by Larry Garber
The intelligence community has conclusively established that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, but little has yet been done legislatively to prevent similar active measures in future elections. The lack of action reflects an understandable desire to await the outcome of the ongoing congressional and special prosecutor investigations, and the challenges of legislating on such a politically sensitive subject in today’s hyper-partisan Congress. Less acknowledged but also a consideration is that drawing a red line proscribing hostile interference by foreign governments in electoral processes raises serious practical and philosophical questions.
According to the January 6, 2017 Intelligence Community report, “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Russia’s interference covered three categories: illegal hacking of e-mails and selectively disseminating their content; release of “fake” news and manufactured outrage through online trolls designed to raise questions about the legitimacy of the process and Clinton’s credibility; and manipulating electoral outcomes through cyber-intrusions in the electoral machinery.
The Obama administration focused attention on the third category and, apparently, succeeded in protecting the integrity of the physical infrastructure related to the balloting and counting processes. Clinton supporters have criticized the Obama administration for not being more proactive in responding to the first two categories.
One reason for the lack of response was to avoid feeding the narrative, promoted by Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump, that the electoral system was rigged. Anticipating a Clinton victory, the administration calculated that it was better to ignore the Russian hacking and propaganda assault. However, this begs the question of what a more robust U.S. response would have entailed.
Although protecting the integrity of US elections in all aspects deserves the highest order of attention, the Russian interference also raises broader foreign policy and international governance issues. Consider the following scenario: U.S. intelligence agencies obtain credible information of corruption inside the Kremlin, implicating Putin and other senior officials. Should the U.S. government release the information? From a good-government perspective, the Russian people deserve to know whether Russian leaders are stealing billions of rubles from public coffers or otherwise engaging in high-level forms of corruption. Should the decision whether to release the information depend on whether Russian elections are months or weeks away? Should such information be released through an official statement by the State Department denouncing corruption in Russia, or through leaks to various Russian media and opposition candidates in Russia? And does it matter, whether the information collected is about a formidable national security adversary, a petty tyrant, or a close ally?
For their part, Putin and his cronies do not doubt that the U.S. interferes in foreign elections. In their minds, even if diplomatic traditions preclude formal endorsements of favored candidates, the U.S. has various ways of signaling support. For example, arranging a high-level visit, finalizing a long-negotiated trade deal, or providing a large assistance package in the months immediately preceding an election may be interpreted as American support for an incumbent candidate. And even if the executive branch respects diplomatic niceties, members of Congress exercise much less caution in criticizing foreign leaders and encouraging specific political outcomes.
Putin also considers much of the democracy assistance that the United States provides around the world a form of interference. The U.S. position is that so long as assistance is both transparent and non-partisan, it is an appropriate use of soft power under established international practice. In this manner, the U.S. draws a clear distinction between contemporary democracy-promotion programs and the much-maligned covert political interference activities that the CIA and other agencies undertook in the Cold War era.
Adhering to these principles was relatively simple during the honeymoon phase of U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s. But when Russia began acting like an authoritarian state, the U.S. ramped up support for human rights groups, election monitors, corruption watchdogs, and independent media outlets, which the Russian government viewed as hostile actors. Putin responded by promulgating legislation to limit foreign funding of Russian NGOs and then expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development from Russia in 2012. At this point, the U.S. had to consider whether to accept the decision and leave the courageous Russian activists to their fate, or to look for less transparent mechanisms to provide support for those who seek to work for a more democratic Russia. US policymakers have confronted similar dilemmas in other closed societies.
Looking forward, Congress should enact legislation that promotes transparency in publicizing relationships between foreign actors and candidates for political office in the US. For example, all candidates seeking federal office should be required to disclose their foreign assets when they file to compete. Congress should also clarify reporting requirements under the Foreign Assistance Registration Act so that the general public more easily understands the connections between candidates, their key campaign officials, and foreign governments. And recognizing the pernicious role of disinformation campaigns on social media, Congress should prescribe procedures for Homeland Security reports regarding foreign efforts to interfere with U.S. elections, including their release in a timely fashion to inform prospective voters of ongoing interference.
Social media platforms also must do more to ensure that they are not being exploited by foreign actors seeking to influence US elections. They must effectively police against the illegitimate use of “bots” and other mechanisms that exaggerate the efficacy of a cause or misrepresent the position of a candidate. And although much attention has been paid to the bot farms located abroad, the negative impacts of disinformation campaigns are equally problematic when generated solely from within the United States.
Finally, there’s the question of whether to establish international norms governing foreign interference in elections. Proscribing hostile political intervention is superficially appealing, but such rules may provide Putin and other authoritarians an additional excuse to prevent the United States and other international actors from helping those fighting for democracy in their countries. Rather than seeking proscriptive rules, the better alternative is to promote strict standards of transparency by donors and recipients regarding all election-related assistance provided from abroad under the democracy-promotion umbrella.
Global transparency mechanisms, such as the Open Government Partnership and Publish What You Fund, are already moving in this direction. However, because funding for election-related activities does not always come from traditional development-assistance providers, reporting guidelines must be designed to capture election-assistance information, and the responsible data collectors must disseminate the information in a timely manner to the affected publics. In this manner, citizens can exercise their fundamental right to choose their leaders knowing the full extent to which a candidate is supported or opposed by foreign entities.
Larry Garber is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development and has more than 30-years of experience observing foreign elections.