Critical Infrastructure

Is leadership the missing piece to solving election security?

The web of election security efforts in the United States is missing a critical piece: a leader.

Several stakeholders play a role in election security at the federal level, including the FBI, intelligence community and Departments of Homeland Security and Defense. Meanwhile, state and local governments maintain jurisdiction over their elections, which means the federal government does not have authority to mandate specific actions to help protect their infrastructure.

“Who has the rose pinned on to actually get the group together and execute?” asked Shelby Pierson, the election threats executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, speaking at an Intelligence and National Security Alliance event Jan. 27. “I think there’s a tremendous appetite for this across many echelons of society.

Pierson said that when she meets with state officials, such as governors and state secretaries of state, they widely agree on several tenets of election security. But what the group truly needs is a more formal structure.

“It’s really a matter of coalescing under a structured framework with some very important milestones across civil society,” Pierson said.

Tom Warrick, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., thinktank, said that the executive branch should appoint an election chief.

“There needs to be a very short ... debate to decide who that should be," Warrick said. “And then somebody’s job has to be ‘I’m the cabinet secretary responsible for defending America against this threat.’ Everybody in the country needs to know who that is so that ... when they call the meeting, the governors show up.”

Richard Ledgett, former deputy director of the NSA, said at the same event that the leadership needs to start in two of the three branches of government.

“I think it takes leadership from the president. I think it takes leadership from the Congress and it requires both,” Ledgett said. “You could do it either of those two. But right now, you have neither of those two."

For the federal government to successfully combat cyberoperations and information operations, it needs to treat election security like counter-terrorism work, Pierson said, where the collective of agencies \work together to stop threats.

Though significant challenges remain, civilian government has made strides to improve their relationship with one another, officials said. In November, several government agencies released a framework for notifying the public about election interference operations.

“We aren’t as stovepiped,” Pierson said, but added "there’s tremendous amount of work to be done.”

Within the executive and legislative branch, there are leaders, including President Donald Trump, sowing doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian actors worked to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

“We are still revisiting the issue of whether or not Russia did or didn’t interfere. We’re revisiting the issue of whether or not Ukraine has been promulgating narratives about this,” Pierson said. “We feel like we’ve sent that to bed.”

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