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CERL gathers national security experts to discuss threat of foreign interference in American politics

November 05, 2018

On November 2, a panel of national security experts convened for Penn Law’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) Public Keynote to discuss the upcoming midterm elections and the threat of foreign influence in American politics.

The event, titled “Foreign Interference in the Democratic Process: Countdown to the Midterms,” took place at the National Constitution Center in downtown Philadelphia, and was co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at Wharton, and Penn’s Office of Information Security (OIS).

Penn Law’s Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Director of CERL Claire Finkelstein opened the keynote, which was moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin. The panel consisted of Raymond Baker, President of Global Financial Integrity and internationally renowned authority on dark money; Mitchell Orenstein, Department Chair of Russian and Eastern European Studies and Professor of Political Science at the Penn; Shawn Turner, Director of Communication for Center for a New American Security (CNAS); and Clint Watts, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

“With the most watched midterm elections just four days away, there is a collective sense that the future of the country in one way or the other hangs in the balance,” said Finkelstein in her opening statement. “Events surrounding the 2016 presidential election have shaken the confidence Americans have in the integrity of their electoral systems.”

The panel examined several important aspects of national security and American democracy, such as the extent to which the midterms would be a free and fair representation of the will of the American people and the ways in which Russia has the ability to interfere in American politics.

According to Orenstein, foreign entities have already inferred greatly with past elections, with actions such as spying on United States officials, utilizing agents of influence, funding extremist political parties, spreading propaganda, and conducting cyber-attacks on American digital infrastructure. This has led to great political polarization, which weakens the US by making it easier to control when divided.

“This is part of a much broader campaign that is intended to influence, intimidate, and defy the west, by splitting the US from its allies and ruining the reputation of the US in international affairs,” Orenstein said. “We are all very intensely divided, certainly more divided than any time that I remember in my life maybe back to the Vietnam War.”

Watts said that the biggest threat to United States elections this week is other Americans. He argued that although some false narratives, such as the conspiracy theories about George Soros, were started overseas, a large number of American politicians, pundits, and troll farms sow discord by voluntarily spreading and making up information.

“Russia doesn’t need to make disinformation because our politicians just make up stuff up non-stop and distribute it,” Watts said. “In the last two years, everyone has adopted the playbook of just tell people whatever they want to hear, pump them full of nonsense and win.”

Turner, a regular contributing on-air national security analyst with CNN, emphasized the importance of understanding the difference between election interferences and attacks, especially when considering the appropriate method of response for the United States. He identified attacks as efforts in the cyberspace that actually do damage, destroy infrastructure, or lead to a loss of life, while interference refers to efforts to block election infrastructure or social media campaigns that spread misinformation.

“As someone who’s spent 21 years in the Marine Corps, I just think that the one thing you don’t do is go into military conflict lightly,” Turner said. “When we talk about attacks on our democracy, I think that we have to take a step back and ask ourselves what we can do short of military intervention.”

Lastly, Baker touched upon the issue of stopping foreign interference in American politics at its root by addressing the ways in which dark money threatens national security. He used the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as an example of governance that failed, citing the DEA’s focus on eradicating the product rather than turning its attention on the money that funds it. On the other hand, Baker believed that the U.S. government’s response to terrorist financing was a more exemplary method of dealing with national security.

“We pushed terrorists out of the legitimate financial system,” Baker said. “Terrorists are now reduced to extortion, kidnapping, and drugs and diamonds. My point is to go after the money. [Right now] we don’t have adequate arrangements to curtail the dark money that goes into elections.”