WASHINGTON — The Russians are going to try it again. Even President Donald Trump’s intelligence chiefs say so. But with congressional primaries just two weeks away, the U.S. has done little to aggressively combat the kinds of Russian election meddling that was recently unmasked in federal court.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s surprise indictment last week in his wide-ranging Russia investigation sounded a fresh alarm to the U.S. government, social media companies and state election officials who are readying for the 2018 midterms.
What’s being done — or not — in the wake of Mueller’s revelations:
Mueller’s indictment charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies in a plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election through a social media propaganda effort that included online ad purchases using U.S. aliases and politicking on U.S. soil. Congressional committees held hearings on the social media attacks last fall, but legislation to require technology companies to enhance openness for online political ads has stalled amid GOP concerns of overregulation.
None of the congressional committees investigating the interference — both the social media efforts and attempted Russian hacking of state election systems — have yet proposed policy changes to prevent it in the future. Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., has said he wants to issue a report on security findings and legislative recommendations before the primaries begin, but it’s unclear if the panel will do so before Texas’ March 5 voting.
Leaders of the House intelligence committee have also said they will issue a report with recommendations on how to prevent foreign interference. But the Republican-led panel has been more focused in recent weeks on whether the FBI conspired against Trump.
The White House
Similarly, the White House has sent few signals on what should be done to combat the meddling as voters try to make sense of how it might affect them. Trump has said little on the severity of the threat or how it could be overcome, instead often focusing on whether he is a target of Mueller’s investigation or insisting that any meddling would not have changed the results of the election.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump on Tuesday, saying the president “hasn’t said that Russia didn’t meddle; what he’s saying is it didn’t have an impact, and it certainly wasn’t with help from the Trump campaign.”
Top Trump officials have been more open and firm in saying Russia interfered and needs to be stopped. But what might be happening behind the scenes is unclear. In a hearing on global threats this month, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm U.S. elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.” He said, “We are behind the curve in coming to a policy” to penalize or stop those who interfere.
Trump has mixed signals on sanctions approved by Congress on Russian entities in the wake of the interference. He signed the legislation, but his administration has bucked a congressional deadline to impose the sanctions.
Efforts to increase election security have been slow amid tensions between the federal government and the states. The Department of Homeland Security offered assistance to state and local election officials after Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 general election, but records show only 14 states have requested risk assessments and 30 have asked for remote cyber scans of their networks.
Some state and local officials have expressed concerns about Homeland Security efforts to increase communication
and cooperation with states about election systems. They have complained that it took the federal government nearly a year to inform them whether their states had been targeted by Russian hackers.
“The way government is structured with locals, states and the federal government, it works against us a little bit in terms of trying to solve this problem quickly,” said Noah Praetz, elections director for Cook County, Illinois. He has been working with federal officials to help improve communication channels.
Social media companies
After an initial reluctance to acknowledge foreign interference in their platforms, social media companies have come forward in the past six months to pledge improvements in monitoring election-related advertisements and posts.
Still, it’s unclear if the companies are prepared to resist sophisticated efforts to get around their rules. Companies like Facebook have hired scores of new people to try and combat the meddling but still acknowledge that smart adversaries will try and find a way around whatever measures they put in place.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you just check the currency or the IP address?’ And as soon as you do that, literally that afternoon, they will change tactics,” Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer told The Associated Press last week, before the indictment.
And while Facebook and Mueller’s indictment focus on the Russian Internet Research Agency, some in Congress have suggested there could be additional “troll farms” working to infiltrate U.S. social media.
Even with best efforts, many acknowledge there is no way to be fully prepared. The Russians or other foreign actors will find new ways to intervene.
But more can be done, says the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia. He says many of the obstacles to preparedness are “institutional barriers.” Some state election officials are fiercely guarding their independence, while he says some of his congressional colleagues are reluctant to further regulate the electoral process. On social media, the former tech executive says, companies’ efforts to self-police “don’t pass the smell test.”
“I think we are more aware of the threat, but by no means fully prepared,” Warner says.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Deb Riechmann in Washington and Ryan Nakashima in Half Moon Bay, California, contributed to this report.