Others Opinion: U.S. must unite to fight foreign attacks on the 2020 election

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, August 12, 2020

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Star Tribune

Russia, China and Iran are targeting the 2020 election, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. To protect our democracy, America — from the White House to Congress to the tech sector to everyday citizens — should unite as it would against any external attack.

First, however, a successful defense requires an honest acknowledgment of the motivation and methods of the aggressors. Partisanship should not blur the distinctions in a recent statement from William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

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Yes, Russia prefers President Donald Trump while China prefers Joe Biden. But the extent of their efforts is different.

“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win re-election,” Evanina said. “China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China. Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues.”

Notably, Evanina said that China is channeling its activity mostly in “public rhetoric” of Trump’s policies while it still weighs the “risk and benefits of aggressive action,” while Russia is already “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia.”

In one specific example cited by Evanina, “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

The potential weaponizing of pro-Kremlin parliamentarians from Ukraine reflects how reckless the efforts to investigate Biden’s son Hunter for his work for Ukrainian energy firm Burisma are. These efforts are led by Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who, along with some like-minded colleagues, risks complicity in the Kremlin’s quest to “denigrate” Biden and the “anti-Russian establishment.” That “establishment” should be bipartisan after Russia’s 2016 election attack, which according to a consensus report from U.S. intelligence agencies was on behalf of Trump.

On Sunday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien went further than Evanina regarding China, claiming that Beijing was “absolutely trying to access secretary of state websites” in order to “see the president lose.” Whether this is factual or an attempt to amplify the administration’s get-tough policies on China is uncertain.

Those kinds of allegations call for more transparency from the administration. A declassification of the intelligence assessment on the threat from the three countries would also benefit citizens and Silicon Valley, which must play its role in resisting disinformation disseminated by Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or elsewhere.

Interference in our elections should be acknowledged for what it is — an attack on the DNA of our democratic way of life.