Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election: Russia and Beyond

On October 12, 2017, CLC convened a conference examining foreign interference in U.S. Elections. The conference was kicked off with a speech from CLC President, Trevor Potter, the text of which is below. The first panel focused on the 2016 elections and was moderated by CLC Senior Director of Strategic Communications, Sandhya Bathija.        


Welcome. Thank you all for coming. I want especially to thank the Democracy Fund for giving us this opportunity to discuss such an important set of issues.

CLC is a non-partisan organization with leaders who are former government officials from both major parties—or no party—and a non-partisan staff and agenda. We are in our 15th year of work on protecting and strengthening democracy, with programs in money in politics, voting rights, redistricting, and ethics.

As we approach the one-year mark after last year’s election, we still are only beginning to understand the role that foreign actors played in in that election, with many questions left unanswered. We hope to discuss some of those questions today—what do we know, what don’t we know, in terms of who did what and WHY, what are the vulnerabilities of our system that remain ripe for exploitation, and what can we as a country do—at the federal and state and local levels—to protect ourselves in future elections. Our panels today will explore all of these important topics, and I look forward to learning from the experts we have pulled together –as they no doubt will share useful knowledge amongst themselves.

Today’s topic would in some ways have sounded very strange to our nation’s Founders—hacking into computerized voter registration data bases, voting machine software, Facebook and Google and Twitter advertising, bots—all mechanics unknown to the Founders.

But today’s topic is far from just a twenty-first century concern. While they may not have envisioned the digital age, the Founding Fathers certainly worried about the possibility of foreign interference in our elections—the possibility that foreign powers would wish our democracy ill, and attempt to frustrate its election process, or influence the results in ways that would benefit their own interests.

In fact, Alexander Hamilton warned explicitly about “deadly adversaries of republican government”—what today we call “democracies.” He expressed concern about “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”[1]

So, the Founders took steps to guard against such ascendance by including in our Constitution guardrails like the requirement that the President be a “natural born citizen” rather than a foreign aristocrat, and the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal officials from taking any “emolument” – any gift or service – from foreign governments.

There have been other moments in our history when we have taken steps to protect our democracy against foreign interference. A century and a half after the Founders worried about foreign powers seeking to undermine our fledgling new government, the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s faced a flood of secret Nazi German money foreign money attempting to sway American foreign policy, and American voters through what was called “foreign propaganda” and the financing of domestic political groups such as the German-American Bund. In response to these concerns Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, in 1938.[2]

Today, we face the remarkable sight of U.S. intelligence agencies collectively testifying before Congress of their certainty that the Russian government attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. The questions raised include what did they do, to what extent did they succeed, why did we not learn of it until now, what were their goals, and how can we frustrate or shine a powerful light on such actions in the future?

But the importance of this issue goes far beyond the 2016 election. It’s about protecting the foundations of our democracy in a world where psychological and cyber-warfare has become insidiously ubiquitous.

What this election did do was expose a host of vulnerabilities. From flooding Facebook with carefully targeted paid advertisements disguised as coming from phony American accounts to hacking DNC servers to hacking into states’ voting records, we are learning that Russia employed a horde of strategies to intervene in our elections. Left unchecked, these and more threaten to undermine our democracy.

How did we get here? For one, the years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision have seen an influx of undisclosed money into our elections. When donations are spent through groups that don’t disclose their donors—like the 501 c 4 and 501 c 6 tax exempt nonprofits that have blossomed as campaign players, funded by undisclosed sources spending hundreds of millions of dollars—voters can’t see where political spending is truly coming from. This provides an attractive opening for foreign interests, among others, who may seek to influence our elections, with no way for the press or regulatory entities to know what is going on behind the screen of anonymous donors.

At the same time, as political campaigning increasingly moves online, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have failed to update our campaign finance laws for the digital age. $1.4 billion was spent on digital ads in the 2016 elections, but our voters were often left in the dark about who was paying for those online ads. It was only after the election that we learned the Russian government was behind thousands of Facebook political ads that reached at least 10 million Americans, and that much of this online activity was targeted to only a few key “swing” states.[3]

And there is still a lot we don’t know—about who saw the ads, about how users were targeted, about what the ads actually looked like. Facebook’s refusal to make the content of these ads public hinders us in our ability to understand the nature and breadth of this foreign influence effort. Yesterday, Members of Congress announced that they will release some of the content of these ads for public review. This drip drip drip of disclosure of important information about these campaigns means that we are often dependent on well-sourced press stories to understand what was going on. Fortunately, the authors of a number of those stories are with us today.

One of the realities underlying today’s gathering is that we are dealing with a subject that has developed political overtones, because it involves activity in the 2016 presidential election. But it’s important to note that this conference has no political agenda: what we will be talking about should be a concern to all Americans, regardless of party, who care about the future of our democracy.

This conference is also not about any particular foreign country. Although many panels will be talking about Russian actions in 2016, we could as easily be looking at Chinese or Iranian or North Korean activity in future years. All of those countries are known to have enormous cyber capacities and obvious interests in either affecting U.S. elections or disrupting them.

Ironically, the Court in Citizens United specifically cited the power of the internet to improve disclosure. Justice Kennedy wrote that, “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters,” and that such disclosure means that “citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”[4]

Justice Kennedy is not wrong: the internet can be a powerful tool for transparency. But thanks to the failures of our laws and regulations, and the practices of companies like Facebook, in many important ways, the internet has undermined disclosure rather than promoted it.

To grapple with this and with many other issues related to foreign interference in our elections, we are fortunate to have here today the perspectives of experts from many different realms—government, the law, watchdog and advocacy groups, academia, think tanks, the press.

The accepted legitimacy of the election process—and of election results—is a foundation stone of any democracy. Threats to this legitimacy, through hidden foreign intervention, are worth all the time we have to examine and discuss. Today we have four panels that will engage in this discussion. I thank the panelists in advance for their time and expertise.

Thank you. Please join me in welcoming our first panel, moderated by CLC’s Sandhya Bathija.

Watch the full panel here