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Deputy AG Rosenstein details DOJ efforts to fight election meddling

"The First Amendment does not preclude us from publicly identifying and countering foreign government-sponsored propaganda."
Image: Voting
Voters line up in voting booths to cast their ballots at Robious Elementary School on November 8, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia. The 30-ft. x 12-ft. image in the background was painted by 3rd and 4th graders at the school in preparation for Veterans Day.Shelpy Lum / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released a detailed Justice Department report Thursday describing efforts to combat foreign manipulation of American elections.

The document offered no major new policy initiatives, but described the nature of foreign influence operations and the efforts by the Justice Department and the FBI to monitor, expose and, in some cases, prosecute those involved.

The report focused exclusively on the activities of the Justice Department, even while acknowledging that 'the malign foreign influence threat" requires "a unified, strategic approach across all government agencies."

But there is no evidence that such a unified strategy exists within the Trump administration. The president himself has never fully acknowledged the scope, nature and details of the Russian operation to influence the 2016 presidential election. At times, he has disputed that the Russians interfered at all, despite the unanimous assessment of major intelligence agencies.

And there is no single official in the Trump administration in charge of coordinating efforts to prevent foreign election interference.

Rosenstein described the various aspects of foreign influence operations remarks he delivered at the Aspen Security Forum. He said in prepared remarks:

  • Malicious cyber actors can target election infrastructure by trying to hack voter registration databases and vote-tallying systems. In 2016, foreign cyber intruders targeted election-related networks in as many as 21 states. There is no evidence that any foreign government ever succeeded in changing votes, but even the possibility that manipulation may occur can cause citizens to question the integrity of elections.
  • Cyber operations can target political organizations, campaigns, and public officials. Foreign actors can steal private information through hacking, then publish it online to damage a candidate, campaign, or political party. They can alter stolen information to promote their desired narrative. Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against both major U.S. political parties in 2016, and the recent indictment of Russian intelligence officers alleges a systematic effort to leak stolen campaign information.
  • Foreign actors can offer to assist political campaigns or public officials through agents who conceal their connection to a foreign government. Such operations may entail financial and logistical support to unwitting Americans. (Rosenstein didn’t say it, but this week’s indictment accusing a Russian woman of being an unregistered agent of influence in Washington appears to fit that category.)
  • Adversaries covertly use disinformation and other propaganda to influence American public opinion. Foreign trolls spread false stories online about candidates and issues, amplify divisive political messages to make them appear more pervasive and credible, and try to pit groups against each other. They may also try to affect voter behavior by triggering protests or depressing voter turnout. The election-interference charges filed by Robert Mueller in February demonstrate how easily human "trolls" distribute propaganda and disinformation.

Like terrorism and other national security threats, Rosenstein said,"the malign foreign influence threat requires a unified, strategic approach across all government agencies. The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, State, Defense, Treasury, Intelligence agencies, and others play important roles."

He added that "other sectors of society also need to do their part. State and local governments must secure their election infrastructure. Technology companies need to prevent misuse of their platforms. Public officials, campaigns, and other potential victims need to study the threats and protect themselves and their networks. And citizens need to understand the playing field."

Rosenstein said the Justice Department would step up efforts to prosecute people involved in foreign influence efforts, and would work with social media companies to combat them.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice, in Washington on July 13, 2018.Evan Vucci / AP file

Simply providing more information to the public — exposing the hidden hand of a foreign government behind public messaging — would also help, he said.

The Justice Department report announced what the DOJ called a new policy governing when and how the U.S. will publicly expose foreign threats, listing specific situations such as when the government wants to alert victims and tech companies, inform Congress or bolster prosecution efforts against malign actors.

Rosenstein was to acknowledge that the need to protect investigations and keep sources and methods out of public view sometimes make it impossible to disclose foreign efforts. He also pointed out the need for the government to steer clear of favoring any particular political views over others.

Still, he said, "The First Amendment does not preclude us from publicly identifying and countering foreign government-sponsored propaganda."

He added, "Heated debates and passionate disagreements about public policy and political leadership are essential to democracy," Rosentstein was to say. "We resolve those disagreements at the ballot box, and then we keep moving forward to future elections that reflect the will of citizens. Foreign governments should not be secret participants, covertly spreading propaganda and fanning the flames of division."