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President Trump, your top security priority should be election security

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the des...

Posted: Nov 5, 2018 6:02 AM
Updated: Nov 5, 2018 6:02 AM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.

This week, I am joined by special guest Josh Campbell, a former supervisory special agent in the FBI, to examine the safety and security of the US elections in the run-up to the midterms.

We've been in all kinds of threat briefings in various secure rooms across the country. From identifying terrorist attacks in the US to mitigating gang activity and minimizing threats to Americans around the world, every threat briefing is different but shares some fundamental characteristics, including acknowledging that it's impossible to fully neutralize the threat landscape. This leads to an important prioritization of where and how to apply finite resources.

Election security is no different. The public was made aware of Russia's ongoing attack on our democracy two years ago, and since that time new culprits have been named and new forms of election interference have come to light. A primary way of neutralizing foreign interference -- and domestic threats to our elections -- is by instilling confidence in American voters that their government takes election security seriously.

The continued spread of misinformation by government officials Americans think should be protecting them could both inspire further violence and help at least one hostile foreign power, Russia, with its message that our democracy is severely weakened.

As we head into midterms, one thing is certain: there are multiple, ongoing threats to our elections.

Securing our voters

Threats against the physical safety of Americans are heightened during high-profile events -- such as elections -- and after high-profile attacks, like the Pittsburgh shooting, when individuals may be inspired to conduct attacks of their own. We are tracking threats to physical security. including politically motivated violence, hate crimes against specific voter groups and external terrorism attacks.

On the heels of an extensive pipe bomb campaign by a Trump supporter against key figures in the Democratic party, shots fired into a GOP office in Florida and hate crimes against Jews and African-Americans, we have more concerns about the physical safety of Americans heading to voting stations around the country. Physical violence or intimidation against voters is always a concern during election season, and in light of what's occurred recently, physical harm or intimidation against voters is even more worrisome.

External terrorist groups may also seek to take advantage of the elections themselves because they believe an attack right before or during the elections would get a lot of coverage and be viewed as destabilizing.

Securing our votes

Our election infrastructure remains woefully insecure.

Our election infrastructure's designation by the Department of Homeland Security as critical infrastructure in 2017 was an important signal of both how vital this infrastructure is to our country, but also how vulnerable it is to attack.

We know that Russian government cyber actors sought vulnerabilities and access to US election infrastructure in 2016 in most states, even if it was primarily preparatory activity and "basic research."

We have had two years to up our defenses -- and to try to deter interference -- but the Russians (as well as other actors) have also had two years to up their game and get better at accessing our systems. With this understanding, US intelligence agencies are on the lookout for similar tactics used in 2016, but they must also be aware that Russia has likely developed new means of attack.

According to your administration, other countries with advanced cyber capabilities -- Iran, North Korea and China -- are also trying to interfere in our election, which could mean myriad complex cyber threats against this critical election infrastructure.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said we've been reducing risks and remediating vulnerabilities, but acknowledged in September that the threat remains. There are a series of threats to our physical voting infrastructure -- largely unchanged from 2016 -- which means there are significant opportunities for attack. State spending on election security upgrades will take place over five years, so improvements to cybersecurity and infrastructure upgrades won't be complete by the midterms.

We know that some of the most glaring vulnerabilities identified by election security experts -- including using paperless ballot systems -- remain unaddressed. The highly contested Georgia governor's race will rely on a highly vulnerable election system -- it's centrally run and has no paper ballot backup of any kind. And, physical voting systems in more than half of US states contain exploitable vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to compromise voting machines.

DHS has also warned about the risks of voting over the internet. Despite this warnings, today only 19 states do not allow electronic transmission of ballots. And 19 states and Washington, D.C., allow some voters to return ballots via email or fax even though we know, for example, that the Russian government successfully penetrated the DNC and other entities using email phishing attacks before.

Countering foreign influence operations

We remain convinced that our adversaries view the information domain as where they get the most bang for the buck. Information warfare doesn't cost a lot and it's highly impactful. Twitter alone has more users globally -- ready to access content instantaneously -- than America has Americans.

As the US intelligence community concluded in January 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence operatives to launch a campaign which included a concerted effort using fake online personas and troll farms to whip up, confuse and manipulate American voters.

Emboldened by their successes in 2016, Kremlin operatives (and potentially others) are continuing their campaign of fomenting chaos amongst the American electorate by attacking our information. We know that social media platforms have taken steps to neutralize information warriors on their platform, including by identifying fake accounts, labeling content and shutting down foreign influence operators.

Just last week, we learned Twitter deleted 10,000 bot accounts working to sow discord and discourage voters from going to the polls. Although an important, step, it's reactive and there are some verified accounts that are more dangerous than fake Russian ones.

We assess that the Russians think you're helping them whenever you spread misinformation. They also probably concurrently believe that amplifying your statements helps sow confusion in the US because Americans are confused about why you would, reportedly, present inaccurate information when they believe you know doing so helps Russia, creates serious domestic divisions and has the potential to motivate violence.

The Russians think they have a megaphone in the form of your Twitter account whenever you spread conspiracy theories about Democrats or misinformation and disinformation about controversial issues like immigration.

Not all influence operations are created equal. You and other members of his team have fixated on overt Chinese paid content in the Des Moines Register and labeled it election interference. But this Chinese activity is not as dangerous or difficult to detect as a Russian covert influence campaign on Twitter. Only one of those activities has thus far led to Department of Justice indictments. Prioritization is critical.

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