Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned last week that the nation is under sustained cyberattack from foreign adversaries like Russia. “I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said, echoing the comments of former CIA Director George Tenet about the summer of 2001. “The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point.”
Coats’ remarks reinforced consistent warnings, from current and former national security officials over the past year, that Russia is moving forward with more attacks on the midterm elections.
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And why shouldn’t the Russians do more? Their multipronged 2016 attack, outlined in repeated indictments this year by special counsel Robert Mueller, was a resounding success, and in the nearly two years since, the United States has taken no meaningful action to change Russia’s calculation that the risk-reward of attacking American democracy is worth it.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Coats said in February. “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
What makes the American government’s ongoing inaction—and the general myopia on Capitol Hill and at the White House around the cyber threat—so stunning is the simple fact that the Republicans in charge of the executive and legislative branches should be terrified that they’re next. The 2016 attacks by Russia boosted President Donald Trump and undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but there’s no guarantee that the next nation-state considering the electoral landscape will back the Republicans.
In fact, almost the opposite. There’s solid geopolitical evidence that boosting the Democrats would be a smart strategy for a foreign actor this fall.
Vladimir Putin’s goal isn’t—and never was—to help the Republican Party, at least in the long run. Boosting Trump’s presidential campaign was a means to Putin’s end: Weakening the West, and exploiting the seams and divisions of the West’s open democracies to undermine our legitimacy and moral standing. Russia accomplished that with great success in 2016—and it’s a strategy that is continuing to pay dividends today. “Their purpose was to sow discontent and mistrust in our elections; they wanted us to be at each others’ throat when it was over,” former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers said last year. “It’s influencing, I would say, legislative process today. That’s wildly successful.”
Just look at the past week of foreign policy, during which Trump slammed NATO, insulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May and the government of our closest ally, called Europe a “foe,” and mused out loud about whether he would honor the foundational mutual-defense premise of NATO. Not to mention the bizarre news conference with Putin that the BBC summed up as: “Trump sides with Russia against FBI at Helsinki summit.” It would have been hard for Putin to plan a more effective week to undermine and divide the West if he had orchestrated and stage-managed the entire process from a Kremlin whiteboard.
As former FBI Director James Comey explained Putin’s strategy: “It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. And so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about, and they will be back. Because we remain—as difficult as we can be with each other—we remain that shining city on the hill. And they don’t like it.”
The Russian attack in 2016 was a nearly perfect asymmetric assault. Although it was expansive and expensive—the Internet Research Agency effort alone employed hundreds of people and cost upwards of $1.25 million a month, according to Mueller’s indictment—it was highly cost-effective, perhaps the most effective intelligence operation in modern history, all achieved at very little political cost to Russia and at little risk to its personnel. As Comey said, “We’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it.”
The next round of election attacks may not even stem from Russia. Other nation-state adversaries—particularly America’s three other leading cyber adversaries, China, North Korea and Iran—have surely taken note. It would be all but espionage malpractice for them not to be out there plotting right now about how to achieve the same results by following Russia’s now tried-and-tested model. That’s especially true as they watch the wishy-washy response to Russia’s attack from the White House: The U.S. government has taken no meaningful action that would discourage Russia from interfering again, in 2018 and 2020—and we’re spending another week consumed by the very question of whether Russia even did attack us. The White House, meanwhile, has even done away with the National Security Council’s cybersecurity coordinator position, downgrading the role that has served as the government’s main point person on cyber—meaning that if an attack did occur this fall, our response might even be slower and less coordinated than the response was in 2016.
These are hardly the actions of a government inclined to rain down meaningful, damaging punishment on someone coming to attack voting machines in Arizona.
There’s a good argument to be made that China, for one, might look at our congressional elections and think that helping the Democrats in 2018 would be best for them. While much of our focus on Trump’s bull-in-a-multilateral-china-shop approach to foreign policy has focused on his attacks on Canada, Europe and Africa, or his inexplicable coddling of Putin and Russia, there’s no country that has benefited more from his presidency than the rising and increasingly aggressive and authoritarian China.
As we retreat from international alliances, China has stepped into that vacuum. Trump’s temper tantrums have given China the time and space to build new relationships around the Pacific Rim, to pursue their mega-One Belt One Road project and to chip away at the international security alliances that have made the Pacific an American lake for 50 years.
One way for China to extend the period of a vacuum of American leadership: Throw the Senate to the Dems, ensuring not just two years of oversight hearings but also fraught nomination fights that would leave the government understaffed and under-resourced and unable to engage thoughtfully with the rest of the world.
Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress might, from a brass tacks Chinese or Russian perspective, guarantee two years of a paralyzed America, a country continuing to look inward, not outward. And Democratic control of Congress could help arrest Trump’s trade war, which actually could be harming China’s growth and rise—and the one thing China can’t afford to lose right now is it’s economic growth. A Democratic House might lead to a polarizing impeachment fight that would further exacerbate America’s political divides and weaken the country globally, at least in the short term.
China doesn’t need to sideline the U.S. forever—just long enough to have built itself into the global military and economic superpower befitting its status as the world’s most populous nation. Two or four more years of America refusing to engage on the world stage and undermining rules-based systems like the World Trade Organization, and of President Trump storming out of G-7 summits would go a long way toward giving China the space it needs to solidify new alliances and build new systems that aren’t focused on the post-World War II Bretton Woods-style comity that aided the U.S. over the past 70 years.
Similarly, Russia might decide that its aid to Trump was so successful, that he’s been so effective at advancing Putin’s goals, that they want to keep him in power past 2020. A good way to help Trump get reelected is to give him a Democratic Congress to rail against for the next two years. There’s a pretty straightforward trend in American electoral politics: Recent incumbent presidents lose ground in the midterms, then win second terms.
Iran, of course, is another capable cyber adversary that has a big bone to pick with Trump: the death of the nuclear deal that was letting the Islamic Republic re-enter the global economy. What if Iran decides that they want to go after Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, its fiercest critic and a Trump backer?
If it weren’t for the president’s fragile ego, it would be easy for Republican lawmakers to say, “We don’t think the Russian effort affected the 2016 election, but we can’t take the chance that similar efforts in the future ever succeed.” And then throw themselves into an all-out, no-expense-spared, herculean effort to lock down every county-level voter system, ensure paper backups in every elementary school gymnasium voting precinct, install two-factor authentication on every GOP congressional campaign email account, and pound the social media platforms every day to remove disinformation, minimize bots and trolls and block dark-money ads.
Remember that Dick Cheney led the nation into the War on Terror with the so-called “One-Percent Doctrine,” his idea that. if there was an even a 1 percent chance that terrorists were pursuing a nuclear weapon, “We have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”
The odds that a foreign government is coming back to attack our election this fall in 2018, or in 2020, are far, far greater than 1 percent.
We should all care about securing our elections against foreign interference, for many patriotic reasons. But even if Trump and the Republican Party’s turn-the-other-cheek approach to Russia’s cyber attacks is based on crass self-interest, they should rethink their silence. There’s no guarantee that today’s allies are tomorrow’s allies.