There is a long history of hostile foreign governments seeking to influence U.S. democratic institutions. With rapidly developing technologies and the increasing use of and access to the internet and social media, these foreign actors have become further empowered in these activities.
The United States Department of Justice plays an important role in defending the U.S. from malicious foreign influence operations, such as attempts to influence elections.
What are malign foreign influence operations?
Foreign influence operations aim to maliciously influence another society, creating division and disharmony amongst its people, undermining confidence in the government and political institutions. These operations pose a threat to national security, and can violate federal criminal law.
Recent examples of malicious foreign influence operations include the creation of fake U.S. personas on internet sites and social media to attract U.S. audiences, spreading ‘fake news’ and divisive messages. These operations were associated with the 2016 United States presidential elections.
How does the U.S. counter malign foreign influence operations?
The Department of Justice is a federal executive department of the U.S. government, responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice in the United States. The department plays an important role in identifying and combating malign foreign influence operations.
The FBI operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, and is in charge of investigative work relating to a number of matters including espionage, sabotage and subversive activities. In November 2017, the FBI formed the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF), which serves as the central coordinating authority within the FBI for investigations concerning foreign influence operations.
The Department of Justice works closely with the FBI and other members of the Intelligence Community (IC) to identify, analyse and disrupt the most significant threats from foreign influence operations.
The Department’s investigations may:
- Reveal criminal charges – in which case it works with international partners to obtain custody of foreign defendants whenever possible.
- Support other U.S. government agencies’ actions, such as financial sanctions or diplomatic and intelligence efforts.
- Produce information about threats and vulnerabilities that can be shared with State and local election officials, political organisations, and other potential victims.
- Help protect the public by exposing the nature of the foreign influence threat.
How are specific types of foreign influence operations countered?
Cyber operations targeting election infrastructure
The targeting of election-associated infrastructure, such as voter registration databases or the power grid, could manipulate the results of an election and undermine the integrity and legitimacy of elections, as well as public confidence in election results.
The FBI is responsible for investigating foreign adversaries’ efforts to target election infrastructure. In the event of a known or suspected cyber incident, the FBI will investigate the intrusion and will alert targets of the intrusion where appropriate.
Cyber operations targeting political organisations, campaigns, and public officials
These operations seek to compromise the integrity of targeted groups or individuals, e.g. stealing and using personal information to discredit an election candidate.
The FBI investigates these attacks, working closely with other IC agencies to collect foreign intelligence. Federal prosecutors may then charge the perpetrators, as appropriate. The FBI also alerts victims where possible and helps them respond to intrusions, often working closely with Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Covert political influence operations
Such operations may involve:
- Covert offers of financial, logistical, or other campaign support to unwitting politicians, party leaders, campaign officials, or the public.
- Discouraging citizens from voting in elections or influencing voting behaviour through the use of social media “bots”.
- Stealing and leaking sensitive information at controlled times to maximize political damage.
The FBI counters these activities by proactively investigating unregistered foreign agents in the United States, alerting the U.S. targets where appropriate, and raising public awareness of foreign influence methods and effective countermeasures.
Covert public influence operations
Using false U.S. personas, adversaries create and operate social media pages and other forums designed to attract U.S. audiences and spread ‘fake news’ or divisive messages. The aim could be to advance foreign political objectives, undermine confidence in election results or simply to turn citizens against each other.
These types of actions by foreign governments may violate a number of federal laws on which the Department may base criminal investigations and prosecutions.
For example, the FBI and IC partners may be able to identify and track foreign agents as they establish their infrastructure and mature their online presence, in which case authorities can work with social media companies to disrupt those agents’ activities, including through removal of accounts that violate a company’s terms of service.
Overt influence efforts
Foreign governments may utilise media outlets or lobbyists to reach U.S. policymakers or the public, spreading divisive narratives and political positions helpful to foreign objectives.
These activities may not be illegal, as long as the relevant foreign government complies with applicable U.S. laws such as those requiring public disclosure. The Department of Justice contributes towards increasing public understanding of foreign influence operations, which can be an important means of countering the threat and decreasing the effectiveness of those operations.