Former CIA Chief Weighs In on Iowa Debacle - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Former CIA Chief Weighs In on Iowa Debacle

Iowa is the first contest in the 2020 presidential nominating process, with the candidates then moving on to New Hampshire.
SourceAlex Wong/Getty

Former CIA Chief Weighs In on Iowa Debacle

By John McLaughlin


Because it's all about the paper trail.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

We caught up with OZY columnist and former CIA Deputy Director and Acting Director John McLaughlin for some perspective on what the election chaos in the Hawkeye State means and where it might lead.

What does Iowa’s primary reporting meltdown mean for states going forward?

I see a couple lessons coming out of this mess. First, it’s important to note that the Iowa officials say they are confident the results — 62 percent of which were out at the time of publication — will ultimately be reported accurately, largely because there were paper backups to the electronic tallies. That’s the first lesson to other states: the necessity of having paper backups. Without that, no one would have confidence in the outcome, which was apparently the result of a flawed and inadequately tested app for tallying the votes. 

Paper ballot backups are important in all upcoming elections, including traditional ones like New Hampshire, versus oddities like the Iowa caucuses. Yet I saw a study recently by the New York University School of Law concluding that about 12 percent of voters in the 2020 election will vote without paper backups. Democrats in Congress are pushing for funding to remedy this, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is opposed, arguing that this would be too much federal interference in local elections.   

How does our election system look to the world right now?

This is a black eye on world opinion that already shows lots of bruises. The Pew Research Center surveys of world opinion on the U.S. two years ago showed a precipitous drop in confidence mainly related to presidential decision making from 64 percent in the Obama era to 22 percent under President Donald Trump. But some countries, such as Israel, the Philippines and South Korea, retained high confidence in American power. For many, this will be another affirmation that things are not working well in the U.S., even at the local level, and that we are not the efficient, well-organized superpower that many assumed we were. 

I travel a lot, and it is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which foreign audiences follow the ins and outs, the drama, of U.S. politics. Expect bus riders in many capitals to see this mess on the front pages of their tabloids in the morning.  

The Iowa Democratic Party says there’s no evidence of a hack or interference here. How would we know if such an intrusion did happen?

I think it is too soon to say that with confidence or to assume that such systems are not vulnerable in the future. Even as we discuss this, I would assume hackers are looking into ways to get at the developers of election-related apps. It is not just the actual tabulation that has to be secure  it is also the foundational technology that has to be protected. Another argument for paper ballot backups.

Iowa Caucus Meltdown Tied To Democrats' Little-Tested App

The Iowa Democratic Party caucus app is displayed on an iPhone outside Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa.

Source Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty

One way or the other, it is important to establish with confidence that we have security along the whole voting chain from the design and manufacturing of voting machines, to the software that powers them, to the actual tabulation. Regrettably, we live in an age when conspiracy theories ripen easily, grow quickly and gain adherents who are ready to challenge the results, whether or not there is legitimate basis for doubt. You may recall Trump’s prediction in 2016 that the election would be “rigged” and his subsequent claim that he was cheated out of the popular vote. If we lose confidence in the integrity of the voting process, we have lost our democracy.    

Does this type of chaos embolden foreign bad actors?

Of course. The Russians see in our current political chaos a rich dividend for a relatively cheap investment on their part in 2016. They do not even have to materially affect our vote to do damage; they merely have to sow doubt about it in U.S. social media and elsewhere to deepen suspicion and division here.

How secure are our election systems right now?

We have improved but have a way to go to adequately tighten our election systems – and not much time left to do it. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security have tried to work with localities, but we do not have a nationally driven effort. That’s likely to succeed only with White House leadership, which is lacking at present; in fact, the Trump administration eliminated the White House position on cybersecurity, which would have been the logical focal point for an election security campaign.

So we are likely to head into the 2020 vote with many electronic voting machines still vulnerable to intrusion and running out-of-date software, gaps in our paper ballot coverage and Senate reluctance to enact new safeguards. Against that backdrop, it is chilling to recall the warning in the November testimony from former National Security Council Russia Director Fiona Hill that “Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election.” We need a crash program to plug the holes and ensure the integrity of the vote.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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