Threats to U.S. elections this year could be broader and more diverse than before, warns the spy world’s boss for election security — and she also acknowledged the limits of her ability to tackle them.
Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community’s election threats executive, told NPR in an exclusive interview that more nations may attempt more types of interference in the United States given the extensive lessons that have since been drawn about the Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election.
“This isn’t a Russia-only problem,” she told Noel King on Morning Edition. “We’re still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, ‘hacktivists.’ And frankly … even Americans might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections.”
But the U.S. intelligence community isn’t standing still, Pierson said. It too has been working since 2016 to learn what lessons it can from that year and also adapt in real time as others do to the way officials at every level plan for this year’s presidential race.
“I do think it is broader and more diverse simply because we might have more actors than we had in 2016 and we might be looking at different inroads — not just necessarily capitalizing on social media, but also interfering in networks or the vote count,” she said. “So you really have a broader waterfront than you might have had in 2016.”
Pierson said that the intelligence community is expanding its technical capabilities and trying to develop more human sources to alert it to interference efforts, but there are two major factors that complicate both what it can achieve and the efficacy of foreign interference.
First is the tension over what spies should reveal about what they know, how much and when. Second, the reality that each person forms her or his own perceptions about democracy, whether an election is “rigged” or whether a fact is reliable.
Critics faulted the administration of President Obama for keeping quiet through much of 2016 about what it was uncovering about the campaign of active measures that Russia waged that year, including via cyberattacks and with online agitation.
Pierson said the intelligence community today is conscious about that lesson and appreciates the possibility that it may need to work quicker to decide how and when to reveal information about potential threats. But these decisions aren’t simple.
Intelligence officials need to preserve sources and methods and don’t want to needlessly sow more mistrust in democracy, she said.
“Some of my colleagues have said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t necessarily spook the herd and share all this information … Maybe people go, ‘You know what, this is all rigged. That’s so much disinformation. I’m not going to vote.’ That would be worst case scenario. And frankly, doing the work of our adversaries for them.”
At the same time, the intelligence community says it wants to do more to work with officials at every level. The FBI, for example, recently expanded its policy for making notifications when it detects a cyberattack.
Pierson also told NPR that it may sometimes be valid to expose a foreign interference operation in the interest of educating voters and, she hopes, prompting Americans not to become cynical but just the opposite — to lean forward and engage.
“I’ve really taken some some very important suggestions to heart that transparency enables resilience and, potentially, sunlight is the best disinfectant,” she said.
Continued Pierson: “The more that we talk about the threat, potentially more we empower voters to understand this as merely a reality of today’s landscape. And that despite all of those challenges, we’re managing them or countering them. And [people] should vote.”
View from within ODNI
Pierson was appointed election threats executive under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in one of the final acts of then-DNI Dan Coats before he was hustled out of the Trump administration last year.
That position has been empty since and the vacant DNI has come to symbolize the lingering antipathy between President Trump and the spy bureaucracy.
Trump not only has never appeared simpatico with much of the intelligence world, he has reserved particular scorn for election security itself. Trump goes back and forth as to what he accepts about the events of 2016 and also has adopted conspiracy theories about it, including one which forms the basis of the ongoing impeachment saga in the Senate.
None of the political backdrop in Washington affects Pierson and her work, she told NPR. ODNI and the intelligence community have the funding they need, the authorities they need from Congress — and Trump also plays ball when asked, she said.
For example, intelligence and foreign policy specialists asked Trump to warn Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against interfering in the 2020 election, Pierson said — and he agreed. Lavrov, however, later denied it came up.
The bottom line, as NPR’s King asked Pierson, was this: “You don’t feel yourself having to work around President Trump?”
“Not at all,” Pierson said.
There are limits to what the intelligence community can do to address a problem that ultimately manifests itself in the hearts of Americans.
One objective of active measures is simply to spread chaos and sow doubt, and Pierson said she hoped the coming year would bring a focus on confronting that by citizens, news organizations and beyond.
“This is where it’s not only a whole of government effort, but frankly a whole of society effort,” Pierson said.
“Not only do we want to improve media literacy so that Americans know where to find accurate information to inform their vote and how to spot disinformation if it’s coming through on their own media feeds …”
She continued: “… I think combating that type of activity, again, is a full spectrum of opportunities, which can include technical operations sponsored by the intelligence community, working in close partnership with tech firms and social media firms, and as well as coupled with media literacy. I think that frankly creates our best chance at societal resilience against these threats.”