For years the warning signs were out there. In the months after the 2016 election, analysts, politicians, experts and investigators continue to claim they know that Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential election. Sure, the claims have evolved, from Russian operatives under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin having direct contact with the Donald Trump campaign to Russian trolls creating fake news to fool Americans on Twitter and Facebook. Most agree Russia at least tried, but most can’t agree how it happened, or even why.
The why, and one other factor, are the most important questions that need to be answered in the investigation and response moving forward. Some would argue the other factor is what kind of help did they have in the United States, or who knew about it and didn’t do anything? However, I argue the most important factor is what will the United States and its allies do moving forward.
To put in simple terms for now, why Russia interfered is this, to create distrust and anger among the American people towards their elected government, no matter who that may have been. If Hillary Clinton won, she was full of scandals, some legitimate, some pushed by Russian bots. If Donald Trump won, the Russians would leak information suggesting the win was illegitimate, sparking months, and maybe even years, of anger, protest and distrust of his administration.
The worst part of this? It worked.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team have been working for almost a year now on this investigation. Their efforts are mirrored by both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in Congress. Mueller can work to prosecute individuals responsible for the interference, but Mueller cannot do the most important work of all, fix this mess. That power lies within the Legislative and Executive Branches of the United States Government.
Last week I listened to part of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where the Directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), National Intelligence (DNI), Defense Intelligence Agency and the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency all agreed: Russia interfered in 2016, and is looking to do it again in 2018.
While there is no evidence that Russia successfully hacked any voting machines and changed votes, or that they directly influence how anyone voted, the fact that they were looking to push fake news to influence the election should be enough to concern everyone across the country. They may not have done it this time, but 2018 is just around the corner, and we’ve spent more time talking about the problem rather than actively addressing it.
Late last week, Mueller announced an indictment against 13 Russian nationals for their role in interfering, by pushing fake news through fake accounts on social media. While that proves Russians were complicit, it realistically does very little for now. Russia will never allow its citizens, especially if they were directed by Putin and the Kremlin, to surrender to foreign authorities. Mueller should continue his investigation by following the same trail with the goal of publicizing as much as possible, even if he knows indictments won’t go anywhere.
Instead, the main focus should fall on Congress, the President and the heads of the intelligence agencies to make sure what happened in 2016 doesn’t happen again. Congress should be holding more hearings on the threat that Russia poses to American interests and security, while providing more funding and resources to the intelligence community and military to combat foreign intrusion.
The intelligence community and the military should also be working hand in hand day by day to come up with a comprehensive strategy to combat foreign interference. They should also be working with the Special Prosecutor’s office to look at what Russia did in 2016 and what they could be looking to do in 2018. The intelligence agencies should also be running frequent tests to check the vulnerabilities of voting systems across the nation. If there are vulnerabilities, now is the time to find them, not in a few months when primaries start nationwide.
Now is also the time for social media and other internet companies to step up and learn what they can do as well. While I do not support any type of law that restricts the free speech of anyone on social media, we all know Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like all have methods of noting where their users are active. If 100 users in Moscow, Russia are using English on Twitter to push political information during an election season, that should be an obvious red flag worth reporting to agencies like the FBI, CIA or NSA.
It is also important for the Executive Branch, in this case led by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to be proactive in this situation as well. Recently, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, stated the evidence of Russian meddling was “incontrovertible.” President Trump should be working with his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State on several fronts. The first, is to bring the intelligence agencies, Congress and internet companies together to come up with comprehensive strategies to safeguard American interests and election systems. The second is to come up with a plan to stop Russia from doing it again.
The second front starts with tough economic sanctions on Russians involved in the process. Congress has passed sanctions against Russia, but they have not been approved by the President. This must end now. The President must show he is serious in opposing Russia’s aggressive actions against the United States.
Despite all of this, the most important strategy may be one that sounds simple, but is the most difficult, stopping the bickering and find common ground. None of what I have mentioned can be accomplished without Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the Executive Branch, the Intelligence Agencies and the internet companies putting aside partisan differences and working together on this. Remember, the common problem here is Russia, not the other side of the American political spectrum.
The infighting and the distrust that the investigation has caused so far is exactly what Russia was hoping would happen. The House Intelligence Committee has become one of the most hostile committees in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats nearly refusing to work together. This is only going to create more harm for the American people and American Democracy.
If we are unable to set aside our differences and work towards solutions, then we’ll be dealing with an even bigger crisis in 2019 when Russia leaks that instead of fake news potentially swaying votes, they changed votes themselves to impact our elections and our government.
If that happens, it will be significantly more difficult to recover from the impact.
The time to act is now, before Vladimir Putin finishes laughing at our bickering.