Election 2020

This Time, the Meddling Is Coming From Inside the House

The U.S. presidential election came off with little evidence of outside interference—but plenty of internal confusion.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Election workers count Fulton County ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov 4.
Election workers count Fulton County ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov 4. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Preparing for the worst ahead of the United States’ presidential election, U.S. Cyber Command upped its game. To deter interference with the campaign and the vote, the command set up operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Even so, three-quarters of Americans worried that foreign governments would be able to meddle on Election Day. But Nov. 3 came with a big surprise: no significant foreign interference to note. The United States’ adversaries are clever strategists.

“We have no indications that a foreign actor has succeeded in compromising or affecting the actual votes cast in this election,” announced Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Nov. 3. His message stood in stark contrast to preelection warnings from the White House, the FBI, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which had all raised the specter of a combination of disinformation and hacking attempts by Russia, China, and Iran. Many analysts, too, predicted 2016-style disinformation chaos.

Sure, there have been hacking attempts, and the FBI documented Russian disinformation. But two things have changed since America’s rude election-interference awakening in 2016. U.S. authorities, election machine manufacturers, and social media companies are now acutely aware of the interference risk and try to limit it. U.S. Cyber Command, meanwhile, went on offense early with its Defending Forward strategy, where cyberoperatives signal to would-be attackers that they’ve been identified (and might be punished). In 2018, the cyber-warriors managed to keep the midterm elections clean. This time their added firepower—with units operating around the world to counter would-be perpetrators—paid dividends.

Preparing for the worst ahead of the United States’ presidential election, U.S. Cyber Command upped its game. To deter interference with the campaign and the vote, the command set up operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Even so, three-quarters of Americans worried that foreign governments would be able to meddle on Election Day. But Nov. 3 came with a big surprise: no significant foreign interference to note. The United States’ adversaries are clever strategists.

“We have no indications that a foreign actor has succeeded in compromising or affecting the actual votes cast in this election,” announced Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Nov. 3. His message stood in stark contrast to preelection warnings from the White House, the FBI, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which had all raised the specter of a combination of disinformation and hacking attempts by Russia, China, and Iran. Many analysts, too, predicted 2016-style disinformation chaos.

Sure, there have been hacking attempts, and the FBI documented Russian disinformation. But two things have changed since America’s rude election-interference awakening in 2016. U.S. authorities, election machine manufacturers, and social media companies are now acutely aware of the interference risk and try to limit it. U.S. Cyber Command, meanwhile, went on offense early with its Defending Forward strategy, where cyberoperatives signal to would-be attackers that they’ve been identified (and might be punished). In 2018, the cyber-warriors managed to keep the midterm elections clean. This time their added firepower—with units operating around the world to counter would-be perpetrators—paid dividends.

But it is too soon for self-congratulations. As Sun Tzu said, in more elegant words: Don’t try the same trick twice. The United States’ adversaries didn’t bet on a mega version of the 2016 playbook, because it makes no sense to attack in a manner the adversary is already familiar with. Instead, for the most part, they sat back and watched America harm itself.

Indeed, scores of Americans have shown themselves capable of discrediting their elections all on their own. If the leader of a country announces to his 68 million or so supporters that an election has been “a major fraud on our nation,” as President Donald Trump did, America’s rivals’ initial work is done. And they may have other plans for phase two.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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