Don't Do Our Enemies' Work for Them

Learn more about Nicole Bibbins Sedaca.
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca
Kelly and David Pfeil Fellow
George W. Bush Institute

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, the Kelly and David Phiel Fellow at the Bush Institute, writes that a cyberattack on American democracy is a threat to all Americans, not just to one group, party, or person.

As we approach the 2020 presidential election, the United States faces serious threats to a foundational element of American democracy: our electoral system.

Cyberattacks on the United States — coming primarily from Russia, China, and Iran  are unrelenting. On September 10, Microsoft reported that these three countries had launched “…cyberattacks targeting people and organizations involved in the upcoming presidential election, including unsuccessful attacks on people associated with both the Trump and Biden campaigns.”  

In his August 2020 Election Threat Update for the American Public, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina reported on each country’s tactics in the 2020 presidential election. Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.” China prefers that President Trump not win reelection because “Beijing sees (him) as unpredictable.” And Iran “seek(s) to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections.”

Such attacks are not new, of course. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed in a report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S election that “(t)he Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level.”

A significant amount of work is, nonetheless, being done to counter this threat, and we are more protected today than in 2016 or 2018. Scores of analysts in the FBI and U.S. intelligence community track these attacks and hundreds of electoral officials around the country work tirelessly to protect our electoral system. These public servants deserve praise for their work to preserve a crucial element of our democracy. They also deserve strong bipartisan, unified leadership.

Unfortunately, despite the well-documented and continued threats to our country, the debate at the highest levels has been mired in fractious partisanship, which undermines effective, coordinated, and comprehensive action. Partisanship around cyberthreats reinforces our enemies’ goals by dividing our country, undermining trust in the democratic system, and hampering efforts to secure our nation.

Most recently, partisanship was on full display following the release of Mr. Evanina’s statement. Congressional and White House comments selectively emphasized only specific elements of the intelligence reporting, highlighting those that threatened their partisan interests.

Similarly, some political leaders have degraded the importance of expertise and objective analysis, in order to downplay threats that work in their political favor. A recent report about Department of Homeland Security leadership efforts to deemphasize reporting on Russian attacks is a concerning example. At a time when our country needs unified efforts to combat a national security threat, partisanship is dividing the debate at the highest levels.

Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon pinpointed this dynamic in her warning, noting “(m)addeningly, the national conversation around election security has turned vitriolic, diversionary and unhelpful, and we are doing our enemies’ work for them.”

Like any threat to the United States, a cyberattack on American democracy is a shared threat to all Americans, not only to one group, one party, or one person. The enemy’s objectives are immaterial to our shared responsibility to counter the threat.

Like any threat to the United States, a cyberattack on American democracy is a shared threat to all Americans, not only to one group, one party, or one person. The enemy’s objectives are immaterial to our shared responsibility to counter the threat.

If our electoral system is compromised, we lose the level playing field that allows candidates and parties to fairly and freely compete for leadership positions. All Americans must realize that unlike those issues for which we may have different views  immigration, foreign policy, health care  the integrity of our institutions and processes, including our elections, is a shared concern and responsibility of all Americans.

A skewed election  even one that brings our favorite candidate or party into power  is a loss for all Americans. Only through free and fair elections can we ensure that the outcomes will be reflective of the will of the people, not external sources that seek to undermine our democratic system.

American citizens, civic activists, and business leaders must seek expert opinions to inform themselves about cyber threats and demand accountability and action from our political leaders. Our leaders also must listen, overcome partisan divides, and lead on behalf of the entire nation.

At the same time, Americans should listen for what each candidate will do to protect our electoral system and nation against threats from all external actors, not just threats to them personally or their party. We cannot allow domestic partisanship to aid these external threats.