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Russia, China and Iran will try to interfere with the upcoming US elections, the country’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) warned this summer. Russia is likely to interfere in favour of Donald Trump, China in favour of Joe Biden and Iran will seek to divide the country, the NCSC’s director William Evanina said in a statement on 7 August. Now, the US State Department is trying to deter such interference by offering rewards to people who turn in would-be interferers. Bounties alone will, however, not keep elections clean.
Election interference is not new. Over the years the CIA has famously (or perhaps infamously) tried to steer elections in a US-friendly direction. In Italy’s 1948 national election, for example, the US was concerned about what seemed to be an approaching communist victory and involved itself on behalf of the country’s pro-Western Christian Democrats. In some cases, the West simply did not accept the outcome of a democratic election. In 1953, the UK and the US organised a successful military coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. In 1961, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, was brutally assassinated by hit squads acting on behalf of the US and Belgium. More recently, the US and other Western countries have funded pro-democracy groups in authoritarian countries, including Russia – an effort the rulers of those countries would call interference, while the West would consider this support a moral imperative.
Now, however, Western countries have to worry about concerted interference in their own elections. The US Senate Intelligence Committee’s magnum opus about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election – five reports, the final one released on 18 August – demonstrates in painstaking detail the effect foreign interference has on elections even if it does not succeed in changing the voting intentions of great numbers of voters. An election – the central pillar of liberal democracy – is poisoned not if a certain candidate wins but if voters believe the election itself has been compromised. In a poll by The Economist and YouGov this February, a majority of Americans said they do not think the country can defend itself against foreign interference in their elections this November.
With such a profound problem facing the country, and the 3 November elections fast approaching, this summer the State Department announced a new tactic to deter election interferers: bounties. Within its Rewards for Justice programme, which offers sizeable rewards to people who report terrorists to the US authorities, the State Department created a new category: rewards for those who report election cyber interferers. A person who provides the US government with ‘information leading to the identification or location of any person who, while acting at the direction of or under the control of a foreign government, interferes with any United States federal, state, or local election by violating section 1030 of title 18’ will be awarded up to $10 million for their services, the Rewards for Justice programme advises on its website. Title 18 is the US government’s main criminal code and Section 1030 is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
People engaging in cyber interference against the US can thus be reported by individuals who happen to know about their activities. If the approach sounds familiar, it is because Rewards for Justice has for the past 36 years offered awards to those who report certain types of criminals, mostly terrorists. Osama bin Laden had a $25 million bounty on his head. People reporting terrorist financiers and those who launder money for the North Korean government can get $5 million. To date, the programme has disbursed a total of $150 million to informants, many of whom have found out about the programme through its innovative matchbook initiative, where the faces of wanted terrorists are printed on matchbooks that US government personnel leave at bars and restaurants in key cities. The 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was caught thanks to a matchbook user.
Now the State Department wants to catch election interferers the same way. The fundamental challenge is, of course, that cyber interferers can conduct their activities without ever being seen by anyone. Wanted posters and matchbooks will thus be a non-starter. Even cyber interferers, though, do not operate in complete isolation. There is likely to be someone knowledgeable with at least part of their operations who on the basis of ethics, money or both can be enticed to report the offender.
Should the offender be conclusively identified and investigated, a trial should come next. Because many cyber aggressors live in another country (most likely one that would refuse to extradite the offender), a trial would not be possible or would have to be held in absentia. So, what is the point? Yes, there is a point. Offenders could, for example, lose the right to ever get a US visa. Rewards for Justice is deterrence by punishment translated into the election-interference era.
But deterrence by punishment is clearly not enough. Liberal democracies also need deterrence by denial – the ability of society to withstand an attack that is not deterred by the threat of punishment. In election interference, that means the ability of the population to be exposed to disinformation, recognise it as such and pay it no attention, and it means the ability of election infrastructure to withstand cyber attacks. That is where the US has plenty of work to do and sadly not enough time before 3 November.
Odd though its bounty scheme may look, the State Department deserves credit for thinking innovatively about election defence. Buildings can be repaired, but a loss of trust in the pillars of liberal democracy will be harder to fix.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tom Arthur