WASHINGTON – The threat of foreign adversaries such as Russia trying to influence U.S. politicians, campaigns and the public “continues to grow,” with elections presenting an especially attractive target, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said.
“Influence operations are a form of information warfare,” Rosenstein said in prepared remarks for a speech Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “Covert propaganda and disinformation are among the primary weapons.”
Elections, in particular, provide “an attractive opportunity for foreign influence campaigns to undermine our political processes,” Rosenstein said. The deputy attorney general cited comments by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said last week that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Rosenstein’s comments came as the Justice Department released a 156-page report describing the department’s plans to respond to cybersecurity threats and, in particular, malign foreign influence operations. The report identifies five categories of malicious influence operations, including hacking attacks on election infrastructure; covert and overt operations to harm or assist political organizations; and activities to manipulate public opinion or sow divisions.
The report also says the Justice Department should consider “whether legislation to address encryption (and all related service provider access) challenges should be pursued.” That appears to be a reference to law enforcement efforts to get companies including Apple Inc. to provide access to locked mobile phones.
The report from the department’s Cyber-Digital Task Force is meant to serve as a framework that establishes principles for how to respond to an attack like the one launched by Russia during the 2016 U.S. election, Rosenstein said.
“The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest,” Rosenstein said. “Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.” He added that “modern technology vastly expands the speed and effectiveness of disinformation campaigns.”
“The internet and social media platforms allow foreign agents to spread misleading political messages while masquerading as Americans,” he said, adding that there is also a threat from government-controlled media outlets and paid lobbyists.
“People should be aware when lobbyists or media outlets are working for a foreign government so they can evaluate the source’s credibility,” the deputy attorney general said. “Particularly when respected figures argue in favor of foreign interests, it may matter to know that they are taking guidance from a foreign nation.”