Muted Foreign Meddling in Midterms Raises Stakes for 2020

Despite new warnings and an criminal complaint, security analysts aren’t seeing an expansive foreign effort to disrupt next month’s vote. And they’re worried about what that might mean for the next presidential race.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2016
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Oct. 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

In the run-up to the first nationwide election since Moscow’s unprecedented hacking and disinformation campaign threw the 2016 election into disarray, federal prosecutors have accused a Russian woman of meddling in the midterms and America’s top intelligence and law enforcement officials are urging increased vigilance.

But even as they scour the web for traces of a last-minute escalation by Moscow, Beijing, or other foreign adversaries, election-security experts are already fretting more about the 2020 presidential contest than any of the hundreds of races set to conclude in just over two weeks.

While Friday’s criminal complaint against Russian citizen Elena Khusyaynova proves an effort to impact the midterms is underway—and no one can discount the possibility that additional foreign operatives have simply been better at covering their tracks—most U.S. security analysts say they haven’t seen or heard of evidence indicating wide-scale foreign-influence operations on par with the previous election cycle.

“Compared to the level of activity in 2016, we are not at the same level of activity in 2018,” said James Lewis, the director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a press conference held last week by the Washington-based think tank.

That dynamic could still change in the two weeks before voters head to the polls—Lewis says we’re now at the “magic moment” where a pervasive disruption campaign could kick into high gear. But beyond the steady trickle of sophistry, disinformation, and divisive rhetoric that Russia continues to peddle on social media, most experts in U.S. election security believe the Kremlin will largely hold their fire in favor of juicier targets.

“From a strategic intent perspective, I don’t actually think the Russians would want to interfere in a significant way in the midterms,” said Eric Rosenbach, the head of Harvard University’s Defending Digital Democracy Project and a former top official at the Pentagon. “Because I think they’re saving their powder for the presidential in 2020.”

Experts also believe the Russians are sitting on new tactics and techniques designed to circumvent the protections put in place by both the government and private industry in the wake of 2016. Those may include vastly expanded efforts to insinuate themselves into domestic organizations, a pervasive use of “deepfakes”—videos that harness new technologies to falsely place candidates in compromising situations—and denial-of-service attacks designed to deny a campaign donations during debates or other critical moments.

“They may be saving their best tricks for 2020,” warned Lewis.

That goes for Chinese activity as well as Russian. President Trump has recently suggested that China is engaged in a stealthy campaign to meddle in the midterms. But national security officials have provided no evidence, and Lewis and other experts say Beijing appears to be biding its time while it studies Kremlin efforts.

The Homeland Security Department and state officials have made significant progress over the last two years in hardening the country’s election infrastructure, while tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter continue to take down swathes of Russia’s once-pervasive network of bots.

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, said those efforts have undoubtedly put a dent in the Kremlin’s ability to affect 2018’s outcome. “The Russian troll farm has lost a lot of assets,” he told National Journal.

But, Nimmo adds, the focus on social-media disinformation leading into the 2018 vote somewhat obscures the relevance of the aggressive hacking operation conducted by the Kremlin against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “All the trolling, all the social-media stuff pales into insignificance beside the hacking and leaking,” he said.

If a series of damaging data dumps is released against vulnerable candidates next week, Nimmo said that would point to an intense Russian effort to disrupt the midterms. But he doesn’t expect anything nearly that strong to materialize.

“A midterm is a difficult target—lots of different moving parts, and it’s not clear what outcomes you would necessarily be shooting for,” said Nimmo. “Whereas a presidential election is a big, fat, juicy target [and] you’ve only got two outcomes. So a presidential is a lot easier.”

Steve Hall, a former head of Russian operations at the CIA, isn’t surprised at what appears to be a more muted Kremlin effort this time around. While the divisive behavior on social media always seemed set to continue indefinitely—allegations that Russian trolls sought to divide Americans over the Kavanaugh confirmation fight are merely the latest example—Hall believes a dramatic escalation could be unnecessary or counterproductive to Moscow’s long-term aims.

“The Russians do propaganda and information ops so much better than we do,” he told National Journal. “And they kind of understand, I think, when the market gets saturated. They understand when to take the foot off the brake and just let the concern that is going to naturally build in open societies about whether people are messing with their systems—just let it build by itself.”

If the 2018 midterms come and go without a significant disruption by foreign actors, some worry that could cause campaigns to assume the 2016 race was an aberration. Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager and a codirector at the Defending Digital Democracy Project, warns that would be the wrong message to take away.

“I think the risk of complacency is there,” said Mook. “The question that remains to be answered whether the campaigns step up and take it seriously. And I think the best solution to that is for the intelligence community and law enforcement and leaders of the party remind candidates how many different risks exist out there.”

That’s especially important given the high likelihood that Russia is just the first in a series of governments likely to attack America’s democratic institutions.

The Kremlin-directed troll farm that attacked the 2016 elections began its work inside Russia’s borders, where they sought to misdirect Russian citizens over their government’s culpability in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Nimmo notes that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, and the Philippines operate similar troll farms targeting their own populations.

“I don’t want to be pressing the panic button here,” Nimmo said. “But if you have a general perception that you can swing a U.S. election by trolling, and there are regimes out there that would have an interest in doing so, and they’ve already got domestic troll farms—that’s a situation in which you’d have to be crazy to say we’re not going to worry about the 2020 election because nobody’s going to try to mess with it.”

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"The investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III found that neither President Trump nor any of his aides conspired or coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference, according to a summary of the special counsel’s findings made public on Sunday by Attorney General William P. Barr. The summary also said that the special counsel’s team lacked sufficient evidence to establish that President Trump illegally obstructed justice, but added that Mr. Mueller’s team stopped short of exonerating Mr. Trump." Read Barr's summary here.

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