WASHINGTON — As Election Day 2018 gets underway, the nation’s top intelligence and law-enforcement chiefs want you to know that interference and disinformation efforts by foreign countries are still a threat to the U.S. — no matter what President Trump says.
In a joint statement released Tuesday morning, the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and FBI reminded the public that “foreign actors — and Russia in particular — continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord.” Their statement says these attacks can come in the form of “spreading false information about political processes and candidates, lying about their own interference activities, disseminating propaganda on social media and through other tactics” and that Americans should be aware of such efforts.
The statement will not please Trump and his crew of loyalists, who continue to insist that the Russian interference in 2016 had no real effect (despite evidence to the contrary) and that there’s no reason to worry about similar espionage or meddling in 2018.
Trump has refused to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia launched cyberattacks on the 2016 election in an effort to help elect him president. When asked about the issue during his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin this past summer in Helsinki, Trump took Putin’s side over that of his own government.
More recently, Trump has referred to his intel agencies’ findings as the “Russian hoax.” What made the president’s “hoax” comment all the more jarring was the fact his top intelligence officials — the same ones who put out Tuesday’s Election Day statement — had told reporters in the White House earlier that same day that they continued to see “a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”
Those same officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm about ongoing and future cyberattacks as well as disinformation operations by foreign adversaries. Over the summer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the warning lights for future cyberattacks were “blinking red.” A senior Microsoft executive revealed soon afterward that the company had identified and helped block hacking attempts aimed at three congressional candidates during the 2018 midterms.
Rolling Stone has revealed hacking attempts targeting two Democratic congressional candidates in Southern California this year. (Both candidates ended up losing their primaries. It was not clear who was behind the attacks.) The Daily Beast reported that the Russian intelligence agency behind the 2016 interference cyberattacks had targeted the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO).
Cybersecurity and disinformation experts say they haven’t yet detected the same level and types of attacks or propaganda by Russia and other foreign actors in 2018 as seen two years ago. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away entirely. On Monday, USA Today reported that Facebook had removed more than 100 accounts in French, English and Russian that were coordinating activities and appeared to be gearing up to interfere in the midterms.
Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration official who worked on fighting disinformation and propaganda, tells Rolling Stone that Russian-affiliated sites have already begun to spread messages aimed at sowing doubt post-election, emphasizing “illegal voters” and problems with the voting process. He adds that tracking foreign influence campaigns has gotten more difficult as those campaigns become more localized and shift their approach from what we saw in 2016.
Bruen says the U.S. remains ill-equipped and underprepared to counter the threat of foreign interference and disinformation. “We’ve lost their signal, and for those who saw Hunt for Red October that’s never a good thing,” he says. “Meanwhile, the Trump administration decided to dedicate almost no resources and put no one in charge of countering the threat. This leaves us badly exposed for a post-election surprise or an early attempt to again undermine our presidential elections.”