Intelligence warnings are growing that Russia will probably meddle in the 2020 elections, but Donald Trump and a powerful Senate ally are downplaying these concerns and not doing enough to thwart interfering, say Russia and cyber experts and key congressional Democrats.
Despite fears that Moscow may seek to influence the 2020 elections by launching cyber attacks, social media disinformation, covert agent operations and other “active measures” as it did in the 2016 election, adequate funding and White House focus to counter any new Russian meddling are lagging, experts and officials say.
Election security concerns that critics say require more resources and attention include: a paper ballot system to replace or backup electronic voting machines vulnerable to hacking; more resources and attention for cybersecurity programs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); a requirement that campaigns report to the FBI any contacts with foreign nationals; and a strong public commitment from the president to an interference-free election.
Federal efforts to beef up election security, critics say, have been undercut by Trump’s apparent willingness to accept Russian president Vladimir Putin’s word that the country did not interfere in 2016, and Trump’s slighting of intelligence community conclusions about Russian meddling.
“Russia would be remiss not to try again, given how successful they were in 2016,” said Steven Hall, a retired chief of the CIA’s Russian operations.
Senior leaders at key agencies “take this [threat] very seriously” and worry about what Moscow is planning for 2020, Hall added. But Trump’s apparent trust in Putin’s word “translates into less focus and energy on the topic”.
Hall and other intelligence experts worry about a replay of the Kremlin’s 2016 meddling, when Russia mounted a multipronged cyber and social media operation initially aimed at sowing confusion and then at helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
The Kremlin-backed effort cost millions of dollars. It included ads on Facebook by fake groups, Russian bots to amplify disinformation, hacking of Democratic computers and sharing embarrassing emails with WikiLeaks and DCLeaks to disseminate them, a troll factory in St Petersburg under the aegis of a Putin associate, Kremlin agents sent to the US to collect campaign intelligence, contact with Trump campaign associates and other covert efforts.
Russian intelligence operatives, Hall added, are likely to be adept at analysing what worked and what didn’t in 2016, stressing that the Kremlin “will try to be more sophisticated in covering their tracks” in 2020, which could make detecting threats harder and require better security measures.
Paul Rosenzweig, a former top DHS official and a cyber expert with the nonpartisan R Street Institute, said efforts to enhance cybersecurity before the 2020 elections are “mired in partisanship because of a Republican misperception that efforts to buttress election security are challenges to the legitimacy of Trump’s elections”, faulting especially Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
“Absent commitment from the president and the National Security Council (NSC) to this issue [cybersecurity] there is a frustration in DHS ranks,” said Rosenzweig.
The “overwhelming” majority of DHS resources, he added, are “consumed by President Trump’s focus on immigration”, which endangers their mission in 2020 to protect elections from cyber threats. And DHS leadership has been “hollowed out” under Trump, as top posts are held by acting instead of permanent officials, Rosenzweig said.
Critics were especially troubled earlier this year when then homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was warned by a top White House official not to mention worries about Russian interference in 2020 to Trump or suggest a cabinet level meeting on the topic, to avoid riling the president, as the New York Times reported.
Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement that advising Nielsen not to bring up potential Russian meddling with Trump was “outrageous – we need a whole-of-government strategy for protecting our elections, and government officials shouldn’t have to tiptoe around the president’s ego to implement it”.
Similarly, critics were shocked when Trump indicated that in a phone call with Putin – after the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report concluded Kremlin interference in 2016 was “sweeping and systematic” – the two leaders had discussed the “Russia hoax”. Trump also reportedly failed to warn Putin not to meddle in the 2020 elections.
Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who also serves on the intelligence committee, told the Guardian he is “astounded” that “Donald Trump refuses to get tough on Vladimir Putin … I think it is an abdication of presidential responsibility unlike anything I’ve ever seen”.
The FBI’s director, Christopher Wray, has recently warned about the threat of Russian interference in 2020.
“We continue to assess that the Russians are focused on sowing divisiveness and discord in this country and pitting us against each other – and that part I think we see alive and well,” Wray told a Senate appropriations panel this month.
Wray also instructed 2020 campaigns to inform the FBI if they receive suspicious contact from foreign nationals.
Trump’s 2016 campaign has been criticized for not telling the FBI about an infamous June meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer who had promised to offer “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Jr and two other senior campaign officials.
Underscoring other Russian threats, the FBI and DHS issued a joint intelligence bulletin this spring to state and local authorities nationwide concluding that Russian reconnaissance and hacking efforts prior to the 2016 elections occurred in all 50 states – significantly more than the 21 states previously reported.
These FBI warnings may have helped spur top Democrats to push for more legislation.
This month, Wyden and Warner introduced separate bills to address key gaps in election security. The Wyden measure, which boasts more than a dozen Democratic co-sponsors, includes $500m for states to buy special equipment to efficiently read paper ballots. Wyden’s bill would also give DHS the power to set mandatory cybersecurity standards for electronic voting machines which now only have voluntary standards.
Warner’s new bill would require campaigns to notify the FBI and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) of any foreign national contacts to minimize the risks of the kind of outreach that was substantial in 2016 between Trump campaign aides and Russian nationals. The Mueller report cited 140 such contacts between Trump associates and Russians.
But McConnell’s track record in handling other election security measures makes passage of the two bills seem unlikely.
For example, a bipartisan Secure Elections Act which would have given more authority to DHS and had backing from several Republican senators, was stymied by McConnell.
“It’s astounding that the Republican-controlled Senate is stonewalling bills that would decrease our vulnerability to foreign election interference,” said Mike Carpenter, a former NSC official with Russia expertise in the Obama administration. “The question is, why won’t Mitch McConnell move any of these bills to the floor for a vote? We’re as vulnerable in the coming election cycle as we’ve ever been yet no action is being taken.”
In early 2018, Congress passed a bill to improve election security and protect voting machines from cyber attacks, but only provided a modest $380m. Republicans blocked Democrats from adding another $250m.
Warner sees progress since 2016 in election security, but still worries about the lack of a strong leadership from Trump and other new actions by the attorney general, William Barr, that could hamper countering Russia in 2020.
Warner noted he had “definite concerns” about Barr’s decision to launch a new inquiry into the origins of the 2016 FBI Russian interference investigation because it could undercut new efforts to thwart Russian meddling in 2020.
“What people need to realize is that at a certain point, this has a chilling effect on future counterintelligence investigations,” Warner said.
John Sipher, who spent 28 years in the CIA’s National Clandestine Services including a stint running its Russia operations, believes there is a need to keep investing in new methods of intelligence gathering and evolving to meet and deter any threat in 2020.
“We tend to fight the last war,” he said. “Russia is going to look for new ways and vulnerabilities to damage the US.”