audit of our nation’s intelligence and cybersecurity capacities and strengthening areas of weakness to ensure our country is well-equipped to withstand future efforts from state actors, like Russia, to disrupt our democratic processes. Those who set policy should also be bolstering a government-wide response to the propaganda and disinformation spread by foreign governments through US media sources. We’ve seen these efforts underway in Europe for years, and should learn from and even improve upon what they are already doing.
The tactics likely to come up in this week’s testimony are not new for the Russians. For well over a decade, they have spread disinformation and meddled or sought to influence the outcome of elections throughout Europe, in former Soviet republics and elsewhere.
This activity intensified and expanded when Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. Russia’s Chief of the General Staff (the equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Valery Gerasimov, wrote in 2013 about a war strategy that national security analyst Molly McKew called “a new theory of modern warfare – one that looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on.” Gerasimov noted that “informational conflict” was part and parcel of disrupting societies and creating chaos within their adversaries’ borders.
And then, in 2014, the extent of Russia’s disinformation activities came to the forefront when the pro-Russian regime in Ukraine was overthrown. All of this was well before their efforts to create chaos in our elections in 2016, or their even more recent interventions in elections across Western Europe.
The obvious question is why more hasn’t been done to respond to this threat. Multiple administrations bear the blame for this failure, including the current one, which should be doing more to directly counteract the threat posed by Russia and other state actors seeking to disrupt our democracy.
But it was the Obama administration that, for years, consistently underestimated the threat from Russia and, more specifically, the Russians’ disinformation attacks and other efforts to penetrate our system of democracy. President Obama and his aides famously mocked Mitt Romney when he presciently argued during the 2012 campaign that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Their dismissive and often belittling tone masked the fact that, even at the time of the 2012 election, there were clear warnings and examples from outside the United States that suggested Russia was both capable of penetrating American defenses and impacting our democracy.
For example, POLITICO reported that in 2014, President Obama’s national security team received reports warning about Russia’s capacity, history, and interest in disrupting political systems in Europe. It should have been clear that those capabilities could be used to attack the United States. While some within the Obama administration reportedly wanted to do more, according to POLITICO, the go-along-to-get along approach toward Russia prevailed. In fact, several officials told POLITICO earlier this year that the Obama administration rejected more forceful counterintelligence activities against the Russians, “including more aggressively tracking and tailing” their operatives in America.
While these threats have grown, essentially unchecked, for many years, European governments and related entities have launched efforts to aggressively counteract these attacks. Of course, Russia has likely been engaged more actively in European elections, and for longer, than they have been here. But unlike in the United States, countries in Europe have taken substantive institutional actions to address the problem. The European Union has a task force that is dedicated to identifying and calling out “fake news.” Sweden has taught students how to identify Russian disinformation and has a government agency that looks for false news accounts. In Latvia, a journalist for the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news organization was vigorously questioned by internal security agents regarding the structure and administration of the entity he works for.
Here in the United States, by contrast, we have a long way to go. And the Trump administration is not without blame when it comes to our slow response to Russia’s meddling. Congress gave the Global Engagement Center at the State Department significant responsibility to counter terrorist propaganda, as well as the disinformation spread by the Russians and other hostile actors. But recent reporting suggests that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined to use tens of millions of dollars appropriated by Congress for the successful operation of this office. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio recently expressed his displeasure and “concern” that the State Department was not using this money, calling on them to “take swift action to fully fund the GEC and ensure that it is capable of carrying out the purposes Congress directed, particularly as they relate to Russia and other state-sponsored foreign disinformation.”
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Russian efforts to undermine American democracy did not end with the 2016 election. Put simply, this is one of the reasons why they continue to represent a serious threat to our national security. Now is the time to act quickly and decisively to ensure the integrity of our democratic system.