The statement, “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything” is usually attributed to the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Whoever said it, that thought is probably in the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin as November 8 approaches.
For months, the reported hacking into Democratic National Committee emails and the release of confidential DNC documents has been linked to possible Russian cyber attacks. Last week it was revealed that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are investigating what may be a broadly-based covert Russian cyber operation designed to discredit and possibly interfere with ballot counting in the November election.
The election processes in Arizona and Illinois have reportedly been subjected to attempted or successful cyberattacks probably performed by the Russians. The FBI has reportedly alerted all state and local officials to the possibility of cyberattacks on the voting process.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said, “We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure like the financial sector, like the power grid.”
America’s states have controlled the election process since the colonial era. Having the federal government seize control of it seems almost as frightening as if the Russians did.
Mr. Putin’s track record proves that he doesn’t hesitate to interfere in other nations’ most important functions. After the Estonians took down a Soviet war memorial in their capital city in 2007, a Russian cyberattack, lasting about three weeks, put the Estonian government essentially out of business. In August 2008, a Russian cyberattack took control of the Georgian government’s computer system including its ministries of defense and foreign affairs. Earlier this year, Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall blamed the Russians for a December 2015 cyberattack on Ukraine’s power grid that caused widespread blackouts.
Mr. Putin has, of course, denied any Russian responsibility for what is going on with America’s election system. But he did so in a perfectly Clintonian manner, saying “At the state level, we certainly weren’t involved in this.” Clearly enjoying himself, Mr. Putin didn’t bother to say how he distinguishes between “state level” and non-state Russian cyber operations.
For his part, President Obama has only given voice to his desire to not turn the internet into the Wild West, though that’s precisely what it is. Echoing what we’ve heard from presidents going back to the Cold War. Mr. Obama said, “Our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate the cycle of escalation we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past.”
If the Russians are widening the ongoing cyberwar and escalating it by attacking our voting process, shouldn’t our president be acting to deter or defeat their cyber aggression?
Almost everything in America is run by and through computer networks. These networks — including those in our defense and intelligence communities — are subjected to thousands of attempted penetrations every day. Some succeed, some are defeated and an unknown number may succeed and leave no trace of who was responsible for them.
Intercepting emails by “hacking” into the systems that carry them is one thing. That sort of espionage is routine, and our government, businesses and state and local governments spend billions every year to guard against them. It is another matter entirely to not just penetrate a system to steal emails but to manipulate the computer network’s software to render false results.
If the Russians wanted simply to discover the results of the vote, they needn’t hack into any computer system. The attacks they are apparently mounting on federal and state voting processes must be intended to affect the presidential vote and many other races.
Our election system is far from perfect. The fact that the results can be manipulated is plain. What we can do about it is not.
We are beyond the stage when people mark hard paper copies of ballots in many states. We do in Virginia, but they are scanned and the results are transmitted by a computer network to the ballot counters who — if there is no hard ballot recount — rely on the results they receive.
The only answer to this problem is the one the president has already rejected. Though he has bragged that we have cyberwar capabilities beyond those of any nation, both offensive and defensive, they can’t be effective unless they are used.
The brainiacs involved in our cyberwar efforts have imaginations that make our nation capable of just about anything that can be done with computer software. It’s time to turn our cyber warriors loose to protect our election process, even if it means, in Mr. Obama’s terms, escalating the cyberwar with Russia and any other state or non-state group that attempts to interfere. Our cyberwarriors should be ordered to disrupt and defeat any effort to manipulate our elections even if that means they have to mount their own offensive against such an attack.
If we fail to do this, there will be a shadow over the coming election that will make the Bush-Gore “hanging chad” mess seem pretty tame.
We can’t afford a replay that could deny the next president legitimacy of office. If that happened, Mr. Putin — and all our other adversaries — could gain an advantage from which our foreign policy might not recover.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”