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International electoral espionage is political warfare, violating sovereignty & human rights

Patrick Merloe, Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Integrity Programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and member of the Electoral Integrity Initiative, reflects on electoral espionage and its role in the 2016 US presidential election.

International electoral espionage is bigger than one election, one person and one country. It is also bigger than elections themselves. It is a direct threat to our democracy and to other countries around the globe.

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency issued a report describing concerted Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election. The report found that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process while tipping the scales in favor of one candidate. It states that these efforts were part of a broader campaign to subvert global democratic structures, and it predicts that they will inform future campaigns worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

These tactics are not new (ask Ukrainian or Georgian democratic activists), nor is Russia the only perpetrator. The tactics employed against the US, however, were escalated to new “weaponized” levels.

When deployed against a country the aim is to distort political discourse and cause disruption or destabilization, typically by exploiting societal divisions and/or weaknesses in governance.  Such anti-democratic campaigns use a combination of overt and covert tactics, including disinformation, fake news, hacking and cyber-attacks, trolling, funneling money to political parties and fringe elements, collecting compromising information (“kompromat”) for purposes of blackmailing or discrediting targets, assassinations, coup attempts and military aggression. These tools are part of political “warfare” against democratization as a global force even when they are directed against specific countries.

International electoral espionage is relatively inexpensive and easily replicated in other countries, by other countries and to some degree by private interests. Andres Sepulveda’s confession of how he hacked Latin American elections illustrates that private political actors can subvert the will of the people through cyber espionage. Plus, false news, leaks and other disinformation are quickly picked up and spread domestically (often by national trolls), just as international agents study a country to hone their nefarious messages for easy replication. Domestic and international agents are each other’s force-multipliers even if they are not formally tied. However damaging private actors may be to democratic electoral integrity, state-sponsored electoral espionage is an affront at a higher level.

Foreign espionage corroded the US electoral environment and affected the electorate even if it did not ultimately determine the electoral result and even if there was no direct manipulation of voter registries or results tabulation (which are within the realm of future possibilities). It was simultaneously interference in the most fundamental of internal affairs of this country and a violation of the right of US citizens to freely choose our head of state.

These points explain why every US citizen should condemn such transgressions and demand that our government acts to prevent them here and elsewhere. A trespass unanswered not only is a transgression tolerated, it is an invitation to further trespasses in this country and beyond. Electoral espionage not only was (and is) an offense against the government of the US – it was (and is) a transgression against the citizens of this country, where sovereignty resides. It violates the essence of the right of self-determination, whereby citizens freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. That collective right is realized through genuine elections that guarantee the free expression of the will of the voters. International electoral espionage therefore is also a human rights issue.

The right to seek, receive and impart information (i.e., freedom of expression) depends on being able to gain “real” information – otherwise, the right to hold opinions without interference is abridged. The free expression of the will of the electors is impossible without having sufficient accurate information upon which to make an informed vote. Flooding the environment with disinformation and otherwise harming or helping candidates seeks to nullify the electorate’s will.

Hacking US campaign computers, feeding that stolen information into the election environment and orchestrating disinformation, false news and other negative, polarizing tactics were a combination of overt and covert actions used to subvert the will of US voters. That is espionage.

However, there is more. Such authoritarian actions also aim to undermine democratic norms and democratic governance globally. The “weaponization” of such tactics as escalated and directed at the US election will undoubtedly be deployed against other countries’ sovereignty to destabilize and even control them. These practices threaten electoral integrity internationally and should be confronted as a challenge to international relations. There are concerns that the upcoming elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands are likely targets for floods of fake news and other political warfare tactics, as Central and Eastern European countries have been. Other regions of the world are not immune to such subversion.

The US and other countries should renounce international electoral espionage and build a strong consensus to address it. This is a matter of right and wrong. It is also a matter defending democracy and with it international peace and security.

There are some in this country and elsewhere who say the US cannot complain because in the past it interfered inappropriately in the elections of other countries. Examples offered are typically from 40 or more years ago, but there is a more salient point.

Inaction is not moral strength or justice. It is only an invitation to further transgressions.

The US and other democratic nations often support efforts of citizens in other countries to participate in the political process, inform themselves to make free electoral choices and engage in pluralist political competition. For over 30 years now those endeavors have simultaneously helped advance human dignity, peace and US interests. They have been conducted openly and in response to calls for assistance. The United Nations and regional intergovernmental organizations endorse and participate in such efforts. That is not espionage; it is supporting the freedoms of association and expression.

Put simply, there is no “moral equivalency” between advancing rights and stiffening them or between helping people realize self-determination and subverting it.

Having personally observed more than 50 elections around the world and helped to draft the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, I can say that the difference between democracy promotion and political warfare campaigns is as clear as the difference between art and pornography. “You know it when you see it.” In this case, when you see it you should expose it and try to stop it.

Addressing international electoral espionage will require enabling citizens to identify overt tactics of disinformation and false news and to obtain genuine information needed to make free political choices. Research will be needed to identify those population segments most likely to be vulnerable to manipulation and gauge the impact of disinformation campaigns to inform how its effects can be countered. Robust public education will be required to inoculate against and counter political warfare campaigns.

Identifying disinformation campaigns will require media and election monitoring, fact-checking/myth-busting, and significantly enhanced traditional and social media strategies will be important in this respect. In the private sector, social media platforms like Facebook and Google will have to aggressively address identifying disinformation and take steps to block purveyors of it. Plus, specialized capacities will be needed to identify the sources of international electoral espionage and political warfare more broadly.

Sensitive electoral processes will have to be safeguarded against hacking and other covert actions – and opening electoral data for public verification will be critical, because that prevents covert manipulation of data and builds public confidence. Political finance information also will need to be made transparent so that dirty money to Trojan Horses can be more easily identified.

Replicating each of these capacities in all countries is not feasible, which highlights the importance of building networks across borders and sharing information, experiences and innovative techniques.

Even those actions, however, will not be enough. To defend and advance democratic norms and principles of governance, democracy must deliver improved human conditions – and populations must understand that is happening. Governmental institutions will have to become more effective, and corruption will have to be tackled in earnest around the globe. Political parties will have to grapple with effectively messaging, mobilizing and safeguarding votes garnered in light the increased threats to electoral integrity. Barriers to citizen participation will have to be removed, and citizens will have to demand accountability and progress, at home and abroad. That will require active engagement in public affairs not “professional inactivism”.

Awareness of international political warfare is increasing, though action to expose and counter it lags far behind the task. Social media platforms are beginning to face the matter, and the World Economic Forum set up a multi-sector group that is relevant. The EU is to expand its small taskforce, and the European Parliament recently passed a resolution on countering hostile propaganda. The Czech Republic is setting up a unit to counter fake news. Media outlets are beginning to collaborate on their part (e.g., CrossCheck in France and The US Congress passed the bipartisan Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which President Obama signed into law in late December. It modestly enhances government agencies’ detection of disinformation addressed to the US and elsewhere and provides a grant mechanism for journalists and citizen groups in foreign targeted countries to identify and address the matter. It is too soon to know whether or how the act will be implemented. Implementation will need to be monitored.

Addressing international electoral espionage will require identifying points of leverage that will punish and deter it – and mustering the will to use that leverage. The failure to do so will embolden authoritarians even further. While the considerable shortcomings of democratic governance here and elsewhere must be vigorously addressed, democratic ideals must be defended and promoted. Abandoning democratic norms and principles, rather than fighting for them – leaving democratic allies and aspirants around the world to fend for themselves, rather than strengthening our solidarity – or embracing inaction by accepting arguments that authoritarian and democratic methods are equivalent, rather than reading the long “arc of the moral universe” and taking action – will weaken this country and make the world a worse place. Democracy makes it possible for the world to become more peaceful, prosperous and just – and its defense requires strong efforts by us all.

Patrick Merloe
Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Integrity Programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs