Across the country, people are increasingly anxious about election meddling. On July 13, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, announced that special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted 12 members of Russia’s military-intelligence agency for their roles in the alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee. While indictments are not evidence, it’s clear that the United States has much work to do in order to make its election system free, fair, and secure.
Addressing the issue of cyber interference would be a good place to start. In both 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration rejected Russian and Chinese-led efforts to forge a cyber-security treaty that would have, among other things, prohibited states from using “information and communications technologies, including networks, to carry out hostile activities or acts of aggression, pose threats to international peace and security or proliferate information weapons or related technologies.”
But to fortify our elections at home, we must consider how our own government’s interference in the domestic affairs of other nations has contributed to the problem.
Nearly alone among his colleagues in the House, California Democrat Ro Khanna is willing to engage with these underlying issues. He recently, albeit unsuccessfully, introduced an amendment to this year’s Intelligence Authorization Act that would prohibit funds appropriated by the act to be used “to interfere in a democratic election of a foreign country, including by engaging in the hacking of foreign political parties; engaging in the hacking or manipulation of foreign electoral systems; or sponsoring or promoting media outside the United States that favors one candidate or party over another.”
I recently spoke with Congressman Khanna about his proposed legislation and what he hoped it might achieve.
James Carden: The topic of election meddling has been on many minds for the past two years and no more so than after President Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. What prompted you to introduce this amendment? How do you think it might work to address the issue of foreign interference?
Rep. Ro Khanna: The amendment—which I offered to make to this year’s, as well as last year’s, Intelligence Authorization bill—is a clear statement against election meddling. Of course, we are deeply offended that Russia interfered in our election, and we should make it clear to the Russians that we will not tolerate it in the future. There will be consequences if they try something like that again.
At the same time, we should proactively take a position to not do the same to other countries. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, even if we are victims of Russia’s harmful action. We should treat other countries the way we want to be treated. By taking this bold stand, we would send a message to the world that this is the gold standard, and America does not interfere in other countries’ elections. Adopting this policy would also make our outrage of Russian interference more credible, because we could not be called hypocrites.
JC: Little noted is the fact that the US has a rather long and checkered history of interfering in the affairs of other countries. Also missing has been any mention of the fact that the US rejected a Russian-proposed cyber treaty during the Obama administration. What do you think accounts for the general myopia when it comes to this issue? It would seem prudent to pursue some kind of multilateral cyber treaty in light of recent events, would it not?
RK: First off, the US should begin diplomatic talks with Russia to prevent a new arms race. It is in both our nations’ national interest to avoid an arms race that will drain resources and decrease security. This is not a fringe idea. In March of 2018, US Senators Dianne Feinstein, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Ed Markey sent a letter to then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling for a new Strategic Dialogue with Russia.
With regards to a cyber treaty—in, say, exchange for a commitment to end NATO expansion—an effort should be made to negotiate an agreement to end the intervention in our internal affairs and in those of our allies, including cyber warfare. Russia has engaged in major cyberattacks against the US and its neighboring countries beyond its attempt to influence our elections. The Russians are not alone, however. After it was alleged that President Putin instructed a cyber campaign to sow chaos and undermine the credibility of our democracy, President Barack Obama authorized that cyber weapons be planted within Russia’s infrastructure. This escalation of meddling in the internal affairs of our country, including through cyber warfare, is concerning and calls for an agreed framework regarding these matters. A set of norms and standards must be negotiated as these cyber technologies advance and meddling campaigns become increasingly easy to conduct.
JC: It seems that, by this legislation, you—perhaps among only a handful of House members—are now willing to speak out about how US actions abroad are not uniformly benign. Do you suppose that America’s posture abroad makes us a target for countries like Russia which want to check US influence in its backyard?
RK: America has been a force for much good in the world. But we should learn from the mistakes of an over-expansionist foreign policy and return to the restraint that George Washington and John Quincy Adams advocated. We should seriously consider the impact that NATO expansion has on Russia and not push for continued expansion. We should also lead in reducing tensions and standing for less intervention.
We have tried to change regimes through a variety of means—over 80 times, by some estimates. Many of these efforts were counterproductive to US interests. The coup against [Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh in 1953 is at the root of our poor relations with Iran today, for example. But it’s not just in the Middle East. In Latin America, we overthrew an elected leader in Guatemala back in the 1950s and plotted assassinations of communist governments all around the world during the Cold War. We need to set a better standard for the 21st century. We must make it clear that we won’t interfere in other countries’ elections and work to make that the clear international norm.
JC: What’s the status of the amendment now? Have any other House members expressed interest in supporting your legislation?
RK: I have plans to turn the amendment into a bill in order to continue leading on this issue. Right now we are still working on crafting the bill and will be seeking support from members of both the Progressive Caucus and Freedom Caucus, who believe we should not be tipping the scales in an interventionist and reckless foreign policy.
JC: Congressman, thank you for your time.