If you wanted more proof that intelligence officials urgently need to do more — not less — to inform Congress and the American people about ongoing Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing discord and affecting the outcome of American elections, it came with news Tuesday that Facebook shut down a network of fake accounts designed to peddle misinformation about Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to “Democratic Socialists, environmentalists, and disgruntled Democrats.” According to a report by Graphika, a network analysis firm, the fake accounts appeared to be a repeat of Russian tactics from 2016, an effort to help reelect President Trump by plotting “to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden’s campaign.”
That particular effort may have been thwarted, but it confirms what we have already learned from the Mueller Report and the five-volume bipartsian Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian election interference and misinformation efforts, as well as the unanimous assessment by the intelligence community: Russia is continuing its years-long campaign to interfere with US elections and peddle phony information to influence voters.
Also last week, the Department of Homeland Security warned that Russia is specifically trying to plant doubt about the integrity of mail-in voting, as a way to “undermine public trust in the electoral process.”
Both developments underscore just how dangerous and misguided was the Trump administration’s move to end in-person briefings by the director of national intelligence to US House and Senate intelligence committees.
Congress must not let the administration tie its hands when it comes to protecting the integrity of elections in November and beyond, and should immediately use its full authority — including, if necessary, a subpoena of John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence.
Graham Brookie, director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, who previously served as an adviser for the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the nature of threats like the attempted Facebook influence operation underscore why in-person briefings are crucial. The public needs to know, and telling them is not “leaking.”
“The influence operations happen before our very eyes,” Brookie said, distinguishing them from covert efforts that may seek to access sensitive information. “So ODNI [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] not wanting to talk about that more explicitly makes us less safe, not more safe.”
Last month’s fifth and final Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election — which not only clearly confirmed Russia’s complex campaign to interfere with the American democratic systems but also that the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian actors posed a “grave” national security threat — may not have shaken the ground with the weight it should have when it landed.
But it did provide a clear legislative road map to prevent future foreign efforts to target government systems, individuals, and political campaigns. Congress should pass legislation implementing every one of the recommendations, which include updating the Foreign Agents Registration Act to make it easier for government officials and members of the public to identify foreign agents’ efforts to influence American democratic systems; conducting better surveillance to prevent foreign counterintelligence campaigns against private entities; and requiring political campaigns to take concrete steps to combat foreign influence.
But first, Congress must insist that ODNI does its duty to inform lawmakers and members of the public of election security threats by resuming in-person briefings. Lawmakers should also demand a briefing on worldwide threats before the election to fully understand the extent of Russia’s efforts.
Disclosing attempts at foreign interference would protect the coming election. But over the long run, there’s another reason to continue to make those threats public every time they’re detected: It could help the United States become a harder target over time. Russian intelligence services didn’t invent Americans’ susceptibility to online manipulation; they’re just taking advantage of that vulnerability. More public awareness of instances of manipulation might breed a bit more skepticism toward facile political messages from unknown websites.
In the meantime, oversight is crucial, and lawmakers should not be kneecapped by the Trump administration – especially given the president’s repeated efforts to deny and downplay the extent to which Russia has sought to inject itself into American democratic systems.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.