The Barr Letter Tells Us One Thing Everyone Should Agree On

Russia tried to interfere in 2016. It will do so again in 2020.

Vladimir Putin puts a ballot into an electronic reader.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot during a mayoral election in Moscow on Sept. 9.
Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters

Late Sunday afternoon, after two years of investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of 19 lawyers and approximately 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and other professional staff, Attorney General William Barr delivered to Congress his summary of the Trump report. While the debate has quickly focused on congressional Democrats’ calls for disclosing the full report, one item included in Barr’s memo should be incontrovertible and remains remarkable: A foreign power took deliberate actions in an attempt to subvert America’s democracy. For Mueller’s extensive investigation and Trump’s own attorney general to confirm that fact should be the real headline this week—and it should be an urgent call to protect our democracy better as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.

Barr’s summary highlights that Mueller found “two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.” The first attempt to influence the 2016 election, according to Barr, “involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election.” It was this line of action that led to the indictments of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system in “information warfare against the United States.” It was also the focus of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the social media tactics used by the IRA in its attempts to influence U.S. political discourse.

The second attempt involved the “Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.” This effort centered around the hacking of emails and computers owned by individuals associated with the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. The stolen information was disseminated “through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.” This led to the July 13 indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials for conspiring to influence the 2016 election. The 2017 assessment by the CIA and FBI also found that Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election with the goal to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.

Perhaps if these 25 indictments had been filed at the same time as the release of the Barr summary, this extensive rendering of a foreign nation’s attack on our elections would be garnering significant media attention. Regardless, the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation should be an urgent reminder that our elected officials, our candidates, and our government must take this as a serious threat. They have to begin taking action to prevent our 2020 elections from being targeted again. Here are seven recommendations to help safeguard our democracy:

1. Investigate entities that were aided by or affiliated with Russia.

The extent to which other entities assisted Russia remains cloudy, so it is imperative that investigations continue into organizations such as WikiLeaks and Cambridge Analytica. Barr acknowledges in his memo that WikiLeaks was involved with the dissemination of stolen emails and other information. And Cambridge Analytica, its parent company SCL Group, and key executives may have had significant engagement with Russia, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who tweeted, “when I was at Cambridge Analytica, the company hired known Russian agents, had data researchers in St Petersburg, tested US voter opinion on Putin’s leadership, and hired hackers from Russia - all while Bannon was in charge.” The American people deserve to know who else was assisting or collaborating with Russia. Fortunately, it appears that the House Judiciary Committee may continue to investigate these ties.

2. Hold those involved accountable.

Given that it’s highly unlikely any of the 25 Russian individuals or companies indicted will ever face trial for their actions, accountability may have to come through either financial punishment or strategic engagement. In 2018, the U.S. took steps to sanction Russia for its behavior, including its interference in our elections. However, in January 2019, Senate Republicans defeated a bipartisan bid to keep sanctions in place against companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska, as the U.S. Treasury noted, has himself said that he “does not separate himself from the Russian state.” These types of economic measures put in place to punish Russia are a key driver in preventing this type of overt action in the future and must be adhered to moving forward.

Additionally, while the White House no longer has a cybersecurity coordinator, the U.S. did release documents in 2018 that laid out a strategy acknowledging the threats associated with cyberspace. These documents, the U.S. Cyber Command Vision, and a Department of Defense Cyber Strategy provided the framework for the United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency to launch a campaign to shut down Russian troll farms in an effort to block and deter interference in American elections. Hopefully a combination of sanctions and deterrence will cause Russia and others to pause before implementing plans to target U.S. elections.

3. Focus on disinformation.

Within the State Department exists a hub for coordinating overt U.S. counterpropaganda efforts worldwide: the Global Engagement Center. The recently named coordinator of the GEC, Lea Gabrielle, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and former Fox News journalist, cited Russia as one of the countries we should most worry about using propaganda to undercut U.S. interests. The GEC’s budget for 2019 was only $55 million. Legislation has been introduced to raise that amount to $115 million. Yet deep into 2018, the State Department had yet to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated since late 2016 to counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy. As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center—which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign—speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track Russia efforts. Congress needs to hold the State Department accountable for the GEC’s shortcomings in countering foreign propaganda and in even deploying the funds allocated to it for such purposes. After all, it was Congress that added counter-state propaganda, such as counter-Russia propaganda, to the GEC’s mission in the first place.

Additionally, we need to invest in education around better media analysis skills, such as distinguishing facts and opinions, identifying hate speech, and noticing where information had been omitted. Similar courses in Ukraine have shown they can be quite successful, and in a time where the ability to discern between fact and fiction is becoming more complicated, this training may be essential.

4. Protect our elections.

While the focus may be on the IRA and hacking, our elections are also vulnerable. A U.S. Senate report in May 2018 said that in 2016, “cyber actors affiliated with the Russian Government conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure.” Russian actors “scanned databases for vulnerabilities, attempted intrusions, and in a small number of cases successfully penetrated a voter registration database,” and, in a small number of states, “these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.”

In order to secure our elections, we need to allocate funds to upgrade our voting systems. While $380 million in leftover Help America Vote Act grant funding was distributed to states earlier this year, many say they continue to face major funding challenges. In fact, according to a report by the Brennan Center, 121 election officials in 31 states said they need to upgrade their voting machines before 2020—but only about one-third of them have enough money to do so. Forty states are using machines that are at least a decade old, and 45 states are using equipment that’s not even manufactured anymore. Under H.R. 1—the For the People Act introduced in early January by House Democrats—nearly $1.5 billion would be authorized to fund states to improve voting technology and reduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities in election infrastructure. Unfortunately, both Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump oppose this bill, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has assured his side he plans to officially ignore it in his chamber.

Additionally, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has introduced an election security bill, the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act, which would authorize the Homeland Security Department to set minimum cybersecurity standards for voting machine–makers.

Finally, the Election Systems Integrity Act, proposed by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; and Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, would require disclosure of foreign ownership of election service providers so that state and federal officials would know who is behind the companies that provide election equipment. This act directly addresses issues such as when the corporate host of Maryland’s statewide voter registration, candidacy, and election management system was revealed to have been bought by a parent company with links to a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.

5. Regulate international distribution of campaign/polling information.

As more and more intelligence is gathered about American citizens, be it via technology companies or foreign state actors, it is time to consider this data to be sensitive to the point of export regulation. For example, Paul Manafort shared polling data on the 2016 election with a Russian man linked to Moscow’s intelligence agencies, according to Robert Mueller. Americans should demand that this type of information, be it polling or any type of audience analysis, be considered sensitive and be regulated per the U.S. Export Control System as a means to promote our national security interests and foreign policy objectives.

6. Regulate tech platforms.

Given the impact that social media and tech platforms are having on an advertising and influence basis, it is imperative that the reach of those platforms is in line with the regulatory regime that governs broadcast TV and radio. Parts of H.R.1 and the Honest Ads Act would explicitly ban the purchase of political ads by foreign nationals. Additional considerations could focus on requiring federal licensing for foreign accounts looking to disseminate information, providing geo-information on issue-related pages, and expanding and extending “electioneering communications” rules to cover online ads.

7. Take the pledge.

Finally, political candidates need to be willing to agree to a “code of conduct” with a long list of forbidden tactics. As Justin Hendrix writes, these might include the deployment of bots, trolls, false accounts and websites, fake or misleading groups, or the use of highly misleading, manipulated video or audio artifacts such as deep fakes. Participants would also pledge not to hack their opponents or to acquire or otherwise share or utilize hacked materials and agree to avoid the illicit acquisition or use of data.

Thanks to Mueller’s work and Barr’s letter to Congress, Americans of all political persuasions now should agree that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and in turn should be on guard that the 2020 presidential election will likely be a significant focus. In the face of a grave national security threat, we must contemplate how to protect our elections and democracy from foreign interference. While the recommendations above may not eliminate the threat, it is important that the conversation about potential solutions begins in earnest. Until then, we may be, in the vein of Mark Twain, at risk for history once again rhyming.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.