by Ellen Nakashima July 19 at 8:04 PM Email the author
The Justice Department plans to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy under a new policy designed to counter hacking and disinformation campaigns such as the one Russia undertook in 2016 to disrupt the presidential election.
The government will inform American companies, private organizations and individuals that they are being covertly attacked by foreign actors attempting to affect elections or the political process.
“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who announced the policy at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. Rosenstein, who has drawn President Trump’s ire for appointing a special counsel to probe Russian election interference, got a standing ovation.“The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda,” he said.
The Obama administration struggled in 2016 to decide whether and when to disclose the existence of the Russian intervention, fearing that without GOP participation it would be portrayed as a partisan move. Concerns about appearing to favor the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, weighed on President Barack Obama, who was reluctant to give then-GOP-nominee Donald Trump ammunition for his accusation that the election was rigged.
“If this disclosure requirement had been around in 2016, I firmly believe that it would have served as a meaningful deterrent after Russia’s interference was first discovered, and it would have informed voters more quickly and more forcefully that a foreign government was trying to affect their vote,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who two years ago pressed the Obama administration to call out Russia’s activities.
Rosenstein said the Russian effort to influence the 2016 election “is just one tree in a growing forest. Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.”
He cited Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who last Friday said that Russia’s actions have continued. “As Director Coats made clear, these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,’ ” Rosenstein said.
At the Aspen Forum on Thursday, a Microsoft executive said that Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, has targeted at least three candidates running for election this year. Tom Burt, the company’s vice president for customer security and trust, said that his team had discovered a spear-phishing campaign targeting the candidates. Spear-phishing is a technique hackers use to trick victims into clicking on malware-laced links in emails that enable access to the victims’ computers.
Twelve GRU officers were charged last week by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with conspiracy for their role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the transfer of thousands of emails to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which published them at key moments in the campaign.
Pressure has been building on the Trump administration to commit to informing the public when the government becomes aware of a foreign influence operation targeting U.S. democracy, with lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees debating passage of such a requirement that would give it the force of law.