U.S. Set for Harsh Response to Foreign Election Meddling

Outgoing NSC chief of staff warns foreign states of 'dire consequences' for interference in midterms

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November 6, 2018

The U.S. government has prepared harsh responses to any nations or groups that seek to disrupt the midterm elections this week, according to a senior National Security Council official who recently left the White House.

Fred Fleitz, the chief of staff for the NSC until last week, also said the United States may not extend the New START arms treaty with Russia over concerns Moscow is not complying with the 2010 strategic arms accord.

On potential meddling by China and Russia in the midterm elections that end Tuesday night, Fleitz, a former CIA analyst, said the NSC held hours of meetings to discuss threats and responses.

"Our enemies have been trying to meddle in our elections for many years. It didn't just happen in 2016," Fleitz said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon.

"I know that there are very, very sound and serious policies to stop any meddling in the 2018 election, and to hold any parties that do that accountable," said Fleitz, who will soon take over as president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank.

Fleitz, as chief of staff and executive director of the NSC, had access to some of the nations most intimate secrets and also helped coordinate key national security policy. He took part in internal White House meetings on the threat posed by foreign targeting of the midterm elections.

Press reports, he said, about the administration's planning and policies were "extremely distorted" in failing to recognize the large amount of time senior officials devoted to "making sure this doesn't happen again."

"My hope is there won't be any meddling," he said. "But if there is, I think there are going to be dire consequences for the nations and parties that do that."

Asked whether U.S. government agencies are preparing to conduct counter cyber attacks against foreign states that seek to disrupt voting or vote tallying, Fleitz declined to elaborate.

"I can simply say it is a very substantial policy," he said. "Many, many hours were spent putting it together."

Under new authorities authorized by the president, the U.S. intelligence community and Pentagon are prepared to conduct counter-hacking attacks on Russia or China if election interference is detected. Doing so would be one of the first uses of American offensive cyber attack capabilities.

The Fort Meade-based Cyber Command and the National Security Agency are the government's two main cyber attack centers.

No details of plans for counter cyber attacks have been disclosed. They likely would involve conducting intrusions into bank accounts and information systems of foreign actors linked to election meddling operations. The goal could be to sabotage cyber attack infrastructures or funding sources.

An NSC spokeswoman did not comment on what plans are in place for countering foreign election meddling.

Trump administration security officials said in a briefing on election security last week that elections will be held in about 10,000 local districts nationwide.

"Every single one of those has a range of authorities and emergency plans that are in place already to be able to deal with a range of emergencies that happen," a senior National Security Council official said.

President Trump in September signed an executive order on election security that directs the imposition of sanctions against states caught engaging in election interference.

The Department of Homeland Security is monitoring election infrastructure while the FBI and CIA are conducting intelligence gathering related to foreign election interference.

The interference can range from influence operations, such as advertising and lobbying to affect voting, as well as the use of social media to sow division and planting stories in English language media. Seeding disinformation about political candidates and disseminating foreign propaganda are other foreign influence tools.

Separately, technical interference through cyber and other electronic means is also a concern.

That interference could include actions taken against the electoral systems and processes. Potential activities could target the infrastructure used to register voters, generate ballots, record votes, tally votes, and to certify votes that are then delivered to authorities. It could also include seeking to interfere with approval or disapproval of ballot measure or referendum.

"That has to be met with swift and severe action, which is why the president has put that executive order in place to make sure that we bring to bear all capabilities of the federal government to react, number one, warn off our foreign adversaries; and number two, react swiftly and strongly in the case that we do see that level of interference," the official said.

The administration has set up a special unit to monitor election processes from the White House. DHS, the FBI, and U.S. intelligence agencies will be monitoring the election Tuesday and for days after.

"The FBI is concerned about ongoing interference campaigns by Russia, China, and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies," a senior intelligence official told reporters last week.

"These activities also may influence voter perceptions and decision-making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections."

"Foreign interference in U.S. elections is a threat to our democracy, and, as such, identifying and preventing this interference is a top priority for the FBI and federal government," the official added.

Vice President Mike Pence last month outlined Chinese election interference as a covert and overt effort by Beijing to unseat the president.

Pence said China is engaged in an unprecedented bid to influence voters, such as those farm states hit by U.S. trade measures against China.

Beijing is targeting American public opinion, the 2018 election, and the environment leading up to the presidential election in 2020. China "wants a different American president," Pence said.

Based on the high profile Russian meddling in the 2016 election, security officials are monitoring Russian intelligence and influence activities closely for signs of any new and different tactics in Moscow's interference activities.

So far, no Russian technical operations have been detected targeting election infrastructure. Some efforts to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been spotted.

On arms control, Fleitz said the president will decide in the future whether or not to extend the 2010 New START arms treaty. The treaty expires in February 2021.

Fleitz suggested Russia has not complied with New START. The treaty limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads.

Russia is engaged in a significant strategic nuclear forces buildup that includes several new missiles, including some that may not be compliant under New START.

"There is going to have to be a serious evaluation of the New START treaty—whether it is in American interests [and] whether Russia is complying with that treaty and then we'll see if it will be extended," Fleitz said.

Fleitz praised Trump's announcement that the United States would jettison the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty based on Russian violations.

The INF Treaty was a good treaty for its day negotiated during the Cold War under President Ronald Reagan, he said.

"The problem is even the Obama administration had to acknowledge that the Russians were violating it but didn't do anything about it," Fleitz said.

"This is a priority for Ambassador Bolton that these treaties like this have to be fair and have to bind everyone, not just the United States."

Russia violated the treaty by developing a ground-launched cruise missile with INF range and has deployed significant numbers of the SSC-8 missile.

"Now with Russia cheating, and with significant missile programs, not just by China but by Iran and North Korea, this treaty just didn't make any sense," he said. "If there is going to be an INF treaty it has to be a global INF treaty and for me this was just a no brainer."

On other issues, Fleitz said Trump is taking on China's unfair trade practices and theft of American intellectual property in ways no previous president has done.

"For years the United States has tolerated huge trade imbalances with the Chinese, the theft of intellectual property," Fleitz said.

"The president has taken a different approach—he's just not going to go along with it. We haven't had a president prepared to confront the Chinese, maybe take on some short term economic pain to our country to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable."

Fleitz said he believes the pressure on Beijing is making a difference. "They see a president who is basically undeterred in his effort to press the Chinese for free and fair and balanced trade," he said.

China's leaders are "dragging their feet as much as they can" in giving in to Trump's demands, Fleitz said, and that is leading the president to increasing the pressure.

"I think that's the way it is going to keep going, that the pressure will continue until China's behavior changes," he said, noting that developing better trade ties is a significant priority for the president and his administration.

Fleitz said he is optimistic on negotiations with North Korea to denuclearize but that the process will be difficult.

"The North Koreans are balking and they're threatening they're going to pull out if they don't get what they want. That's just the way the North Koreans negotiate," he said.

Fleitz also voiced concerns about the so-called snap-back sanctions that went into effect on Monday.

"Iran is one reason the president chose John Bolton to be national security adviser because he had the Bolton plan to get out of the Iran deal," he said.

Bolton believes the Iran deal negotiated under President Barack Obama was a "fraudulent deal that couldn't be fixed."

The new strategy is to pursue a new deal by re-implementing sanctions that were lifted under Obama.

"This is good," Fleitz said. "What concerns me and what concerns some conservative experts is that there are exceptions to these sanctions. Some countries will be allowed to buy oil from Iran, supposedly temporarily. I'm a little worried about that."

Fleitz said if the president wants to maintain pressure on Iran "that means no exemptions."

Those officials in the administration who are part of what Fleitz termed the Washington "swamp" have argued that granting the exemptions to the sanctions will be temporary.

"Giving exemptions to these sanctions I don't think is consistent with the president's policy and it is my hope that these exemptions will be canceled very quickly," Fleitz said.

Fleitz said it was a privilege working for Trump, Bolton, and the NSC.

"I'm always astounded at how Ambassador Bolton absorbs huge amounts of intelligence every morning and feeds it back to the president throughout the day and in various meetings," he said.