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4 Ways The U.S. Could Fight Future Election Interference

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.
Juan Labreche
A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

Congress is back in Washington, D.C., this week to tackle a to-do list so packed it unfurls all the way down to the Anacostia River.

Lawmakers aren't only expected to focus on taxes, the budget, the debt ceiling and other such priorities. They also could begin paying attention to the potential threats against elections next year or in 2020.

Current and former intelligence officials warn that 2016's election won't have been an isolated incident; Russian or other foreign mischief-makers could return and interfere again.

Advocates say the U.S. can do a number of things to safeguard the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential race against the kind of interference that Russia launched against the 2016 campaign. Here's a look at four things Congress, the White House, state and local election officials and other stakeholders could do.

1. Study up

The Senate version of this year's annual intelligence authorization bill includes a number of provisions aimed at helping future elections. One would support offering top secret security clearances to elections officials at the state level so they could see more of what American intelligence agencies were seeing about potential threats.

Other parts of the bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to prepare a report about the cyberattacks against state election infrastructure, and for Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to submit a broader strategy on countering Russian cyber-threats. The bill still needs to pass the full Senate and then get through negotiations with the House.

Members of Congress want some work the government has already completed, though: Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and ranking member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., want the White House to release cyber-reports that it ordered when President Trump took office.

"Cyberattacks are a real and growing threat," Johnson said. "Obtaining these reports will be helpful as the committee continues its oversight to improve America's national and cyber security."

2. Keep watch

If the wave of noise online and through social media was new in 2016, it will not be a surprise if it returned at a similar level in a future election. So big platforms such as Google and Facebook say they're working today to constrain the spread of so-called fake news, while also not constraining the way most users want to use the services.

Facebook, for example, says it doesn't want to become a fact enforcement service — but it has said it will try to do more to suppress misinformation. One feature the social network has promoted is a "related articles" window it could set to appear near certain headlines, giving users what an official post called "more ways to see a more complete picture of a story or topic."

Facebook has also announced another feature that would block advertising from pages that repeatedly share false news.

Another way to prepare for targeted online messaging is to monitor it in real time. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the German Marshall Fund, has built what it calls a "dashboard" that shows what a number of social media accounts linked to Russian government influence operations are posting.

An early lesson: Much of the material used in Russia's campaigns doesn't actually come from Russia — it comes from the United States.

"It's themes and messages and stories they seek to amplify, which they believe is in their interest one way or another," said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Many of the terms in use by Russian-linked influence accounts are the ordinary furniture of life on Twitter, perennials such as #thursdaythoughts. But they also amp up stories calculated to exacerbate controversy or division within the West, as when many of the accounts got on the bandwagon in calling for President Trump to fire national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

"Broadly defined, the themes they promote and repeat over and over is pushing on either extremist views or societal division," Rosenberger told NPR.

She continued: "We've seen this in operations across Europe as well ... what they try to do is find the seams, the weaknesses, the vulnerabilities, the flash points and try to actually further needle those. Part of the Kremlin's interest here is sowing and exploiting divisions in order to weaken our institutions and society."

3. Leave a paper trail

Advocates have told Congress that states need to replace "obsolete and vulnerable voting machines" with paper ballots that provide a physical record of each vote cast. Reformers also support the widespread use of "risk-limiting audits" — manual checks of paper ballots to confirm that the automated counting machines are working correctly.

"They may seem low-tech, but they are a reliable, cost-effective defense," as computer science professor J. Alex Halderman told the Senate Intelligence Committee this summer.

But the casting and counting of votes themselves is only one potential issue for policymakers to confront.

The extent to which Russian cyberattacks could harass American voting systems is one of the big unanswered questions following the 2016 interference. State and federal officials have stressed they have no evidence that anyone's vote was changed. But hackers tried to gain access to one major elections vendor. The voter registration system in Illinois was actually breached by hackers, but records were not altered or deleted. An attempt was made to hack the voter registration system in Arizona.

If a future attack does not result in changed votes, it could still cause chaos on Election Day if it deletes records, duplicates registrations or changes voters' assigned polling places.

A top secret National Security Agency report about a Russian cyberattack leaked this year to The Intercept suggested that the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have more detail about Russia's cyber-mischief — but what they know is still secret.

4. Fight back

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Cabinet in Moscow on June 22, 2017.
Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool / AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Cabinet in Moscow on June 22, 2017.

The United States has already imposed stronger new economic sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the election interference — and Congress, in its legislation, has constrained Trump from acting on his own to remove them.

But there are still more tools in the kit, as policy wonks say, that administration leaders or lawmakers could reach for to try to dissuade future interference in upcoming elections. The State Department announced last week, for example, that it was retaliating against Moscow's ejection of Americans posted in Russia by closing three Russian diplomatic locations in the U.S.

The Trump administration said it would stop, however, at ejecting the Russians themselves, and permit "a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes" — for the Russians to have more diplomatic real estate in the U.S. than Moscow is permitting on its territory.

Washington could, down the line, decide to even out the "disparity" and close more Russian offices and eject more Russians.

It also has options further afield: Defense Secretary James Mattis said on his visit to Ukraine last month that he and Trump were seriously considering providing weapons to Ukrainian troops fighting Russian invaders. Those could potentially include systems such as Javelin anti-tank missiles or other arms beyond the nonlethal equipment the U.S. has already supplied — including medical kits, vehicles and radios.

President Obama worried that arming Ukraine might be too strong a step and could provoke too big a backlash from Russian forces over the frontier. Mattis, however, said it's a real option under discussion in Washington.

"Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you're an aggressor, and clearly, Ukraine is not an aggressor, since it's their own territory where the fighting is happening," he said.

And if Washington really wanted to make Putin angry, it could target his own election.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has called for Congress to set up a "U.S. Information Agency on steroids" — reviving a Cold War-era public information service that spread the American view around the world.

Putin is believed to have taken intense umbrage at the criticism from the United States of his last election, which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized as undemocratic and illegitimate. That's one reason why Putin may have harbored so intense a grudge against Clinton and directed his government to help defeat her in 2016.

Retired Ambassador Larry Napper, a career diplomat with many postings in Russia and the former Soviet bloc, told NPR that Washington would need to be realistic about what a big public information campaign might actually achieve in practical terms.

"Whether or not we take up such a campaign, or increase it above what we have been doing, the Russians, in either case, are going to continue their efforts — in other words, refraining from such a PR campaign or our own information campaign is not going to cause them to forebear from doing what they do," he said.

At the same time, said Napper — now a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University — Washington could decide to launch such a campaign just to send a message to Putin himself.

"It is an instrument in the toolbox like lots of others — and it will get his attention at the very least," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.