SAIS Explainer Series: Russian Interference in US Elections

The new SAIS Observer Explainer Series aims to help SAIS students understand the most complex issues of the day. No politics — just the facts.

October 31, 2019

By Alex Kessler

WASHINGTON,⁠ D.C. — On October 30, several high-profile veterans of the U.S. intelligence community gathered at the National Press Club to discuss their assessment of Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and what measures could be taken to address this threat moving forward into 2020. Present to report on the event was the SAIS Observer.

Moderated by CBS “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan and hosted by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, a panel comprised of former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe and previous CIA leadership figures John Brennan, Michael Morell, and SAIS’ own John McLaughlin fielded questions regarding their collective understanding of Russian efforts to influence the American democratic process.

According to John Brennan, the CIA knew since at least August of 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have attempted to influence the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. The CIA reportedly passed information to executive and legislative leadership, who then confronted Russia. We can not be certain how many votes were affected, or if and how the United States’ efforts to confront the Russians may have altered the Russian strategy. However, Morell warned that there is evidence that suggests that Russia is continuing efforts to influence both voters and the voting process in the United States.

What does this foreign intervention look like? Brennan listed several major avenues of the Russian effort. The most obvious of these appears in our social media feeds, where foreign intelligence units spread targeted disinformation (or normal information) to exacerbate political division within the U.S. population. There also exist vulnerabilities in both the voting process and within companies that design and store voting software, all of which are susceptible to digital attack. Russia can also attempt to influence American politics by endorsing certain politicians, or by making financial contributions to a particular political contender and later leaking information of their contribution to discredit the contender in the eyes of the public. In short, Russia aims to take advantage of the United States’ free media environment to manipulate the perception of the electorate.

McCabe described the FBI as having a robust cybersecurity organization that is prepared for the next “attack,” but individual states’ cybersecurity infrastructure may not be as secure. The question was also raised whether the U.S. government is capable of coordinating resources to detect and combat a widespread, diffuse interference campaign⁠.

Looking ahead to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Professor McLaughlin identified four major priorities for the U.S. to combat the threat of foreign interference: Better reporting of foreign connections with U.S. officials; enhancing the intelligence community’s tracking of Russian agents within the U.S. and their data collection processes; improving the system of alerting the public of public disinformation; and securing the voting process — even if this meant returning to the use of paper ballots.

All four panelists agreed that the members of the intelligence community would continue to deter and combat the present threat.