Friday, February 28, 2020
Feb. 28, 2020

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In Our View: We must be wary of election interference

The Columbian

Although President Donald Trump was not removed from office by the Senate following his impeachment by the House, the crux of the issue remains relevant: Election interference.

“Election interference is the issue of our day,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said last week in a speech on the Senate floor during the impeachment trial. “It’s not because we just spent 11 days talking about it and what might have happened in the Oval Office about interference in the upcoming 2020 election. It is the issue of our day because we live in an information age, and weaponizing misinformation has become a lethal campaign tool.”

Numerous reports from the intelligence community confirm those assertions, highlighting what should be a major concern in this year’s election. Extreme caution is essential, and elected officials as well as voters must be cognizant of the lengths to which foreign actors will go to influence the American people.

Head-in-the-sand ignorance allowed Russian agents to stir the pot during the 2016 election. A report issued Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee — the third in a series — details how a tepid response from Congress and the Obama administration emboldened Russian influencers.

According to the report, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was skeptical upon receiving an intelligence briefing in September 2016 about the Russian interference. “You security people should be careful that you’re not getting used,” McConnell told an Obama administration official. Under President Trump, McConnell repeatedly has blocked legislation passed by the Democratic-led House to bolster election security.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, noted that many officials in 2016 believed a public response to Russian interference would only increase the impact of that interference. “It was a paradox,” he said. “If you announce publicly the Russians were trying to interfere with the election, that in itself would sow distrust.”

Such a tepid response should not be viewed as an option in 2020. Distrust already has been sown, and the American people must be assured that congressional leaders are actively working to protect the integrity of our elections.

As Cantwell said: “We must fight back against Russia or anyone who interferes in our elections. Protecting our elections should be a bipartisan effort, and we should listen to what the intelligence community says, because they’re warning us now that Russia will interfere again in the 2020 elections.”

Last year, the first report from the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed how Russian agents targeted election systems in all 50 states and reported “an unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure.” In Washington, Secretary of State Kim Wyman has equated those attempts to a burglar checking the doorknob and finding it locked, but other states are more vulnerable to hacking. In addition, a concerted campaign to spread misinformation during and since 2016 has been pervasive.

Unfortunately, Americans have little assurance that the White House is interested in election security. During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump urged Russian agents to seek information that would harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton; last year, his request to Ukraine for damaging information about a rival led to the president’s impeachment.

Congress must take the lead in protecting American democracy, but voters are the final line of defense. We must be wary of election interference throughout the election season.