Four years after Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, more countries seem to be joining the game in the run-up to this year’s vote on Nov. 3. In August, William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned about “ongoing and potential” electoral influence efforts by Russia, China, and Iran. Last week, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray disclosed that Russia and Iran had obtained U.S. voter registration data. “[T]he two countries are stepping in to try to influence the presidential election as it enters its final two weeks,” concluded the New York Times.

Americans have been understandably outraged and alarmed about foreign electoral interference. But the practice is not new; in fact, the United States was for a long time its leading exponent. As Dov Levin shows in his book, “Meddling in the Ballot Box,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and subsequently Russia) engaged in 117 covert or overt foreign electoral interventions to help or hinder candidates or parties between 1946 and 2000, with the U.S. accounting for 81 of these cases (or 69% of the total).

One of the most famous examples of U.S. foreign electoral interference came at the dawn of the Cold War in 1948, when the CIA (in its first covert action) secretly subsidized public efforts to ensure that communist candidates were defeated in elections in Italy. It also spent millions of dollars on propaganda efforts and supporting favored Italian politicians. These and similar practices, covert and overt, continued throughout the Cold War. CIA historian David Robarge told David Shimer, author of the book “Rigged,” that during this period, the Agency “‘hardly ever’ altered votes directly,” which implies that it sometimes did.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. government began to have scruples about interfering in other countries’ elections. Congressional intelligence committees started to push back, and divisions grew within the executive. But the practice persisted. In 2000, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to provide covert support to opponents of then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s re-election efforts. George W. Bush’s administration had well-advanced plans to interfere covertly in Iraq’s January 2005 parliamentary election — the first since the fall of President Saddam Hussein — before fierce congressional resistance quashed the action. President Barack Obama’s administration considered similar proposals, according to Shimer, but rejected them.

These relatively recent events, combined with American anger at interference in its own elections, raise the important question as to whether the U.S. still interferes in foreign elections, or at least holds open the option of doing so.

Some officials told Shimer that the U.S. has abandoned electoral interference in the twenty-first century. Others hedged. “This is not something that intelligence does with anything like the sense of flexibility and freedom that it might have had in the early Cold War,” said former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin. Avril Haines, who held the same role a decade later, said that, “it is not acceptable to tamper with votes in an election,” but (according to Shimer) declined “to comment on how the CIA may still seek to influence voters’ minds.” As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, “It’s all a question of degree.”

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta said that the agency doesn’t alter votes or spread disinformation, but does influence foreign media outlets to “change attitudes within the country.” Panetta told Shimer that the CIA would occasionally “acquire media within a country or within a region that could very well be used … to deliver” messages, or try to “influence those that may own elements of the media to … cooperate, work with you in delivering that message.” It is hard to know exactly what types of activities Panetta had in mind — perhaps he was talking about traditional CIA propaganda efforts that intersect with electoral politics. But they sound similar to some of the Russian social media operations in 2016.

These varying accounts by U.S. officials probably turn on definitional differences. Electoral interference can take many forms, including vote-changing, disinformation, doxing, propaganda, and financial support. Shimer gave me his view of where the U.S. likely stands today: “[I]t has not banned the practice of covert electoral interference, but it is an option that is not actually executed with great frequency. And that is different than the Cold War, but it’s also different from saying that this is something the U.S. categorically will not do any more, which is not where things are.”

Shimer also reports that the U.S. government is torn on how to proceed. Some officials think that America should definitively end the practice, but others disagree. Panetta thinks the U.S. should keep open the option of helping foreign political actors with money, propaganda, and other means in response to Russia’s electoral interference operations. Similarly, McLaughlin says that, “I wouldn’t want to take [covert electoral interference] off the table.”

But can America keep the option on the table and still complain when other countries interfere in U.S. elections? The answer matters, because the internet — which emerged just as the U.S. was winding down its aggressive phase of electoral interference — has made such activities significantly easier, cheaper, and more effective. Democracies are particularly threatened because their elections matter more, and because they barely regulate speech and the press. And, as we have learned in the last four years, foreign electoral interference via the internet is extremely hard to stop. In the pre-internet era, the Soviet Union often tried and always failed to interfere in U.S. elections. In 2016, Russia succeeded wildly.

The U.S. is still just beginning to figure out how to address the huge asymmetric advantage that the internet gives its authoritarian adversaries in electoral interference. One response — called “defend forward” — is to live in adversary networks and stop the interference before it begins. Another is to try to develop international norms against covert foreign electoral interference. But, given its twentieth-century track record, the U.S. has little hope of establishing such norms until it publicly announces that it no longer engages in the practice, which it has so far been unwilling to do.

Jack Goldsmith is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Project © Syndicate, 2020.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.