Montana Voices: Russian cyberattacks more insidious than 9/11 or Pearl Harbor

Dan Coats, the nation’s director of National Intelligence, recently sounded the alarm on the ongoing Russian cyberthreat.  “The warning lights are blinking red again,” he said, likening the present to the summer before 9/11.  “The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

On the same day as Director Coats’ comments, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers.  The charging document showed in minute detail the Russians’ efforts to target our cyber-based infrastructure to steal information from America’s voters and political parties, all with the aim of undermining our democracy.

Such actions – especially when combined with others to manipulate and increase discord among voters – represent an attack akin to that of Pearl Harbor or 9/11.  In many respects, Russia’s effort is even more insidious. Seeking to pit Americans against each other and to lose faith in our political system threatens to destroy our very identity as citizens of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy.

The good news is it’s not too late to act.  As with the overwhelming bipartisan support for passing additional sanctions against Russia in 2017, our elected representatives should again work together in making election security a top priority.  We must fully get to the bottom of what the Russians did in the elections of 2016 and what they continue to do now.

A bill to protect the Special Counsel’s investigation has already been passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and should be made into law with bipartisan support.  Efforts to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation should cease.  Knowing the full extent of Russia’s attacks is the first step in ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

We must also put in place appropriate countermeasures to ensure our elections remain free and fair. These can be as simple as using paper ballots and upgrading outdated elections software.  In March, Congress provided funding of at least $3 million for each state to make such improvements.  We need to know from our elected officials just how that money is being spent.

Montanans have a special role to play in a renewed emphasis on restoring integrity to our democratic institutions.  The people of our state, having had too much past experience with the corrupting influence of money in politics, enacted some of the strongest legislation in the country over a century ago to protect against such threats.

That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  We must continue to press to have those rights restored as an important shield against dark – including foreign – money being used in our elections.

Like the attacks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Russia’s attack on our democracy should prompt a profound reassessment of our security and response.  Fortunately, we are not alone.  From Great Britain and France to Estonia and Ukraine, many other countries have been similarly attacked.  We need to strengthen our alliances to work together in countering aggression from Russia and others.  Institutions like NATO have never been more relevant.  Additional sanctions against Russia and potentially other actions – in coordination with our allies – would serve as a further deterrent.

The time to act is now.  Contact your elected representatives at all levels – local, state and national – and demand to know what they are doing to protect the integrity of our electoral systems.  Support greater transparency regarding money in politics and seek to limit its corrupting influence.  Above all, at every opportunity, vote.  Vote like our democracy depends on it.  Because it does.

Andrew Person, Julie Sirrs and Danny Tenenbaum formerly served the United States as active duty military and civilians and are currently members of Montanans for National Security, a Montana nonprofit dedicated to engaging the public on issues of national security concern.