Why you should care
Because the Mueller Report showed how our democracy is at stake.
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).
Most media and congressional attention to the Mueller Report is focused on Volume 2. That’s because it explores possible presidential obstruction of justice and therefore puts political blood in the water. That makes for sexy stories and good ratings — but it’s Volume 1 that should command our immediate attention, because it recounts in graphic detail Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. What to do about Volume 2’s revelations is a fluid political issue with an uncertain outcome. But the clock is ticking toward the next presidential election and the near certainty that we will again be vulnerable, as Volume 1 shows we were in 2016.
The Russian interference is a seminal event in U.S. history. Yes, foreign countries have sought to influence elections in the past, but this was the first attempt that married intent to revolutionary new capabilities enabled by heretofore unimaginable technology. The Russians’ use of social media allowed them to obscure identity in a way they could not in their clumsy Cold War propaganda and influence campaigns.
It will take more research to gauge the effect 2016’s meddling had on actual vote totals but there can be little doubt that it exacerbated societal divisions, possibly suppressed voting by some groups and conceivably could have tipped the balance in some key states.
They wanted us at one another’s throats and in many cases they got just that.
Ensuring our election cannot be manipulated should be our No. 1 political objective if we want to continue calling ourselves the world’s greatest democracy.
Why were we such an open target? Studies of war and espionage show that powerful countries are often easily surprised by weaker adversaries. Strong, prosperous countries historically find it hard to believe that those less powerful can marshal the ingenuity and resources to knock them off course — but that is exactly what happened in 2016.
Russia came at us along three different vectors.
First, they manipulated people. They played on either the willingness, naivete or foolishness of individuals within the Trump campaign to accept assistance or enter into compromising situations (Mueller found no comparable instances in the Clinton campaign). The example best known before the Mueller Report is the well-documented meeting Donald Trump Jr. and others had in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer connected to the government whom an intermediary said would provide dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Other incidents are reported for the first time in Mueller’s report. One noteworthy case involved additional detail on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s briefing of internal campaign polling data and campaign messaging to a former Russian intelligence officer. According to Manafort’s assistant, this included discussion of key battleground states, which he says Manafort listed as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
We do not yet know what effect this might have had, but Trump won Michigan by the slimmest of margins, just 10,704 votes out of 4,548,382 cast (a mere 0.23 percent). Trump took Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by similarly small margins (22,748 votes out of 2,787,820 and 44,292 out of more than 6 million, respectively). Clinton carried Minnesota by a small margin.
Common sense would tell most people to report such contacts with foreign nationals to the FBI. However, knowing what happened in 2016 convinces me that Congress should make it flat-out illegal not to do so.
Second, the Russians weaponized information. As we knew before Mueller’s report, the Russians hacked into Democratic National Committee databases and the personal data of campaign official John Podesta. They passed this to WikiLeaks, sometimes using two invented online personages, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks. Conveniently, the WikiLeaks releases helped offset negative publicity afflicting Trump from media exposure of his sexually explicit boasts on the infamous Access Hollywood video.
New in the Mueller Report is his revelation that the Russian GRU began targeting Hillary Clinton’s personal office email just five hours after Trump made his famous “Russia, if you’re listening …” invitation to the Russians to do precisely that. A direct connection? We still don’t know because some of the cases redacted in the public report, especially the role of Trump confidant Roger Stone, are still pending. Mueller also documents that Russian intelligence units hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state — and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the conduct of U.S. elections.
Fixing this is harder, but it obviously requires high vigilance on basic cybersecurity and classic internet hygiene intended to detect and fend off spear-phishing attacks. With the latter relatively simple technique, Mueller reports that Russian military intelligence, the GRU, stole tens of thousands of emails from Clinton campaign officials and volunteers at all levels.
Third, Russia played on divisions in U.S. society. The Russian Internet Research Agency’s official connections are unclear, but it is funded by a Russian businessman reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin. It sought to exacerbate divisions as much as to take sides. They wanted us at one another’s throats and in many cases they got just that.
They had a covert team in the U.S. doing research for this in 2014 and sending reports back to the Internet Research Agency. They assigned dozens of agents to focus on Twitter, Facebook YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram, where they created fictitious accounts or ones that mimicked real U.S. organizations. Mueller documents them posing as anti-immigration groups, tea party activists, Black Lives Matter protesters and other U.S. social and political activists. More than 100 million Americans were at various times exposed to false Russian personages and appeals in social media. Many Americans, including Trump associates and relatives — Kellyanne Conway, Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. — retweeted disguised Russian content favorable to Trump, presumably unwittingly.
We can prevent this from happening again. Many experts have weighed in, and the remedies include:
- minimizing the use of online services by foreign adversaries for divisive or endorsement purposes
- greater alerting assistance to these companies by U.S. intelligence
- tightening of campaign finance laws
- enhanced security for our election infrastructure, particularly ensuring a universal paper trail or paper ballot option. As of late last year, there were 14 states that still either had no paper ballot (five) or only spotty paper systems (nine) throughout their jurisdictions.
Standing in the way is the absence of a nationally coordinated effort endorsed and driven by the White House, which eliminated its cybersecurity coordinator position a year ago, saying this could be handled now at lower levels. Recent press reports assert, however, that former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen could not get approval for essential interagency coordination, allegedly due to the president’s displeasure with the idea that his election might have depended on Russian intervention.
We can debate what specific effects Russia’s action had, but the one result staring us in the face is how controversy about it has deepened the partisan divide in Washington. In the end, this clears the widest path for Moscow to do it again.