US must wage united battle against vote meddling, says top prosecutor amid uproar over Trump-Putin summit

The US government has been hesitant to publicize foreign operations, fearing their disclosure could be seen as tipping the balance in an election.
The US government has been hesitant to publicize foreign operations, fearing their disclosure could be seen as tipping the balance in an election.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - The US Justice Department called Thursday (July 19) for a unified government approach to fighting meddling in the upcoming mid-term elections.

With the administration looking befuddled on the issue after the Helsinki summit, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the appeal as he released a report from a department task force on fighting digital and cyber crime.

"So what can we do to defend our values in the face of foreign efforts to influence elections, weaken the social fabric, and turn Americans against each other?" Rosenstein said at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado as he released the report.

"Like terrorism and other national security threats, the malign foreign influence threat requires a unified, strategic approach across all government agencies," he added.

His remarks came as the administration of President Donald Trump seems anything but unified on the issue of Russia and election meddling.

Trump suggested at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he accepted the latter's denials of any interference in the 2016 vote.

That contradicted the conclusion of US intelligence agencies and prompted a rare public dissent from the US director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

Rosenstein echoed remarks by Coats and other officials that Russia remains a cyber threat to America every day, and the report, while not disclosing anything new, outlines what the FBI and other agencies are doing to get ready for the congressional elections in 2018.

"The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest," Rosenstein said.

"Russian intelligence officers did not stumble onto the ideas of hacking American computers and posting misleading messages because they had a free afternoon," he added. "It is what they do every day."

Rosenstein also announced a policy to alert the public about foreign cyber operations like Russia's alleged hacking and disinformation campaign during the 2016 US presidential election.

The US government has been hesitant to publicize such foreign operations, fearing their disclosure could be seen as tipping the balance in an election.

But warning the American public about disinformation can help mitigate its harm and allow people to make better-informed decisions, Rosenstein said at the Aspen Security Forum.

"Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralise them," Rosenstein said. "The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda."

Critics have said the Obama administration should have done more to inform the American public about Russian interference.

The policy announced by Rosenstein is part of a report issued by the Justice Department's Cyber Digital Task Force, which was created in February.

The report establishes guidelines for the department on whether to inform the public, private groups and companies about covert attacks.

Rosenstein cautioned that the department's ability to disclose foreign operations could be hampered by concerns about protecting intelligence sources and methods.

He also said "partisan political considerations must play no role in our efforts. We cannot seek to benefit or harm any lawful group, individual or organisation."

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, welcomed the announcement.

"In instituting this new policy, the Department of Justice has taken a vital and necessary step to protect the integrity of our elections and deter foreign meddling, and has made an unprecedented commitment to the American people," Schiff said in a statement.