With less than two months remaining until Election Day, now is the time to closely examine threats to our electoral system. We’ve heard from politicians on both sides that this election is in jeopardy, whether because the Russians or the Chinese may interfere to cause chaos and undermine our confidence in our system, or because the coronavirus pandemic and our response to it may lead to balloting issues. Regardless why, there is little question that our elections are under significant pressure and that our adversaries are looking to take advantage.
This is not a new problem. We’ve known about foreign covert influence efforts, including election-related efforts, for decades. What is fundamentally different about the current threats is that they occur at a time of extreme vulnerability for the United States as a nation. We are witnessing massive economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 and the partial shutdown of the global economy. At the same time, cities across our nation are in flames over issues of race and inequality. And this doesn’t even account for the toxic political hostility between the two major parties that has become much worse in the past four years.
Not only are we more vulnerable to manipulation by our adversaries, but their methods have become significantly more effective. Back in the day, if a foreign government wanted to interfere in a U.S. election, it had to recruit willing human assets to place articles in newspapers and stoke anger at rallies. Today, the ability to communicate globally provides huge benefits and brings economic opportunity and political freedom to hundreds of millions across the globe. But significant challenges come with these benefits. Americans and others across the globe are becoming increasingly self-radicalized as we read extreme messages on social media — and see reporting from increasingly polarized news outlets — often from those who agree with us or share our own political views and biases. Rather than stoking critical conversations by expanding access to diverse views in our society, the information revolution has allowed us to burrow ever deeper into our own social groups and harden our political views.
Our enemies know they can have a direct effect on us and, perhaps even worse, believe that there is little cost to doing so. After all, the entire globe saw Russia clearly interfere with our political process in 2016 (and since) and pay little if any price. To be sure, this was not the first time Russia or another nation has sought to play in American elections. But it has been, perhaps, the single-most effective covert influence operation ever conducted.
How do we know? One need only look at how our own nation’s views of the federal government and rule of law institutions, such as the Justice Department, FBI and intelligence community (not to mention local police forces), have been fundamentally undermined in the past few years. To be sure, some of our faith was lost because of individual and systemic failures in many of these institutions. But make no mistake, much of our dissatisfaction with these critically important rule of law organizations has been gaslighted by foreign nation-states who would like nothing more than to see us lose faith in our government, its institutions and its processes.
And it’s not just the standing government and its processes that have been undermined. The American people now have little faith in our elected leaders in the executive branch, and even less in Congress. Rather than seeking to restore this faith by getting the work of the American people done, our institutions have been beset by partisan infighting and bitterness. Recent events suggest that our political branches are fundamentally broken, unable to reauthorize critically important national security authorities and failing to pass further economic measures to address the very real crisis facing American workers and businesses.
The intelligence community has made clear that key adversaries, including Russia, China and Iran, are seriously considering how to get even more aggressive in the cyber arena in coming months. Of course, these issues come as part of a continuously rising cyber threat environment; indeed, we’ve already seen a massive uptick in cyber attacks targeting our financial services institutions, the energy industry, the technology sector and health care institutions, including drug manufacturers and hospitals, as well as the government.
The question is: What might be done at this point, with the elections so close? The answer, surprisingly, is fairly straightforward. U.S. politicians of both parties should assure the American people that they are doing everything necessary to ensure free and fair elections. The executive branch should make clear to any nation considering interference in our elections that — regardless of who wins the White House — the consequences of interfering will be severe. Congress, as its highest priority, ought to pass necessary legislation to restore lapsed national security authorities, provide economic relief for citizens, and offer appropriate investment incentives to restore jobs and protect American innovation.
American mayors, likewise, must restore order to their cities while taking action to address the very real, longstanding grievances that have become all too apparent in recent months. And, perhaps most importantly, the American people should vote — and do so with an eye toward not only their own interests, but those of the nation as well.
This is not hard, but it will take significant fortitude. It will require elected leaders to put aside crass political agendas and actually do the work of the American people, even in the heat of election campaigns. It will require voters to think not just of themselves and their families, but also of their communities and our larger society. What better time than now to begin these efforts?
Gen. (Ret) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the National Security Agency and founding commander of United States Cyber Command, and currently serves as chairman, president and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity. He is on the board of advisers for the National Security Institute at GMU’s Scalia Law School (NSI).
Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and served in senior national security roles in the Bush Justice Department and White House. He is senior vice president for strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity and the founder and executive director of NSI.
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