The Bi-Partisan Imperative: Stop the Russian Interference

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Preventing outside interference in our elections should be a priority of all Americans; our free and fair elections are one of the things that separate us from the pack.

We should be especially wary of interference by states that are generally hostile to us and for whom elections are for show and don't mean a thing. These states want us to be just like them. They want the United States to be run by a few well-connected, wealthy individuals who have little or no interest in things like truth, justice, and human rights. 

Post-Mueller Report America should be united in fighting these outside forces and protecting our elections. The Mueller Report made clear that this is a threat to our democracy and must be thwarted.

But now it seems the efforts that protected the 2018 midterms may be suspended because Trump and those closest to him insist on maintaining that the effects of Russia’s interference in 2016 were overblown. Vanity is trumping national imperatives. 

Here are the details:

Before the midterms, the US Cyber Command created a "Russia Small Group" to disrupt election influence of two groups whose members were indicted as part of Mueller’s investigation: the GRU – Moscow’s military intelligence agency – and the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The US Cyber Command disrupted the IRA’s servers around the midterms in November 2018, according to officials briefed on the actions. Officials at the HSA also credited unprecedented help from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to block malicious campaigns, including by taking down inauthentic posts or other suspect activity quickly. Microsoft also warned of cyberattacks on the offices of two senators.

Those measures reportedly succeeded, although a declassified after-action report on the US government’s countermeasures was expected to be released early this year – but hasn’t been published as of this writing.

Matthew Masterson, a senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security who coordinates its election cybersecurity, said: 

“We continue to expect a pervasive messaging campaign by the Russians to undermine our democratic institutions. We saw it in 2018, continue to see it and don’t expect it to subside.”

Unfortunately, it appears we are doing the exact opposite. One needs only to look at the actions and attitudes of those in the White House to see how and why. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the White House late last year, leaving only junior aides to deal with the issue. 

45% of the HSA cyberdefense work force was furloughed during the government shutdown in January.

The Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for civilian cyberdefense. But after being told by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney not to mention Russian interference in front of Trump, former HSA Secretary Nielsen gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect the 2020 election.

The HSA, DOJ, F.B.I., and intelligence efforts to warn that Russia was looking for new ways to interfere in elections – and had experimented with these techniques in Ukraine and Europe – were dismissed as the "Deep State" opposing Trump by officials in the White House.

Efforts to urge the American public and social media companies to block foreign influence campaigns were stymied by the White House’s refusal to even discuss it, because it called Trump's legitimacy into question. As a result, the government was failing to adequately inform Americans about continuing influence efforts.

Worse, the White House continues to downplay the significance of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Jared Kushner spoke thusly at the Time 100 dinner: 

“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it, and it’s a terrible thing. But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads... If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful."

Buying some Facebook ads? 

Cambridge Analytica sent out 80K Facebook posts per second, reaching 90% of users. Their CEO took credit for Trump’s winning, saying that the company’s targeted data research gave Trump the narrow margin of 40K votes in three key states that clinched the election for him, despite losing the popular vote. 

Was there a connection between Cambridge Analytica and Russia? We don't know. 

There is not one single mention of Cambridge Analytica in the Mueller Report – at least not in the redacted parts. But we know Mueller investigated the firm. We know that the portion of Mueller’s report dealing with the IRA was redacted in the final report because of "potential harm to ongoing investigations."

We know that Corey Lewandowski refused to hire Cambridge Analytica, but Paul Manafort – who had replaced Lewandowski to become campaign chairman – did so in July 2016. 

We know that Damian Collins, a Conservative member of Parliament who led the parliamentary inquiry into the data breach and fake news, said the Russia connection to Cambridge Analytica had been uncovered by the UK's data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and that this was confirmed by the ICO.

We know that Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American who worked at the University of Cambridge, helped the firm harvest the raw data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles, which the company then used to microtarget political ads. Kogan, who built the app This is Your Digital Life, which Cambridge Analytica used to harvest the data of over 80 million Facebook users, had once held a professorship at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. Kogan visited Russia in Spring 2016 and has admitted that it was possible that someone in Russia could have accessed data from his computer "without his knowledge."

We also know that Kogan claimed that the information he might have lost to Russian spies in 2016 could be harmless. 

"This could be really innocuous, it could be as simple as an SCL [Cambridge Analytica's British parent company] representative was in Russia, and they remotely access the server to see some of the files."

Could be. We just don't know. 

But we do know – from Damian Collins – that the Russians leveraged this information from Cambridge Analytica "and used that knowledge to run ads in America during the presidential election."

We also know – from an ICO spokesperson – that: 

"We have evidence that some of the systems linked to the investigation were accessed from IP addresses that appear to resolve to Russia and other areas of the [Commonwealth of Independent States]. We know that some of those we are looking at have legitimate work in those areas and it can be possible to mask the true location of access; we are therefore investigating the basis and nature of that access. Our work in this area is at an early stage."

So we don't know how that investigation is going.

But we do know that there is a WikiLeaks connection to Cambridge Analytica: Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s loose-lipped CEO, has acknowledged reaching out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the summer of 2016 to offer help in organizing the Hillary Clinton-related emails WikiLeaks planned to release.

We know from the Mueller Report that “the GRU stole hundreds of thousands of documents from the compromised email accounts and networks” and disseminated them both through GRU agents posing as independent hackers – including Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks – and WikiLeaks.

We know that WikiLeaks is a “non-state hostile intelligence service” abetted by Russia, as then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo claimed in April 2017.

We know that the GRU used those fake online personas (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0) to shuttle some of its stolen cache to WikiLeaks. We know that WikiLeaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0 via Twitter and asked for “any new material" in June, 2016. 

We also know that Trump hired Cambridge Analytica in Summer 2016. And we know that Mueller reported that he could not prove a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, not private firms with ties to Putin. 

We don't know what role the National Rifle Association played in the Trump campaign, but we know that they spent $30 million to support Trump in 2016, triple what it spent supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. Mueller questioned Sam Nunberg about the campaign’s relationship with the NRA and that infamous Russian national Maria Butina had ties to both the Trump campaign and the NRA before the election and worked to broker a meeting between Trump and her Russian boss, the oligarch Alexander Torshin, at an NRA convention in May 2016. We also know that Butina was one of the cases that Mueller passed off to prosecutors in Washington. There was no mention of the NRA at all in the redacted version of the Mueller Report.

We know that Sam Patten, a Trump operative who began cooperating with Mueller’s probe last year after pleading guilty to charges related to the Trump inaugural involving Russians, worked at the Oregon office of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group. 

We know that WikiLeaks tried to obscure the source of the hacked materials by claiming that the DNC hack was an "inside job" carried out by Seth Rich, a murdered committee staffer, rather than Russians. That story was repeated countless times by Sean Hannity – whose lawyer was Michael Cohen – Alex Jones, and his friend Jeremy Corso, the conspiracy theorist.

We also know this. According to Kevin T. Carroll, a former CIA officer who was a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security during the first two years of the Trump administration:

“Russian intelligence’s 2016 covert actions to divide Americans by interfering in our election were so successful [that] Putin will amplify them in 2020.” 

And Trump has no plans to do anything about it.

We should be very concerned. Our values, our Constitution, the Presidency, and our elections are not to be tampered with. There is no partisan issue here.