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The Real Threat of Foreign Interference Comes After Election Day

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With just days to go before the U.S. presidential election, Americans are once again scrolling through news feeds full of stories about foreign operations that seek to undermine their country’s electoral process. Some of the reports raise questions about whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is politicizing these concerns—and the president himself has cast doubt on the integrity of the election. Americans are left wondering what to make of all the noise.

The good news is that the United States is better prepared to address many such threats than it was four years ago: its intelligence community, private companies, and independent researchers have met interference attempts with early detection, exposure, and countermeasures, and they have acted particularly effectively to secure U.S. election infrastructure. But Americans should be prepared for foreign actors to take some of their most significant actions in the days and weeks after Election Day—when the country may actually be most vulnerable.

Such a scenario has precedent. Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, according to the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, not simply to hurt one candidate and help another but also “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” To that end, if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won, Russian officials “were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results” through statements and social media campaigns. Instead, Trump was announced the victor, and Moscow shifted gears to take advantage of a divided, and in some quarters outraged, American public.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked company that executes influence operations, actually increased its activity after Election Day in 2016, according to a bipartisan report. And its activities weren’t confined to online. IRA operatives organized rallies both in support of President-elect Trump and in protest. One event, a Manhattan demonstration called “Trump Is NOT My President,” drew as many as 10,000 people to the streets.

This year’s election may leave the United States even more vulnerable to such manipulation. Americans have been primed—including by the president himself—to doubt the outcome of the election or to be enraged about its result. As a result, U.S. society may be all the more susceptible to foreign attempts to sow doubt about the integrity of the democratic process. By being prepared for this possibility, Americans can make sure that such efforts do not succeed.

Russia’s tactics have evolved since 2016, but so has the United States’ ability to detect and thwart them. The U.S. intelligence community has issued warnings about foreign interference throughout the 2020 election cycle. In August, Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), assessed that Russia sought “to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray later testified that Russia was “very active” in those efforts and others to sow “divisiveness and discord.”

The Treasury Department has already sanctioned several people linked with Russia for taking part in operations to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. One........

© Foreign Affairs

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