On Friday, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told us what most of us already knew. Evanina detailed threats from Russia, China, and Iran, to interfere with the upcoming presidential elections. Interestingly, the intelligence assessment is that the cyber aggressors are taking different sides.
In a written statement, Evanina said, “Foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”
He also warned, “They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results.”
Interestingly, Evanina said that the intelligence community assessed that our adversaries have different goals and are targeting their efforts to help different candidates and for different purposes.
Most obviously, China seems to be trying to undermine President Trump’s re-election campaign. After years of trade wars, Evanina says that Beijing views Trump as “unpredictable.”
“China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China,” Evanina said in the statement.
So far, Chinese efforts concentrated on criticizing the Trump Administration on numerous fronts. These include Trump’s response to the pandemic, the closure of the Houston consulate, the TikTok ban, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market through Huawei. As I’ve pointed out for years, China does not have to outlast the US economy to win the trade war, they only have to outlast Donald Trump.
Russia is taking the opposite side. Evanina said, “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia.”
Evanina pointed to “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach” as a proxy in Russia’s efforts. Derkach “is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” per the intelligence assessment. Derkach was one of the local politicians who met with Rudy Giuliani during the president’s personal lawyer’s dirt-digging expeditions to Ukraine.
If Russia and China are each backing their favorite horse in the presidential race, Iran’s goal is primarily to sow chaos and undermine American institutions, but also to undermine President Trump, “driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.” Iran’s activities are expected to include “spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded that one of these threats is not like the others, calling the Russian interference the most serious of the three.
“They’re not equivalent,” Pelosi told the Associated Press. “Russia is actively 24/7 interfering in our election. They did so in 2016, and they are doing so now.”
Pelosi’s statement has been supported by intelligence assessments for the past several years. Even Trump appointees such as Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley have confirmed Russia’s interference in 2016, which Haley called an act of “warfare.” A major theme of the Mueller report was detailing Russia’s actions and Robert Mueller used his live testimony to warn against Russian meddling in the 2020 elections.
Many Republicans will call Pelosi hypocritical for focusing on the Russian threat, but many in the GOP have spent the past four years downplaying concerns about Russia’s role in 2016. Many of those same Republicans will now be up in arms over Chinese and Iranian activities.
The truth is that all Americans should be upset about any foreign attempts to tip the scales on our elections. Regardless of whether foreign powers support your candidate or his opponent, nations who are our adversaries have no business influencing American voters or, worse, trying to manipulate vote totals by hacking databases and voting machines. Undermining the integrity of elections is undermining the foundation of our government.
Unfortunately, both sides are predictably playing politics with the issue. Democrats in the House, considering themselves the victims, have passed several bills aimed at curbing election interference over the past few years. Republicans, perhaps sensitive that admitting the problem would further undermine Donald Trump’s credibility, have killed most of them. As recently as June, Senate Republicans quietly removed a requirement that campaigns report attempts by foreign governments to interfere in US elections from the National Defense Authorization Act.
The integrity of elections is a cornerstone of our republic and a national security priority. Defending the electoral process against foreign adversaries should not be a partisan issue and it should not matter which candidate is assumed to benefit.
As Robert Mueller warned in his testimony to Congress more than a year ago, “Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
“This deserves the attention of every American,” he added.
Now, we have the Chinese and Iranians piling on as well. We should take the threats seriously.
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