WASHINGTON — On Friday afternoon, almost a year before the 2020 presidential election, the intelligence community published new guidelines outlining how officials will decide how and when to notify potential victims of foreign interference in U.S. elections.
According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the intelligence community’s top agency in charge of coordinating information sharing between its 17 members, the new framework will “supplement” existing laws on victim notification and aim to “protect the American people” and “secure the integrity of our elections” by more quickly making information about threats available.
President Trump approved the new framework on Halloween, a senior intelligence official told journalists in a phone call Friday afternoon.
The new guidelines aim to create a clear path to disclosing sensitive information about specific threats to the owners and operators of election infrastructure, to targets of interference, to other “affected entities,” to Congress or to the American people, according to a written overview of the new policy by the ODNI. Critically, it says, “Partisan politics shall not play a role in the decision to provide notifications.”
The explicit guidance on partisan politics comes after several years of contentious debate about the 2016 presidential election, which saw widespread Russian interference targeting then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Prior to the election, the Obama administration was fearful that public disclosure about Russian meddling might lead critics to conclude the White House was acting to help Clinton.
The new guidelines, however, are designed to address those concerns and enable the prompt disclosure of information.
“There is an agreed-upon sense of urgency,” said the senior intelligence official on the press call on Friday. “There is really a sense of urgency to operationalize this information as quickly as possible.”
Those disclosures might be private, intended only for the targets, or public, intended to inform the general population. For example, if two local counties were victims of a specific cyberattack and were notified by the FBI, the framework would allow the government to have another avenue to warn other potential targets, such as a higher-ranking state election official, without necessarily disclosing the specific details about the original victim, who might prefer to maintain anonymity. Additionally, it would allow intelligence officials to release a public statement or brief journalists on a specific threat to elections, like a social media disinformation campaign, in order to broadly warn the American public.
Following the 2016 presidential election, the intelligence community took the rare step of publicly announcing its belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence agencies to wage an “influence campaign in 2016” designed to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
That campaign consisted of disinformation spread across social media by humans and bots, the hacking and dumping of politicians’ private emails and files, and, finally, probing outdated voting infrastructure for potential vulnerabilities. In a sign of how seriously it takes these kinds of threats, the intelligence community ultimately decided publishing sensitive details about Russia’s efforts was worth the risk of potentially exposing one of its top spies in Russia, and was ultimately forced to extract him and his family and relocate them to the Washington area, where he was later discovered by the press and moved again.
However, President Trump has consistently undercut the intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russian interference, drawing criticism that a lack of leadership from the top has failed to support an organized effort to counter such interference in the future, despite the intelligence community’s confidence in its success defending the midterm elections from attack.
Those elections in 2018 were not expected to be as significant of a target, and with a contentious presidential cycle looming, the threats from not only Russia but also China, Iran and other adversaries are ongoing and increasing, according to public speeches and recent statements from intelligence officials.
New departments and agencies have sprung up in the wake of 2016, including the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and ODNI’s new central election security office led by Shelby Pierson. While those offices have made herculean efforts to connect governmentwide efforts to defend the elections and offer training and assistance to state and local officials, some worry gaps remain, including the lack of authority to mandate specific cybersecurity standards for both elections and politicians.
The guidelines describe some of the necessary factors to consider before disclosing new information.
Decisions to disclose information will factor in the need to “protect sensitive sources and methods,” consider whether disclosure will actually deter or rather draw unwanted attention to the meddling, and determine whether exposure might revictimize targets.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security will be in charge of the foreign interference disclosures. The FBI, as the nation’s top law enforcement agency, is responsible for notifying victims of crimes in the United States, and, following the 2016 presidential election, formed its own task force focused on “combating foreign influence.” The FBI already notifies victims of computer intrusions or “other criminal activity” that might harm a campaign.
According to the new framework, the U.S. Secret Service, which employs many of its own cybersecurity experts who typically investigate digital financial crime, will be notified of any attempts to target presidential and vice presidential candidates, their teams and any events they attend or host, though not candidates not already receiving Secret Service support.
The process will not replace, but rather complement, the FBI’s preexisting relationships with technology companies and campaigns to share information about foreign threats, according to a senior law enforcement official speaking on the press call on Friday.
The senior official also revealed that the FBI has already been providing “defensive” briefings for presidential campaigns ahead of 2020.
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