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Democracy @ Stake: 2020 Election Interference DejaVu


What you need to know about Russia’s 2020 election interference

  • Last week, the director of national Intelligence (DNI), a Republican appointee, notified the House Intelligence Committee that Russia is indisputably tampering with the 2020 election similar to election interference in 2016.
  • The intelligence community determined that Russia’s efforts are to help see Trump reelected.
  • Angered by the news, Trump fired his director of national intelligence, saying that 2020 election interference claims are a Democratic hoax.
  • If the administration doesn’t take steps to protect both the primaries and general election, both sides lose, as neither winner (Republican or Democrat) will be viewed as legitimate.
  • The stakes are much higher than any single election, as unaddressed tampering will delegitimize our election process and, therefore, presidential power.

The Details of U.S. Intelligence Reports on Russian Election Interference

When President Trump learned last week that U.S. intelligence officials warned lawmakers that Russia is interfering in the Presidential election to aid his reelection, he got angry — not at Russia but at the intelligence community.

Upon hearing the news, Trump fired the director of national intelligence — Republican-appointee Joseph Maguire — saying it was all a Democratic hoax. The president was more concerned with how Democrats would use the news against him than about securing our elections. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road before. 

Intelligence officials have been telling us since 2017 that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and last year’s Senate Intelligence Committee report came to the same conclusion. That report included recommendations on how to secure the 2020 election, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked bills aimed at achieving that goal. 

What’s new this time around is that last week’s briefing included a warning that Russia plans to interfere in the Democratic primaries as well as the general election. During the briefing, Republican lawmakers allied with President Trump challenged that conclusion. We’ve heard that song before, too.

In early 2017, when the intelligence community first concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an influence campaign that would favor then-candidate Trump, Republicans said that Russia’s intention was to sow chaos rather than impact the election outcome one way or another. 

Ironically, on the same day that intelligence officials were delivering their briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn blocked three bipartisan bills designed to enhance election security. 

Now here we are, on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, South Carolina Democratic primary and so-called Super Tuesday, and neither the president nor his Republican allies in Congress appear to have any intention of securing our elections. On the contrary, on numerous occasions the president has actually called on foreign nations to investigate his political rivals, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. 

Back in August, I wrote that by turning a blind eye to Russian interference, McConnell and Trump were missing the bigger picture. Putin’s meddling in 2016 was to their benefit and now we know that he aims to help Trump again. But that’s only because keeping Trump in power benefits Putin’s ultimate goal, which is to destabilize American democracy.

If the White House and allied Republicans continue to stand behind their assertion that Russia isn’t behind 2020 election interference and Trump wins the White House, the legitimacy of the election will be questioned.

If he loses the election, he’ll be able to leverage “the liar’s dividend” to call the election into question. Even if it were possible to prove the election was fair and the results legitimate, Trump’s supporters won’t believe it. Not after he’s planted the seed of a Democratic hoax conspiracy. 

Either way, American voters on both sides of the aisle lose because the results will be in question no matter what. And that’s exactly what Russia wants more than anything — not just Trump in office for four more years — but to undermine America’s trust in our democracy and voting process. 

Why? Because when we’re focused on fighting each other internally, we don’t focus on Putin’s power grabs at home or around the world

The right thing to do is to protect the voting process so the winner is considered legitimate, no matter who it is. Protection benefits both sides — not just during this election but for all future elections. Our democracy hinges on  voters trusting in the system. And the system is faulty at best if it isn’t protected properly. 

The very core of our democracy is at stake, and If Trump and his administration don’t start taking this seriously, we’ll all lose. Bigly. 


About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank based in Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on cybersecurity, election hacking and tech/life balance.

 

Russian Election Interference Coming to Your Vote in 2020

What will it take for Americans, especially our politicians, to care about Russian election interference? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since early 2017, when the NSA, CIA and FBI universally concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered with the 2016 presidential election. At the time, I wrote a call-to-arms blog post that recommended a thorough bipartisan investigation into Russian election interference and our own cyber infrastructure weaknesses. 

Last month, we finally got the Senate Intelligence Committee report about Russian election meddling in 2016—spoiler alert: they did it—with recommendations on how to protect the nation’s voting infrastructure the next time around. But to some degree, it’s too late. With only a year before the election, it will be almost impossible to make the cybersecurity and social media changes necessary to protect the integrity of the election. Even if our government engaged in an all-out defensive strategy for the four years between elections, it still might not be enough. The bad guys always seem to be one step ahead, but that’s only because of our general refusal to do what it takes to protect our systems.

In any event, so far the only all-out defensive strategy we’ve seen has been against efforts to protect the 2020 election from Russian interference. While Putin and his cohorts are dancing through the halls of the Kremlin, President Trump and the Republicans are sitting on their hands.

Trump’s refusal to back intelligence reports about Russia’s election hacking and influence campaigns—and his administration’s delay in taking action—are within months of guaranteeing that we won’t be able to stop tampering in 2020. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to block bills aimed at making the polls more secure—further ensuring that our election will be compromised once again.

And that’s precisely the point.

Why Does the White House Turn a Blind Eye to Russian Election Interference?

Both Trump and McConnell know that Russian meddling will benefit them in 2020 (it’s a safe bet that Putin doesn’t want a more confrontational president than Trump back in office), but they are missing the bigger picture. 

Yes, Putin’s Russia helped elect Trump, but that wasn’t the primary goal: handing Trump a win was just icing on the cake. Putin’s goal was and is to destabilize American democracy. If we are focused on our own crises, we pay less attention to his encroachment into the Ukraine, Crimea and other nations. It doesn’t hurt that Putin’s machinations demonstrate to the world that democracy—particularly American democracy—is not as viable as autocracy, thus strengthening his power. 

Putin is a chess player, and his chess board end-state looks more like the USSR than Russia. 

To his delight, we are mere pawns in his game. Trump—who plays into Putin’s hands perfectly because of his distrust of American institutions, including his own intelligence agencies—is his queen and McConnell his devoted bishop. 

I agree with other experts that Russia’s pre-2016 hacking of election systems in all 50 states was mostly reconnaissance for a larger campaign. They were testing the waters with this and with their Facebook influence campaigns. But I don’t think their ultimate goal is to alter votes. It’s far less work and expense to simply create the perception that they’ve altered votes or manipulated any other outcome that undermines the credibility of democracy. Again, the end game is one of destabilization, of creating doubt in the minds of Americans so we don’t know who we can trust. 

Our system of state-controlled voting for national elections makes a mass hack more difficult, but altering the voting rolls is something the average teenage hacker could probably pull off. What if next time, a hacker decides to remove hundreds of thousands of white men from Mitch McConnell’s available voters, or if Facebook influence campaigns target Trump loyalists with false claims that he wants to pass gun-control legislation?

What I fear most is that we Americans, fatigued by political arm wrestling for the past three years, are going to stand complacently by as the influence campaigns and election tampering take place, and that our government has no incentive to stop it because the tampering benefits them. This time.


About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is an award-winning author and keynote speaker on cybersecurity, identity theft and tech/life balance. He energizes conferences, corporate trainings and main-stage events by making security fun and engaging. His clients include the Pentagon, Schwab and organizations of all sizes. John got started in cybersecurity when he lost everything, including his $2 million business, to cybercrime. Since then, he has shared his experiences on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper, and even while cooking meatballs with Rachel Ray. Contact John directly to see how he can customize his presentations to your audience.