“The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” was a Cold War-era comedy about a beached Russian submarine sparking a panicked reaction on a small Massachusetts island.
The farcical film’s title, of course, echoed Paul Revere’s Revolutionary War warning about the British, an alarm still revered as the essence of preparation and patriotism.
That’s the ethos echoed by the nation’s top intelligence officials, who warned this week that indeed, the Russians are not only coming, but have been here, meddling with America’s democracy — a fact backed by Friday’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interfering in the U.S. political process, with the “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”
2018 is the next target, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Coats testified.
And sure enough, by Friday NBC News reported that “covert Russian propaganda flooded Twitter after the Parkland shooting to stoke America’s raw divides.”
Russia, said CIA Director Mike Pompeo during his Senate testimony, “is mostly focused on information type of warfare.”
Yet as evidenced by breaches into voting systems in several states, Moscow is capable of hacking directly into elections themselves.
So America must be on guard.
“Hack me once, shame on you. Hack me twice, shame on us,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in an interview.
At a Center for American Progress event titled “Election Security in 50 States: Defending America’s Elections,” Klobuchar touted a six-point plan to protect future elections from malevolence from Moscow or attacks from any other nations or even nonstate actors. Among key components is the Secure Elections Act, which would invest $386 million to strengthen election cybersecurity, as well as other necessary measures. Klobuchar has also sponsored the Honest Ads Act, designed to require that online political advertising has the same transparency and disclosure requirements as TV and radio do.
Regarding Russia’s intentions, Klobuchar said that “we know this is coming and we need to have a better national strategy.” Then, using the same word as Pompeo, Klobuchar added: “This is a form of warfare.”
And the stakes from this warfare couldn’t be higher, said Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Frankly, the very core of democracy is at risk: trust in democratic institutions and the democratic process and our ability to reach collective national consensus,” she said in an e-mail exchange.
The risk is real in Europe already. “The Russians have a strategy that goes well beyond what is happening in the United States,” Coats said. “While they have historically tried to do these type of things, clearly in 2016 they upped their game. They took advantage, a sophisticated advantage, of social media. They are doing that not only in the United States but doing it throughout Europe and perhaps elsewhere.”
Polyakova has analyzed Europe’s response and added: “One important lesson is that while governments have a role to play — informing citizens, countermessaging, regulatory fixes — a democratic response to disinformation has to be bottom up: rooted in civil society initiatives and a strong independent media.”
That doesn’t mean that social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter don’t bear responsibility. “They should be much smarter and savvier about identifying trolls, bots and intentionally malicious content meant to drive wedges in democratic societies,” Polyakova said. “Funders of ads should be prominently displayed in users’ newsfeeds as well.” That would concur with Klobuchar’s call for more transparency.
The threat emanating from Russia should spur a bipartisan response. So it’s encouraging that Klobuchar’s Secure Elections Act’s main cosponsor is Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford and that the Honest Ads Act’s main cosponsor is Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
But there are still some reluctant Republicans.
“Part of this is there has been partisanship related to all of this,” Klobuchar said. “You see it with the attacks on the FBI, the attacks on the Mueller investigation. The Trump administration, the White House, hasn’t been leading on this — that’s putting it mildly.”
Mildly, indeed. Trump has repeated President Vladimir Putin’s denials and has not proactively asked the intelligence officials to take pre-emptive action, according to their testimony. And despite an overwhelming congressional majority voting to impose new sanctions to respond to Russian interference, the Trump administration has stood pat.
“The British are coming! The British are coming!” is more histrionic than historically accurate, experts attest. But Revere did ride, along with others, to warn concerned colonists of an imminent threat.
The intelligence leaders testifying Tuesday weren’t prone to theatrics, either; just facts.
So now it’s up to senators and representatives — and the people they represent — to insist that our democracy’s DNA — free and fair elections — is protected from foreign interference.