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2020 US Presidential Election Security: Will We Learn From 2016?

Obama administration officials were “limited by incomplete information” on the threat of Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential election, a new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

The bipartisan report is the third volume released by the committee as part of its three-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Findings in the third edition indicate that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared to respond to Russian hacking and had a “narrow slate of response options” from which to draw.

“Senior U.S. Government officials in both the Executive and Legislative Branches believed they were in uncharted territory in the second half of 2016. They became aware of aspects of Russian interference in U.S. elections over the summer and fall, but these officials had incomplete information on the scope of the threat,” the report said.

In the report, officials strongly encouraged the Trump administration and others following to prioritize election security over party loyalty. “These steps should include explicitly putting aside politics when addressing the American people on election threats and marshaling all the resources of the U.S. Government to effectively confront the threat.”

Here are more findings from the report:

  • The Obama administration issued several warnings to Moscow, but held back for not wanting to benefit one candidate or undermine public confidence in the election or provoke additional Russian actions.
  • While administration officials knew that Russia was interfering in the election, it wasn’t clear at the time how far Moscow would go to influence voters, sow discord and undermine confidence in democratic institutions. “Far more about the scope of Russian activity” is now known than the administration knew at the time.
  • Officials believed that their warnings to Russia before the election had the “desired effect," and that Russia undertook “little to no additional action once the warnings were delivered.”
  • But it’s now known that some Russian meddling continued through the fall of 2016. The Committee found that after the warnings, Russia continued its cyber activity, including publicly revealing stolen emails, social media-based influence operations, and hacking state voting infrastructure.
  • Policymakers in 2016 were not concerned with Russian electoral interference directly targeting the U.S. until receiving a briefing by CIA Director John Brennan.
  • Decisions to limit and delay the information flow regarding the 2016 Russian campaign inadvertently constrained the administration's ability to respond.

The Committee also issued a set of seven recommendations, ranging from establishing partnerships to identify new Russian active measures to leading the way on creating cyber norms. In recommending the U.S. should prepare for the next attack, the committee said that preparation should include:

  • Developing standing response options that can be quickly deployed.
  • The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) should provide a regular, apolitical assessment of foreign intelligence threats to U.S. elections prior to federal elections.
  • Executive and legislative branch officials, regardless of party affiliation, should jointly and publicly reinforce DNI findings.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said in a statement that the Obama administration was “frozen by the ‘paralysis of analysis,’” and could have responded more effectively to reports of Russian interference, even though “many of their concerns were understandable…”(via The Hill) In a separate statement, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said “flaws with the U.S. response to the 2016 attack"...were due to “problems with our own system.”

The committee plans to release two more reports as part of its investigation.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.