WASHINGTON • The US Justice Department will crack down on agents who are working to advance foreign agendas, Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein said, while warning of a growing Russian threat to the country.
Influence operations undertaken by foreign governments "are a form of information warfare", Mr Rosenstein told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Thursday. "The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest," he said.
Mr Rosenstein, whose remarks came as he delivered a report from the Justice Department's Cyber Digital Task Force, said the government would step up enforcement of laws governing foreign agents and inform victims when they had been targeted in influence schemes.
His speech followed a week in which Russian influence was once again shown to have a transformative impact on modern American political life.
On July 13, Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for stealing and disseminating information from Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign to influence the race.
On Monday, the Justice Department accused Ms Maria Butina, a Russian who tried to broker a secret meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin, with carrying out a secret plot to get Republican Party leaders to support pro-Russian policies.
"These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America's democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not," Mr 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. It is what they do every day."
The Deputy A-G was one of a string of administration officials who spoke at the forum - others included Mr Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Mr Rosenstein said Russia has long used malign influence operations to attack the United States and other countries. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union paid an American citizen to spread rumours about the Kennedy assassination, and in the 1980s, it spread false stories that the Pentagon had created Aids.
The goal of those campaigns was to exacerbate social divisions and undermine confidence in government institutions, Mr Rosenstein said.
That theme surfaced again in February, when Mr Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens for using social media and other online outlets to polarise voters, spread false information and sow discord among voters before a rancorous election.
The Justice Department report identified five types of foreign influence operations intended to harm the US political system: attacks on voting infrastructure; theft and weaponisation of data; secret assistance of politicians in damaging their opponents; the spreading of false information and propaganda; and unlawful lobbying efforts.
The report also identified five categories of digital threats to influence campaigns: attacks on computer systems; data theft; cyber-enabled fraud schemes; online harassment and extortion; as well as attacks on the nation's critical infrastructure.
Mr Rosenstein outlined a policy under which the department will tell individuals, businesses and organisations when a foreign government tries to target the US and its democratic institutions.
Warning the American public about disinformation can help mitigate its harm and allow people to make better-informed decisions, Mr Rosenstein said.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE