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Depoliticizing Foreign Interference

Jessica Brandt
Sunday, November 3, 2019, 10:00 AM

Democrats and Republicans alike should prioritize responding to interference from Beijing, imposing additional sanctions on malign actors, closing financial loopholes, raising standards for technology companies and improving election security.

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Editor’s Note: Russian interference in the 2016 election was one of the most effective and dangerous foreign operations ever conducted against the United States. Even worse, the risk of foreign meddling is likely to grow in the coming years. Jessica Brandt of the Alliance for Securing Democracy argues that while a complete solution is unlikely, there is enough bipartisan support to make progress on a range of key areas that, taken together, will make the 2020 elections far more secure.

Daniel Byman


With just a year left before the next presidential election, U.S. leaders are still grappling with foreign interference in the last one. Postmortems of the 2016 campaign—in testimony from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and a bipartisan report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—have brought renewed attention to the ongoing risks, which have been made more difficult by new actors and new technologies. But as the threat has grown, the political polarization that surrounds election interference has deepened. Many still view the challenge through the prism of debates over President Trump’s legitimacy, and the launch of an impeachment inquiry into, among other things, the question of whether the president solicited campaign assistance from a foreign government ahead of the 2020 election has only exacerbated this dynamic. In Washington, the result has been a lot of talk and little walk: a churn of hearings and the introduction of bipartisan legislation without meaningful policy change. Although some lawmakers have risen to the challenge, others have mischaracterized those efforts as political ploys rather than national security necessities.

Despite this bleak picture, progress is possible. It will require lawmakers to choose their battles, strategically focusing their efforts where bipartisan cooperation is most likely. Fortunately, in at least five policy domains, members of both parties in both houses of Congress have indicated that they are prepared to act. In the short term, Democrats and Republicans alike should prioritize those domains: responding to interference from Beijing, imposing additional sanctions on malign actors, closing financial loopholes, raising standards for technology companies and improving election security. This collection of steps is the beginning, not the end, of defending U.S. democracy; long-term goals must be more wide ranging, and executive branch and civil society involvement is also necessary. But the current moment demands swift action.

State of Play

Policymakers are right to learn lessons from interference in the 2016 presidential election, but they must also consider new factors at play. Law enforcement officials have warned of evolving threats. The Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity director, Chris Krebs, told Congress earlier this year that the prospect of hostile powers targeting the 2020 election, this time with more sophisticated tactics, “keeps [him] up at night.” As well it should, given the increasing number of actors capable of interfering in U.S. elections and the increasing sophistication of the technology accessible to them.

Since 2016, regimes around the world have developed their own tools to undermine democracy. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has expanded its interference operations abroad. From cyber espionage to political donations, online censorship to economic coercion, even information operations abroad, the Chinese government has sought to manipulate global narratives and policies in its favor. In the Middle East, meanwhile, a growing list of countries—including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have emulated the Kremlin’s tactics. In August, Facebook removed hundreds of Saudi-sponsored accounts, and over the past year, social media companies have exposed multiple Tehran-linked operations, including some that targeted American audiences. For its part, the UAE may have explicitly relied on help from Russian hackers to build their capabilities, and, worse still, former U.S. intelligence officials have been implicated in assisting the Emirati government in developing surveillance tools that targeted fellow Americans.

Emerging technologies will make the next wave of interference harder to combat. Advances in machine learning will enable malign actors to microtarget information operations more precisely and produce disinformation without a human at the keyboard. Additionally, synthetic text and so-called deep-fake videos will allow malign actors to create more convincing inauthentic content, which has already been demonstrated to exacerbate distrust in news media.

Existing efforts from the executive branch to address these threats have been too sporadic and too slow. Its messaging has been inconsistent, and coordination among policymaking and intelligence agencies remains largely ad hoc—a serious vulnerability considering that the tactics authoritarian actors use to damage our democracy span agency jurisdictions and domestic and foreign intelligence authorities. Last year, the president signed an executive order that, together with existing legislation, would give the White House broad discretion to implement sanctions and other measures against foreign actors who seek to undermine American elections. However, it has not enforced the order, even though the intelligence community assessed that Russia, as well as other actors, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns ahead of the midterm elections last November.

The government cannot combat this challenge alone, of course. In anticipation of regulatory efforts to come, technology companies have announced several new commitments. But many of these measures—including YouTube’s algorithm tweak to reduce the surfacing of fringe content and Facebook’s tightened rules on political advertising—have not gone far enough to address the problem. Some proposals even seem likely to make the problem worse: Facebook’s drive for privacy could push more political discourse to encrypted platforms, where disinformation is harder to find, never mind counter.

On the ground, civil society can help fill in gaps. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are often best positioned to raise awareness of the foreign interference challenge, depoliticize the debate that surrounds it, and get buy-in for solutions from citizens beyond Washington, D.C. However, these measures are complements to, not substitutes for, political leadership. Action of this sort outside the government will be many times more effective with support from inside it.

The Right Battles

In Congress, this support can start in five policy domains that are ripe for bipartisan action. The first place to start may be addressing the China challenge, which members of both parties in both houses of Congress recognize. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is raising alarm over Beijing-backed global influence campaigns after Google, Twitter and Facebook deactivated networks of accounts spreading disinformation on Western platforms. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited the use of its appropriated funds for Chinese-language instruction at Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes or at universities that host them. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have introduced bipartisan legislation to “protect against state-sponsored technology theft and risks to critical supply chains.” And in July, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) wrote a bill that keeps limits on Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant with close ties to the Chinese government, even if the administration tries to lift them. Members of Congress have also introduced a range of proposals to hinder China’s use of technology to bolster its authoritarian system at home and export it abroad. Because China does not evoke the same partisan dynamics that Russia does, advocates of varied political affiliations may find more room for bipartisan maneuver.

The second issue to focus on is deterrence through sanctions. Members of both parties have supported sanctions to dissuade malign activity, even if the Trump administration’s willingness to implement them has been mixed. The first major sanctions package designed to, among other things, hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing behavior—the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)—passed in the Senate in 2017 by a vote of 98 to 2 and subsequently became law. Last year, and again this summer, bipartisan pressure from Congress convinced the administration to impose sanctions on Russia for its nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom. A number of bipartisan bills have been introduced in both chambers of Congress that would sanction Russia if it continues interfering in U.S. elections. Congress should turn these bills into law, and then go further—implementing new measures with a broader aperture to deter interference operations conducted by actors other than Russia, as well as those that do not target elections.

Third, positive bipartisan action is taking shape to improve financial transparency. The United States should outlaw anonymous shell companies, which inhibit criminal investigations into malign financial activity, tilt the playing field against law-abiding small businesses, and shelter the wealth of kleptocrats and their proxies. In September, a bipartisan group in the Senate—four Republicans and four Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee—introduced legislation that is expected to become the foundation of an eventual Senate bill to improve corporate transparency and combat money laundering. The bipartisan Corporate Transparency Act, which passed in the House on Oct. 22 and was endorsed by the White House, would require all U.S. companies to identify their owners to law enforcement. These bills have received broad support from the treasury secretary, law enforcement, financial institutions and transparency NGOs. As my colleague Josh Rudolph has argued, Congress should add to these measures a requirement that the Treasury Department include countering authoritarian influence in its purview. After anonymous companies are outlawed, Congress and the executive branch should turn their attention to improving the collection of information on foreign investment in the United States, much of which remains opaque.

Fourth, members of both parties acknowledge that technology companies can no longer be trusted to regulate themselves. On the agenda are questions ranging from whether and how to regulate data collection and protect individuals’ private information to how to eliminate deceptive practices that give online information operations broad reach. In May, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) put forward the Do Not Track Act, which would offer an option for internet users to opt out of ad tracking. The following month, the same lawmakers introduced the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data Act (DASHBOARD Act)—legislation that would require large tech companies to disclose the data they collect. These measures could make it harder for adversarial foreign governments to acquire U.S. citizens’ personal information that could be used, among other things, to conduct highly targeted information operations. As technology companies look to preempt regulation, many of these recommendations may be more palatable to them.

Finally, despite recent partisan rancor, members of both parties have called for more comprehensive election security. Last year, Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Secure Elections Act, which would allocate resources to election security, including for postelection audits and backup paper ballots. And in this Congress, Lankford and Klobuchar were joined by two more members, Gary Peters (D-MI) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), in proposing the Voting System Cybersecurity Act of 2019, which would require that experts from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency be involved in designing the Election Assistance Commission’s voluntary standards on voting systems. Over the summer, it looked like getting these and other measures passed would be nearly impossible—not least because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked election security legislation from coming to the floor and Democrats responded by turning up the temperature on partisan rhetoric. But pressure for action mounted after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on election interference and civil society groups from both sides of the political spectrum launched election security advocacy campaigns. In September, when cooler heads prevailed, one domain emerged ripe for agreement: providing additional funding to the state officials who run U.S. elections. For lawmakers who want to see states play a lead role in securing elections, it makes sense to give them the resources to do so. Perhaps with that in mind, McConnell co-sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill that provided $250 million for election security. That was a breakthrough. The House appropriated $600 million in election security funding earlier this year, so now the two chambers must agree in conference on a final sum—and on whether any strings should be attached to the disbursement that would shape how the money is spent. The Senate package has no such strings; the House package does.

Partisan disagreement will still hinder success on some important issues. America’s two political parties and their candidates are unlikely to present a united front by pledging jointly not to weaponize information illegally obtained by foreign governments during election campaigns, even though such a public, bipartisan promise would probably have a strong deterrent effect. (The Democratic National Committee has committed separately not to use hacked material for political gain.) The prospects for legislation to promote election security best practices, such as paper ballot backups, are dim. However, when it comes to building resilience to foreign interference, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Progress in these five domains will go a long way toward protecting our democracy.

Freedom from foreign interference is not a Democratic or Republican value; it is deeply American, rooted in the country’s founding. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton warned that “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant” in the United States was “one of the most deadly adversaries of republican government." The same is true today. As the 2020 campaign gets underway, foreign interference conversations must not fall victim to punditry. It is important to be clear-eyed about the fact that bipartisanship will not be possible in every instance. But on the right set of common objectives, Congress has a path forward. The substance of the legislative measures outlined above is crucial, but so is the message of unity their passage would send. Unequivocal commitment from elected leaders—of all political persuasions and at all levels—is essential, not only to raise public awareness about the pressing threat to American democracy but also to heal the divisions that foreign adversaries seek to exploit.

Jessica Brandt is Head of Research and Policy for the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She was previously a Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where her research focused on multilateral institutions and geopolitics. She is a member of the Advisory Council of the American Ditchley Foundation, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a David Rockefeller Fellow of the Trilateral Commission.

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