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Countering Russian Active Measures in the 2020 Election: Is it Too Late?

The Russian disinformation campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential election represented a significant escalation in the decades-old geopolitical conflict that has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War. Distinct from more traditional propaganda, disinformation, or dezinformatsia, is the currency in which KGB agents and their successors trade.

This method of influence, referred to as active measures in intelligence tradecraft, is a means to subvert the information that is received by an audience. It has been directed at more than just the institutions of the U.S. government and has been successfully employed against much of the population who are now unwitting dupes of a foreign adversary. Now that the tactics have been discovered, developing an effective counterstrategy is paramount heading into November.

A significant aspect of the Russian active measures campaign in 2016 was influencing ordinary Americans. In Congressional testimony, an executive from Facebook indicated that more than 80,000 posts originating from Russia or Russian agents had reached 126 million Americans. Their efforts were directed at key U.S. regions that heavily influenced the decision in the election results. Americans who are not as discriminating in the content they perceive as “news” appear to have been disproportionately targeted by false or misleading information. How Russia acquired this aggregate level knowledge of the American electorate is not clear.

In the summer of 2014, Russia sent Anna Bogacheva and Aleksandra Krylova to survey Americans and gain insight into the mindset of the American voter. Their mission was directed by the highest levels of the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin, via the Internet Research Agency – IRA, which was the source of disinformation that Facebook purports to have reached one-third of the American population. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, appointed by former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, subsequently indicted the Russian “Thelma and Louise,” along with numerous other Russian companies, citizens, and even intelligence officers in Russian state organizations. Their employer, the IRA, has been referred to as the Troll Farm—the origin of the false information that influenced the narrative concerning then-candidates Trump and Clinton. It is believed the indictments were symbolic in nature; no indicted Russians are ever expected to see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.

One thing is for certain—Russia successfully interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Office of the Special Counsel, among others, all came to this same conclusion. Individual organs within the investigations, to include the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, CIA, and NSA, have independently corroborated these findings.

As late as February 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray—a Trump appointee—stated that Russia is engaged in “information warfare” heading into this year’s election. He added that the election infrastructure cyberattacks that were a benchmark of the increase in Russian active measures have not reached the levels they did in 2016. However, Wray emphasized that Russia’s election interference measures have not diminished since the 2016 election, comparing their most recent social media campaigns to “injecting steroids into information efforts that have existed for years.” It is obvious that Russia is aware of its 2016 success and they are committed to amplifying their operations.

Why, then, is this a matter of debate within the current administration? Some suggest it is because President Trump is aware that he stands to gain in 2020 from the same type of Russia interference campaign. President Obama and his administration were at the helm during the bulk of the previous successful operation. Their apprehension to act swiftly and fervently against Russia emboldened Putin and the Kremlin to carry out their agenda. Nevertheless, President Trump is aware that the 2020 election is likely to be highly contested and that Russia is continuing its assault on American democratic institutions.

The principal finding first mentioned in the Intelligence Community Assessment issued by the ODNI states that Putin directed the active measures operation and, “Russia’s goals were to undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” and they “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” The question of the current administration’s apoplexy may be answered. We have had three years of President Trump’s supposed fear-inducing strength directed toward our geopolitical adversaries with nothing to show for it in the wake of perhaps the most devastating intelligence operations against American democratic institutions in history.

Developing a policy strategy for intelligence operations is inherently difficult. The one in question is further hampered by a thinly veiled preference for favorable treatment by the very institution that has the overarching authority to implement such a strategy—the president of the United States. Experts, lawmakers, and intelligence professionals have all weighed in on key elements of a successful counter-active measures campaign policy strategy. It is a multi-pronged approach that emphasizes shoring up the strength of American cohesion through active leadership.

First, the threat needs to be identified and acknowledged. Vulnerable facets of American society, namely fringe political factions, radical domestic terror groups, and disenfranchised social groups, are prime targets of Russian active measures. These were the most heavily targeted groups by the 2016 Russian Troll Farm social media campaign, whose 80,000 Facebook posts reached much of America and impacted the results of state-level vote results. The president and his administration must stop denying Russian interference factored into the 2016 election results and concede their potential impact in 2020.

Second, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be given straightforward guidance on countering the threat. Elements within the U.S. such as the FBI and CIA, the very institutions which would be responsible for implementing and enforcing the broader strategy, do not make policy. Their authority is derived from the president via their respective directors. Thus, President Trump must provide clear direction to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to pursue and prosecute agents of influence and their ongoing intelligence campaigns against U.S. democratic processes. Anything less is negligence and belies the suggestion of favor that might be gained from the interference.

Third, American society needs to present a unified front. Experts have weighed that Russia did not create the divisions in America, they merely exploited them. Claiming that there are “fine people on both sides” of white-supremacist demonstrations or that Russia never interfered in 2016 creates conditions for continued division susceptible to manipulation. It is the duty of the president, as the leader of his or her party, and occupying the position of trust of all Americans to solidify the front against an adversary bent on harming all Americans.

In June 2017 then-FBI Director James Comey warned, “It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America…That’s what this is about, and they will be back.” Vladimir Putin does not care about the political affiliation of individual Americans. He cares about America’s geopolitical threat to Russian dominance. Until that threat is ameliorated, Russia will continue its active measures campaigns. The buck stops with one office to prevent a repeat of the 2016 election interference. We may already be too late.

All content and comments are my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Air Force, the National Security Agency, or any other organization within the U.S. government.