Any normal U.S. president anticipating the arrival of the Mueller report would have planned a major cybersecurity announcement timed to whenever it landed, to demonstrate seriousness about national security. Even if it was simply to rearrange and merge some cybersecurity offices, form a task force, or create a new special representative position in some federal agency (the government’s frequent solutions to show action is being taken).
After all, special counsel Robert Mueller did confirm that a known foreign adversary conducted a full-scale covert influence operation to undermine American democracy.
Yet, since the release of Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress on the report, the Trump administration has been singularly focused on trying to convince the country of a highly debatable notion: that the letter and report “exonerate” President Donald Trump. This is not surprising since the president has framed the entire investigation as an attempt to undermine him, rather than what it was — an investigation into covert foreign aggression.
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But there is more to it than that. For more than two years, Trump has ignored the issue of foreign influence altogether or denied outright that it ever occurred. It is not hard to figure out why. For a man obsessed with painting the election results as a historic victory, any acknowledgment that he even unknowingly got help from a foreign country, let alone an adversary, calls into question the legitimacy of his entire administration.
But this does not mean the threat has gone away. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned the Senate Intelligence Committee in January of more aggressive attempts by foreign adversaries to interfere in our elections with new capabilities and tactics, “suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections.”
The cyber threat landscape is constantly evolving, and we are already dealing with a more advanced and experienced adversary than we faced in 2016.
We need cybersecurity action, not more studies
The few initiatives on foreign influence coming from the White House have focused on prolonging the debate that was already settled a long time ago over whether Russian interference occurred in our election in the first place. Trump’s executive order from September, announcing that the government will sanction foreigners involved in election interference, did just that by first calling for national security agencies to conduct yet another investigation.
The Trump administration released a cybersecurity strategy last year, but most cyber experts agree that our critical infrastructure is no more secure now than it was before. Any other administration would make cybersecurity and election security national priorities, with the funding to back it up. The White House would also be guiding what should be constant coordination across agencies and with states.
Any other administration would also focus on rapidly building our cyber defenses because we are being outpaced by our adversaries’ growing offensive capabilities. Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and others are doing important work, but without the larger policy hand coordinating the process from the White House, capabilities will most likely be built in silos.
Study 2016 mistakes and learn from them
In national security agencies, there is almost an obsession with studying and rehashing our failures. Intelligence analysts are still trained on examples like Pearl Harbor and, more recently, the 9/11 attacks, to ensure that we can pinpoint the signs of danger in the future. This administration could stand to do a great deal more self-reflection on the future of our cyber capabilities. Or any, for that matter.
Former Bush administration official David Frum posed the following question on Twitter this week: “The conservative vindicators are concerned to protect Trump. The hard-left vindicators are concerned to protect Putin’s Russia. Who is concerned to protect America?”
It is a good question, one that does not lead to an obvious answer other than: not President Trump.
Foreign attempts to interfere are not going to stop now, especially when our adversaries perceive there will be no repercussions for doing so. Trump can continue to ignore this, but he does so at the risk of our national security and democratic institutions.
Cindy L. Otis, a writer and consultant who worked for the CIA for 10 years, is the author of the forthcoming book “How Spies Spot Fake News.” Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_