In the fight against election meddling and interference, the military’s reputation for public reliability offers a powerful weapon for protecting voters, according to experts who spoke before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity Feb. 13, 2018.

“As one of the most trusted institutions in the United States, the Department of Defense must leverage that trust with the American people to mitigate Russian influence,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Simply put, the Department of Defense has to model the bipartisan and fact-based action, behavior and awareness that will help reduce societal division. This is about leadership. It’s about protecting the United States. And as far as I can see, that is in the Department of Defense job description.”

According to Gallup tracking of public confidence in institutions, 72 percent of the public said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military in 2017. Comparatively, only 32 percent had the same level of confidence in the presidency, 12 percent in Congress and 27 percent in newspapers.

According to Conley, the DoD’s military and employee networks can aid in public outreach and education campaigns as well as informing Congressional policy.

“We have nine months, and the American people are not educated as to what is going to happen to them. And that’s where I think our focus must lie. I’m less concerned about the mindset of President Putin. I know his mindset. I’m more concerned about the mindset of the American people, as we head towards this election,” said Conley.

“With regard to the integrity of our elections, we’ve effectively left civilians, whose main focus is not security, on the front lines,” agreed Richard J. Harknett, professor of political science and head of the political science department at the University of Cincinnati.

According to Harknet, the military must also take an offensive approach in cyber-based election interference.

“Our immediate objective must be to first erode the confidence adversaries now have in their ability to achieve enable objectives. They are very confident. Second, we have to erode their confidence in their own capabilities, and third, we must erode those capabilities themselves. We are well past the post on this,” said Harknet.

“This is not a space in which time and geography is leverageable for defense. So, when we think about the notion of front lines, the front lines are everywhere, and right now. Our general approach has been to defend at our borders, at our network, which actually means that we start defending after the first breach. And we are already playing catch up.”

But according to Robert Butler, co-founder and managing director at Cyber Strategies, defending the 2018 midterm elections is going to require leadership from many parts of government, not just the military.

“From my perspective, it really requires both cultural and legislative enablers. Culturally, the president must lead, must rally the nation. There’s opportunities, already this week, that can be used to help with that. The infrastructure proposal’s a great example. I don’t see anything about resilience in the infrastructure proposal,” said Butler.

“We need to get the best of America into this space, right. There is a role for DHS. The FBI is very engaged. There is a role for the Department of Defense that goes beyond the National Guard Bureau, ties in with the intelligence community. There is a role for trusted private sector partners in the space.”

Butler added that Congress, the executive branch and the military need to focus on what they want to accomplish in election cybersecurity before worrying about who has which authorities.

But according to Conley, none of that can happen without prioritization from the administration.

“I think the executive branch refuses to recognize the threat; it refuses to put forward a national, whole-of-government, whole-of-society strategy and bring all the agencies and tools of influence to bear on this. We have to think of this as a direct threat to the national security of this country. It has to receive the priority,” Conley said.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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