.
I

n an interview with Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen in early July, President Donald Trump confirmed that he authorized a cyber operation against Russia’s Internet Research Agency in 2018. The operation conducted by U.S. Cyber Command, first reported by The Post in 2019, “basically took the IRA offline,” a source said, before adding, “they shut them down.” Acting on intelligence about Russia’s electoral interference President Trump said, “Look, we stopped it.” But did we then? Can we in the future?

David Shimer, in his new book Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Electoral Interference, provides a fascinating and even-handed look at how the United States both waged and experienced covert interference in the electoral process. Extremely well researched with fascinating interviews, Shimer lays out a compelling case as to how we should not have been surprised by Russia’s interference in 2016—indeed, it was completely in line with Moscow’s historical behavioral patterns. This was something with which a previous generation of American policymakers was intimately familiar.  

Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Electoral Interference | David Shimer | Knopf | June 2020.

The Past as Prologue

Divided into two sections, Rigged first explores the history of Washington and Moscow’s interference in foreign elections. Then, drawing lessons from history, it looks at what happened in 2016—why America was so vulnerable, what the Russians did, and how the White House failed to act.

In the first half of the book, Shimer explores how the United States and the Soviet Union competed in the Cold War to shape the geopolitical landscape. While Moscow held “elections” in the countries it occupied in the wake of World War Two, these were nothing but a farce. In West Germany, Moscow directly shaped a vote of no confidence to ensure that Willy Brandt remained in office, having bought two key votes—the votes necessary to ensure he remained in office and his more favorable policies towards Moscow continued. As the Cold War progressed, Shimer explores how Moscow sought to take a more direct hand in American elections—including offering money to Adlai Stevenson, shaping policies to favor candidate John F. Kennedy, and seeking dirt on Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s personal life.

For Washington’s part, a successful campaign in Italy against the Communist Popular Front saw an effective mail campaign, along with extensive subsidies for the favored party. This led to another campaign in Chile that, while effective, only delayed the election of Salvador Allende. The White House and the CIA dithered on preventing his eventual election, which would be undone by the coup that put Augusto Pinochet into office.

Washington’s appetite for direct covert electoral interference waned (as did the Cold War) with only a handful of post-Cold War efforts being undertaken. Here, Shimer recounts the Clinton administration’s efforts to remove Slobodan Milošević. Eventually, Washington abandoned the idea of covert electoral interference as undemocratic, choosing instead to overtly back democratic efforts through the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and other non-governmental advocacy groups.

Shimer masterfully recounts the fascinating dynamic at the end of the Cold War and the rise of Putin. He describes how Boris Yeltsin sought direct assistance and aid from President Clinton, asking him to delay policy decisions on NATO and even funding to ensure his election. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, saw things in a dramatically different light. To him, America’s backing of pro-democracy groups in Russia and its support for the color revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe was a direct threat to his leadership and his sphere of influence. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vocal support of pro-democracy and anti-Putin protestors was almost certainly the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushing Putin to attack America’s elections before, during, and after 2016.

The Coming Storm

The build-up to 2016 is riveting. Shimer draws lessons from the past and sets the scene masterfully, then takes readers into the White House to understand its thinking as the 2016 presidential election loomed. What becomes abundantly clear from Rigged’s exploration of the Obama administration’s handling of Russia’s interference is a failure of imagination at the confluence of domestic and global trends.

From the outset, the government did not think that it was vulnerable to foreign electoral interference. This was something that happened elsewhere, but not in the pinnacle of the democratic experiment—American hubris, née exceptionalism, leading to American vulnerability.

Shimer takes readers behind the scenes of the Obama White House as it struggled to find out how to respond to intelligence on Russia’s covert operations. President Obama warned Putin in advance of the election not to directly interfere and, later the White House did act after the fact, but by then it was too late. When looking at the threat to the polls, Washington focused almost exclusively on voting and tabulation. As Shimer noted in his historical overview, this was an odd and incorrect fixation.

To be fair, this was not an idle fear—intelligence suggested Russia was probing multiple states’ voter registries and electoral systems. Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, told Shimer that the White House feared Moscow altering the votes “in a handful of key precincts in Miami-Dade, in Dayton, Ohio, in a key precinct in Michigan, a key precinct in Wisconsin, a key precinct in Pennsylvania.” While most interviewed by Shimer went to great lengths to say this didn’t happen, there were a few, including former Senator Harry Reid, who suggested that it did.

The fixation on the actual vote tampering led the White House to ignore the other side of this interference coin—changing not the votes of those headed to the polls, but their minds. By seizing upon domestic issues and social tensions, Russia sought to split American society, turn groups against each other, and damage American democracy. In doing so, Putin showed that the American democratic emperor had no clothes, demonstrated that his model was superior, and weakened his greatest geopolitical adversary.

Globally, the rise of social media upended the equation. Now Russia, or any other state, could reach directly into the inboxes and apps of American voters with minimal cost. As in the case of the Italy letter-writing campaign, Shimer noted that what once cost millions of dollars, required vast coordination, and may have had limited reach, now only took the click of a mouse.

Paralyzed by Politics

By his second term, President Obama was very reluctant to act, out of fear of escalation. If Washington acted, how would Moscow respond and where would it end? His failure to enforce the red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons likely emboldened the Russians further (not that they needed any encouragement). Even if the White House were to respond, what tools did it have at its disposal? Embarrassing information about Putin’s relationships, finances, and activities? Cyberweapons? Additional sanctions?

Moreover, there was the need to protect intelligence sources and methods within Russia. If the White House acted, they risked exposing these assets, which remain classified. There seemed to be too few offensive options and even fewer defensive measures. Domestically, America’s elections are carried out by the states, each of which has the responsibility for the security of the system and the balloting method—prerogatives jealously guarded by the state capitols. The federal government could only suggest—not mandate—certain practices.

At the same time, domestic politics played a considerable factor—a frightening prospect when national and electoral security was at stake. There was the overwhelming expectation that Donald Trump could not possibly win and that Hillary Clinton was all but guaranteed the presidency. Obama and his Cabinet feared to weigh in on the election, possibly giving credence to then-candidate Trump’s allegations that the election itself was rigged against him, or that in doing so they would adversely affect Clinton’s chances.

The politicking was not the White House’s game, alone. Republican leaders, particularly Senator Mitch McConnell, seemed eager to stymie any effort undertaken by the Obama White House on any measure. An attempt to get a bipartisan statement on electoral interference was a damp squib, coming to little more than platitudes.

Preparing for the Future

Shimer’s prognosis for the future is less than heartening. With the 2020 election looming (despite the President’s admission of a cyber operation in advance of the mid-term election) the track record on confronting Russia does not inspire confidence. Indeed, it appears that anything Russia-related provokes a knee-jerk response by the White House.

American leadership is critical to rebuilding the community of democracies and standing up to foreign electoral interference. So, too is defining, as Shimer notes, the consequences of other countries meddling in American or other democracies. To support this, Shimer states that Washington should eschew any electoral interference of its own in the future—that is covert, not overt democratic support.

Perhaps the greatest measure that Washington could undertake, and as others have noted, is building an information-resilient and educated population. This is critical to limiting the ability of Russia, China, or any other country to influence the voters’ minds. This is a tall order and a generational challenge, especially in the current environment.

We must work to rebuild American society and create a greater sense of community than exists today. Russia did not create these societal schisms or divisions. It merely latched onto and amplified them with great effect. This is straight out of Moscow’s Cold War playbook and is something Washington should wholly expect to continue in the future. Indeed, the current debate and discussion on systemic issues of injustice should be partially seen as an effort to address democratic weaknesses our adversaries will undoubtedly exploit in the future.

Shimer is, perhaps, too easy on the social media titans and their culpability. It was too easy for them to wash their hands of any responsibility. The recent hack of major “verified” Twitter accounts demonstrates the ease with which these platforms could be abused. The influence they have must come under greater scrutiny. While this time it was purportedly a bitcoin scam, it could have been much worse.

Something must also be done about America’s patchwork voting system, but the solution cannot be one that creates additional vulnerabilities. A centralized system, which other countries have, would be a single target and risk the very thing it is trying to prevent—electoral malfeasance. Perhaps a DHS-mandate or an Executive Order (backed with funding) that mandates two paper records to support any state’s electronic records would be appropriate. Such mandates though must come with the commensurate resources cash-strapped states and counties need.

Shimer’s book is a fascinating read. It stands out from an increasingly crowded and contentious field. He adroitly navigates the political waves that could have easily fallen into partisanship or hyperbolic criticism. It is smart, incisive, and well-written. One would hope that it provokes a national-level dialogue on the state of our electoral system and its vulnerability, but sadly, that is unlikely to happen before voters cast their ballots this Fall.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

100 Years of Electoral Interference

July 25, 2020

Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Electoral Interference | David Shimer | Knopf | June 2020.

I

n an interview with Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen in early July, President Donald Trump confirmed that he authorized a cyber operation against Russia’s Internet Research Agency in 2018. The operation conducted by U.S. Cyber Command, first reported by The Post in 2019, “basically took the IRA offline,” a source said, before adding, “they shut them down.” Acting on intelligence about Russia’s electoral interference President Trump said, “Look, we stopped it.” But did we then? Can we in the future?

David Shimer, in his new book Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Electoral Interference, provides a fascinating and even-handed look at how the United States both waged and experienced covert interference in the electoral process. Extremely well researched with fascinating interviews, Shimer lays out a compelling case as to how we should not have been surprised by Russia’s interference in 2016—indeed, it was completely in line with Moscow’s historical behavioral patterns. This was something with which a previous generation of American policymakers was intimately familiar.  

Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Electoral Interference | David Shimer | Knopf | June 2020.

The Past as Prologue

Divided into two sections, Rigged first explores the history of Washington and Moscow’s interference in foreign elections. Then, drawing lessons from history, it looks at what happened in 2016—why America was so vulnerable, what the Russians did, and how the White House failed to act.

In the first half of the book, Shimer explores how the United States and the Soviet Union competed in the Cold War to shape the geopolitical landscape. While Moscow held “elections” in the countries it occupied in the wake of World War Two, these were nothing but a farce. In West Germany, Moscow directly shaped a vote of no confidence to ensure that Willy Brandt remained in office, having bought two key votes—the votes necessary to ensure he remained in office and his more favorable policies towards Moscow continued. As the Cold War progressed, Shimer explores how Moscow sought to take a more direct hand in American elections—including offering money to Adlai Stevenson, shaping policies to favor candidate John F. Kennedy, and seeking dirt on Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s personal life.

For Washington’s part, a successful campaign in Italy against the Communist Popular Front saw an effective mail campaign, along with extensive subsidies for the favored party. This led to another campaign in Chile that, while effective, only delayed the election of Salvador Allende. The White House and the CIA dithered on preventing his eventual election, which would be undone by the coup that put Augusto Pinochet into office.

Washington’s appetite for direct covert electoral interference waned (as did the Cold War) with only a handful of post-Cold War efforts being undertaken. Here, Shimer recounts the Clinton administration’s efforts to remove Slobodan Milošević. Eventually, Washington abandoned the idea of covert electoral interference as undemocratic, choosing instead to overtly back democratic efforts through the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and other non-governmental advocacy groups.

Shimer masterfully recounts the fascinating dynamic at the end of the Cold War and the rise of Putin. He describes how Boris Yeltsin sought direct assistance and aid from President Clinton, asking him to delay policy decisions on NATO and even funding to ensure his election. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, saw things in a dramatically different light. To him, America’s backing of pro-democracy groups in Russia and its support for the color revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe was a direct threat to his leadership and his sphere of influence. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vocal support of pro-democracy and anti-Putin protestors was almost certainly the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushing Putin to attack America’s elections before, during, and after 2016.

The Coming Storm

The build-up to 2016 is riveting. Shimer draws lessons from the past and sets the scene masterfully, then takes readers into the White House to understand its thinking as the 2016 presidential election loomed. What becomes abundantly clear from Rigged’s exploration of the Obama administration’s handling of Russia’s interference is a failure of imagination at the confluence of domestic and global trends.

From the outset, the government did not think that it was vulnerable to foreign electoral interference. This was something that happened elsewhere, but not in the pinnacle of the democratic experiment—American hubris, née exceptionalism, leading to American vulnerability.

Shimer takes readers behind the scenes of the Obama White House as it struggled to find out how to respond to intelligence on Russia’s covert operations. President Obama warned Putin in advance of the election not to directly interfere and, later the White House did act after the fact, but by then it was too late. When looking at the threat to the polls, Washington focused almost exclusively on voting and tabulation. As Shimer noted in his historical overview, this was an odd and incorrect fixation.

To be fair, this was not an idle fear—intelligence suggested Russia was probing multiple states’ voter registries and electoral systems. Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, told Shimer that the White House feared Moscow altering the votes “in a handful of key precincts in Miami-Dade, in Dayton, Ohio, in a key precinct in Michigan, a key precinct in Wisconsin, a key precinct in Pennsylvania.” While most interviewed by Shimer went to great lengths to say this didn’t happen, there were a few, including former Senator Harry Reid, who suggested that it did.

The fixation on the actual vote tampering led the White House to ignore the other side of this interference coin—changing not the votes of those headed to the polls, but their minds. By seizing upon domestic issues and social tensions, Russia sought to split American society, turn groups against each other, and damage American democracy. In doing so, Putin showed that the American democratic emperor had no clothes, demonstrated that his model was superior, and weakened his greatest geopolitical adversary.

Globally, the rise of social media upended the equation. Now Russia, or any other state, could reach directly into the inboxes and apps of American voters with minimal cost. As in the case of the Italy letter-writing campaign, Shimer noted that what once cost millions of dollars, required vast coordination, and may have had limited reach, now only took the click of a mouse.

Paralyzed by Politics

By his second term, President Obama was very reluctant to act, out of fear of escalation. If Washington acted, how would Moscow respond and where would it end? His failure to enforce the red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons likely emboldened the Russians further (not that they needed any encouragement). Even if the White House were to respond, what tools did it have at its disposal? Embarrassing information about Putin’s relationships, finances, and activities? Cyberweapons? Additional sanctions?

Moreover, there was the need to protect intelligence sources and methods within Russia. If the White House acted, they risked exposing these assets, which remain classified. There seemed to be too few offensive options and even fewer defensive measures. Domestically, America’s elections are carried out by the states, each of which has the responsibility for the security of the system and the balloting method—prerogatives jealously guarded by the state capitols. The federal government could only suggest—not mandate—certain practices.

At the same time, domestic politics played a considerable factor—a frightening prospect when national and electoral security was at stake. There was the overwhelming expectation that Donald Trump could not possibly win and that Hillary Clinton was all but guaranteed the presidency. Obama and his Cabinet feared to weigh in on the election, possibly giving credence to then-candidate Trump’s allegations that the election itself was rigged against him, or that in doing so they would adversely affect Clinton’s chances.

The politicking was not the White House’s game, alone. Republican leaders, particularly Senator Mitch McConnell, seemed eager to stymie any effort undertaken by the Obama White House on any measure. An attempt to get a bipartisan statement on electoral interference was a damp squib, coming to little more than platitudes.

Preparing for the Future

Shimer’s prognosis for the future is less than heartening. With the 2020 election looming (despite the President’s admission of a cyber operation in advance of the mid-term election) the track record on confronting Russia does not inspire confidence. Indeed, it appears that anything Russia-related provokes a knee-jerk response by the White House.

American leadership is critical to rebuilding the community of democracies and standing up to foreign electoral interference. So, too is defining, as Shimer notes, the consequences of other countries meddling in American or other democracies. To support this, Shimer states that Washington should eschew any electoral interference of its own in the future—that is covert, not overt democratic support.

Perhaps the greatest measure that Washington could undertake, and as others have noted, is building an information-resilient and educated population. This is critical to limiting the ability of Russia, China, or any other country to influence the voters’ minds. This is a tall order and a generational challenge, especially in the current environment.

We must work to rebuild American society and create a greater sense of community than exists today. Russia did not create these societal schisms or divisions. It merely latched onto and amplified them with great effect. This is straight out of Moscow’s Cold War playbook and is something Washington should wholly expect to continue in the future. Indeed, the current debate and discussion on systemic issues of injustice should be partially seen as an effort to address democratic weaknesses our adversaries will undoubtedly exploit in the future.

Shimer is, perhaps, too easy on the social media titans and their culpability. It was too easy for them to wash their hands of any responsibility. The recent hack of major “verified” Twitter accounts demonstrates the ease with which these platforms could be abused. The influence they have must come under greater scrutiny. While this time it was purportedly a bitcoin scam, it could have been much worse.

Something must also be done about America’s patchwork voting system, but the solution cannot be one that creates additional vulnerabilities. A centralized system, which other countries have, would be a single target and risk the very thing it is trying to prevent—electoral malfeasance. Perhaps a DHS-mandate or an Executive Order (backed with funding) that mandates two paper records to support any state’s electronic records would be appropriate. Such mandates though must come with the commensurate resources cash-strapped states and counties need.

Shimer’s book is a fascinating read. It stands out from an increasingly crowded and contentious field. He adroitly navigates the political waves that could have easily fallen into partisanship or hyperbolic criticism. It is smart, incisive, and well-written. One would hope that it provokes a national-level dialogue on the state of our electoral system and its vulnerability, but sadly, that is unlikely to happen before voters cast their ballots this Fall.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.