National Security

Commentary: Firewalling Democracy: Federal Inaction on a National Security Priority

This piece originally appeared in The Hill, January 31, 2018.

January marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s designation of elections as “critical infrastructure,” placing them into the category of other physical or virtual sectors — such as food, water and energy — considered so crucial that their protection is necessary to our national security. Naming “elections” as a critical infrastructure sub-sector was a key action taken by then-Secretary Jeh Johnson following an Intelligence Community report about ways Russia sought to meddle in the 2016 elections via a variety of hacking tactics aimed at election offices, voter databases and our larger digital democracy.

At the time, I was serving as DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis — and I was encouraged greatly by the critical infrastructure move. Voting administration is a state and local responsibility, but these entities often are overburdened, under-resourced and not exactly versed in Kremlin-based cyber crimes. The announcement reflected a new reality that election security is national security — and it provided enhanced capabilities for the feds to coordinate on election cyber threats.

However, since that optimistic moment 13 months ago, there has been unwillingness at the highest levels of the federal government to act.

On Capitol Hill, it’s taken a year for the Secure Elections Act (S. 2261), to be introduced. Although a positive first step toward ensuring that states have grants and other support to protect their voting systems, the bill’s future is unclear beyond the six bipartisan co-sponsors backing it.

At DHS, scores of mid-level staff — especially within the National Protection and Programs directorate — are working to answer state and local election officials requesting cyber assistance, while at the same time gathering what limited resources exist to prepare for 2018.  But these folks are operating minus top cover from the White House or other cabinet-level leaders, many of whom continue to eschew that Russia is a concern altogether.

As I consider possible reasons for this federal lack of leadership, it appears the fear of attaching oneself to the politics of the past election — rather than tackling the real challenges of the upcoming one — emerges as the most plausible explanation.

For one, it’s not for lack of threat. The vulnerabilities within our democratic infrastructure are deepening every day. In June, DHS announced that voting systems and registration databases in at least 21 states had been the aim of Russian hacking attempts in 2016. Last fall, across the pond, the Brits laid claim that the same Russia-based Twitter accounts that targeted the 2016 U.S. election also employed divisive rhetoric to influence the Brexit referendum. Even as recently as November, news emerged that Russian bots flooded the Federal Communications Commission’s public comment systems — an important democratic forum for Americans to voice opinions — during the net-neutrality debate, generating millions of fake comments.

Federal procrastination is also seemingly not tied to lack of pressure. It is true that DHS’s initial offers for cyber assistance were not embraced by state and locals in past elections. But since last year, there’s been a backlog of requests pouring in. Meanwhile, local election directors such as Cook County, Illinois’ Noah Praetz, have taken it upon themselves to develop election cybersecurity plans, despite no federal backing. Even the hacker community — traditionally allergic to Washington — has been raising the alarm on election security. For example, DEFCON, the world’s largest hacker conference, held an educational voting machine hacking demonstration last summer to show how susceptible election equipment is to cyber attack.

Finally, I surmise absent response is not a factor of the arduous process that is federal policymaking. Historically, when a national security threat to America is imminent, I’ve seen leaders act swiftly, honorably and without regard for politics. In this case, we have waning time to act: The 2018 election season is weeks away with primaries starting in March in Illinois and Texas. And when it comes to Russia’s goal of undermining democracy, they’re not likely to take this cycle off. Indeed, they will most likely apply the lessons of 2016 with a more calculated approach.

After 47 years in working in national security — much of that spent in the military and federal government — I respect the evolving threats facing democracy today. Yet the urgent work at the state and local level to prepare for future elections will be insufficient if it is not fully matched and funded by the federal government.

With new leaders, including DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, assuming the helm, this is a moment to choose national defense over politics. A window, albeit closing, exists to support state and locals — along with mid-level civil servants — focused on the problem.

In the vital cause to reassure Americans that their democracy can withstand outside attacks, our enemies are counting on political division and chaotic discourse. I encourage leaders at every level to leverage the best of our national security resources, unite and then prove them wrong.

Francis X. Taylor, a senior advisor at the security consulting firm Cambridge Global Advisors in Washington, is the former under secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security. He also served as the former head of diplomatic security with the State Department and is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general.

IN-THE-NEWS: Douglas Lute Joins ABC This Week with George Stephanopolous to talk Afghanistan

CGA Principal and former NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview on "This Week" Sunday that the United States is stuck in a political and military stalemate in Afghanistan, and it is unclear whether President Donald Trump's new strategy in the country will resolve it.  Read more here

IN-THE-NEWS: Top former US officials call for talks with Taliban

WASHINGTON: As the Trump administration is gearing up to announce its Afghan policy review, four top US officials formerly linked in some capacity with Afghan war have urged the Trump administration to move for a political settlement in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and other regional partners.

Speaking at a US think tank, the influential officials also snubbed some Afghan participants who called for reconsidering Durand Line and US aid to Pakistan saying that even complete halt in US aid won’t change Pakistan’s position as the country is no more dependent on American assistance.

The speakers included former US ambassador to NATO and former deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan, Douglas Lute, former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2016-2017), Laurel Miller, former senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013), Barnett Rubin and former senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the under secretary of defense for policy, Christopher Kolenda.

They said sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan will not change the situation drastically and negotiated political solution is the only way forward for the United States. They added that with the exception of India, all regional powers like China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan want a non-military political solution to the Afghan conflict as no one wants permanent US military bases in their backyard.

During the debate two Afghan participants tried to blame Pakistan for Afghan trouble and credited US aid for Pakistan’s recent economic turn-around. However experts completely disagree with them.

“US aid did not give rise to Pakistan’s economy,” said Barnett Rubin adding that there are misconception about the magnitude of US aid. He explained that US aid was not given to Pakistan in return for Pakistan’s fight against Taliban in Afghanistan. “US assistance to Pakistan was given under an agreement between General Musharraf and President Bush which allowed use of Pakistan’s territory to put our military in Afghanistan. Without Pakistan’s permission, we could not have entered our forces in Afghanistan, a landlocked country.”

He said if US breaks the agreement, Pakistan can also follow suit and stop movement of Nato and US containers on its soil. Laurel Miller who served as Af-Pak representative said US can cut off 100 percent aid to Pakistan but it would still not change Pakistan’s perception about its security concerns.

She said US wants to use aid to press Pakistan from its position of supporting Taliban but the administration has to understand that Pakistan is no more dependent on the US assistance. On a question about Durand Line, she said US can’t resolve the problem as Pakistan would never accept that. “It is not a realistic thing to assume US will help Afghanistan in its claim on Durand Line”.

She said US should facilitate international mediator between Taliban and Afghan government so that regional partners especially Pakistan could understand that US is sincere in peace process.

“These countries would be in the region forever. They have stakes and if they see that a political outcome can protect their stakes they are more likely to support that solution,” she added. Douglas Lute, Former US ambassador to Nato said US troop surge of a few thousand will not break the stalemate in Afghanistan. He called for effective political dialogue to resolve the conflict.

Christopher Kolenda said US is spending about $25 billion every year on Afghan war. He said the only possible solution for US is a negotiated settlement. “Since Second World War studies show that insurgency that has external sanctuary and internal support has been successful every single time,” he said.

He said Pakistan believes a stable Afghanistan will team up with India to harm Pakistan and India understands this fear and it is using its relations with Afghanistan to forward its own interests in the region.

This article originally appeared in The News, July 15, 2017.