(Bloomberg Opinion) — You might not know it, listening to President Donald Trump, but the U.S. government has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect this year’s election from foreign interference. With little more than a week left until Election Day, will its efforts hold up?
Last week, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, and Christopher Wray, the FBI director, held a joint briefing to warn that Iran and Russia had obtained registration data and (in Iran’s case) sent fraudulent emails intended to intimidate voters. They suggested that more such efforts are likely to come, asked the public to be vigilant and expressed confidence in the integrity of the voting system. A bipartisan statement from the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee affirmed the warning.
Despite some politicking on Ratcliffe’s part, this was exactly the kind of transparency and coordination that was lacking when Russia meddled in the 2016 election. It exemplified a national-security apparatus that seems to have learned its lesson — and is taking appropriate action despite the hostility that the president and his loyalists have shown for such efforts.
Some of the government’s actions have been quite pointed. On Oct. 15, the Justice Department announced the indictment of six Russian intelligence officers who had engaged in politically motivated computer attacks around the world, including one who had previously been charged for the 2016 incident. It outlined meticulous forensic work and provided minute details — including what email addresses the offenders used and what URLs they purchased for fraudulent websites — that conveyed a clear message: You’re being watched, and there will be consequences.
Other actions have been less overt. Behind the scenes, in a coordinated and largely unprecedented effort, U.S. national-security agencies have frozen the assets of foreign hackers, imposed sanctions, revoked visas, knocked spies offline, prevented suspected adversaries from entering the U.S., and worked with social-media companies to take down suspect accounts, all in a preemptive effort to prevent further meddling.
As for defensive measures, the FBI has convened a foreign-influence task force and coordinated security efforts with tech companies. Intelligence agencies have issued regular updates about what foreign adversaries are planning and why. The Department of Homeland Security has helped fortify state and local defenses against foreign intrusion and done a commendable job of educating the public, even launching a sober-minded “rumor control page” and publishing a disinformation toolkit for election officials.
The private sector has also done its part. Microsoft Corp. has warned about hacking attempts against U.S. political actors and helped to take down a major Russian criminal operation. Both Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. revealed last month that they had removed phony accounts linked to Russian intelligence, while cybersecurity companies have been sharing information with the authorities about other hackers targeting the election.
Of course, all this is in marked contrast to the president himself, who has said next to nothing about election interference publicly. Asked about the topic at the last presidential debate, he instead brought up NATO, submarines and the mayor of Moscow’s wife. His staffers have amended intelligence assessments to downplay the threat and ceased in-person briefings to Congress about it. Even broaching the topic in the White House has reportedly been discouraged. Far from condemning election interference, Trump has in fact solicited it — possibly in violation of federal law — from at least three countries.
Be that as it may, the hard work goes on. For many reasons — the pandemic, legal wrangling, Trump himself — this election could turn out to be the most challenging in living memory. And federal officials are warning that Russia and other actors are still making aggressive attempts to compromise U.S. networks and potentially sow chaos. That makes it all the more essential that the government’s vital work continue unimpeded, and that the public stay calm but vigilant over what promises to be an eventful week.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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