The U.S. intelligence community has begun compiling an authoritative account of foreign interference and influence efforts made during this year's election — a report that could answer whether the nation's defenses held up as well as they initially appeared.
The product, including a potential public release by or sometime in January, could also guide the incoming Biden administration and Congress as they look to protect future national elections. And it could bolster or undermine last week’s declaration by a group of local, state and federal officials that "[t]he November 3rd election was the most secure in American history."
“Before we reach [a] conclusion, let’s wait for the after-action report, so we can really get an analysis of what did happen and what didn’t happen,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A 2018 executive order initially called for the intelligence community to produce such a report, and Congress last year enshrined that requirement into law. The analysis is coming as President Donald Trump continues to fling baseless accusations of election fraud, and follows pre-election warnings that countries including Russia were waging cyberattacks on state and local governments while flooding social media with disinformation.
Despite the alerts, the latest presidential election shows no obvious signs of being derailed by the kind of massive foreign influence operation that helped upend 2016.
“Something very sizable happened in 2016," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who is under consideration to be President-elect Joe Biden's spy chief. "The real question is, why didn’t it [this time]? Why was it less in ’18 and less this year? ... I’m very interested in knowing what worked and what didn’t so that if we had some successes we can repeat them,” King said.
Reopening old fights: The examination requires the director of national intelligence, in consultation with individual intelligence agencies, to analyze possible foreign interference and submit a classified assessment within 45 days following a U.S. election. The report must include the nature of the meddling, methods and persons involved, as well as responsible foreign entities.
An unclassified version is supposed to be available within 60 days after the election.
An ODNI spokesperson confirmed that “work is underway," but wouldn't say which agencies would contribute to the findings or which organization would take the lead coordinating the final result.
The report was partly inspired by the intelligence community's nonpartisan assessment in early 2017 that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election for reasons that included aiding President Donald Trump, according to a House Intelligence Committee official. The official said by making a report more regular, it would remove the political considerations, and encourage further transparency by the intelligence community.
The pending assessment could cause another election security battle between Capitol Hill Democrats and the outgoing administration.
The two sides jousted over the topic for months earlier this year.
Democrats initially argued that the administration wrongly placed China in the same league as, and often ahead of, the threat posed by Iran and Russia. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe soon vowed to rein in briefings to Congress about election security, citing concern about leaks, only to reverse course and announce he would continue to brief leadership and the Senate and House intelligence committees.
While the two sides have reached a kind of truce, Democrats remain suspicious that any finding from the clandestine community could end up slanted. Those concerns escalated after administration officials said Ratcliffe went off script last month when he alleged during a news conference that Iran was meddling in the election in order to “damage President Trump.”
Acting Senate Intelligence Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) dismissed the suggestion that the report’s language would be politicized, saying the administration protected the last election “excellently.”
He said he also doubts that the evaluation would reveal something, such as a breach of voting infrastructure, that lawmakers don’t already know. “I think we would have heard about that,” Rubio said.
However, the product probably will offer “details about whatever attack there might have been, what were the most effective steps taken to prevent it,” he said.
“What’s important is to separate two things: interference with the actual mechanisms of voting and then influence. There’s still plenty of influence efforts going on and those are year-round at this point,” Rubio told POLITICO. “But the interference, the actual messing with a local jurisdiction, that’s the one area where you can take the most immediate action. There’s been tremendous improvements in our ability to do so. We’ll learn more when they issue the report.”
Warner said he would expect information from the individual agencies to be a “truthful rendition” of what occurred during the election, but added that if ODNI scrubs the data to please the president “that would bother me a great deal.”
In a statement, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said that to help "inoculate" the public against future interference, Americans must be armed "with the best information, the assessment must be precise, comprehensive, and free of political influence."
Keep worrying: In the meantime, lawmakers and experts agree that this is no time for the U.S. government or the public to take their eyes off threats to election security, despite the absence of any signs that foreign meddling swayed the 2020 contest.
“I will say that the idea that we can stop worrying about cybersecurity in our elections because we didn’t see a successful crippling attack against our election infrastructure strikes me as absurd,” said Larry Norden, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s election reform program. “To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you don’t throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. We don’t have the luxury of fatigue on this issue.”
Neil Jenkins, who led the Homeland Security Department’s election security work in 2016, said election officials at all levels, plus social media platforms and nonprofits, “all did a great job of collaborating and preparing for the range of threats in 2020. Just because we believe something didn’t happen this time doesn’t mean we get to relax" now.
“We have time for a quick sigh of relief,” said Jenkins, now chief analytic officer at the Cyber Threat Alliance. "But then you review what worked and what didn’t, continue to build trust through collaboration, and maximize the time after this election to prepare for the next one."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who until earlier this year chaired the Intelligence committee and steered the panel’s years-long investigation into the Kremlin’s 2016 meddling, said national security officials and lawmakers are “always concerned” that their warnings will be tuned out by the American public. But he added, “The more specificity that we provide them the better off we are.”
He noted that the federal government, specifically intelligence and national security leaders, released much more information about election threats this year compared with the past.
“That’s not necessarily always good, but in this particular case it was probably helpful,” Burr said. "Every election cycle we get a little stronger in our election security.”