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Deputy AG Jeffrey A. Rosen remarks on malign foreign influence in US elections

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFFREY A. ROSEN (The United States Department of Justice/Released)
August 31, 2020

This article was originally published by the Department of Justice.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for hosting me today.  What I want to talk about is malign foreign influence in U.S. elections.  Now this might surprise some people, but 2020 happens to be a federal election year.  So I want to start with some good news, which is that our election infrastructure — things like our polling places and printed ballots — have been well-protected and that protection has improved over the last three years.  With regard to the most recent 2018 midterm elections,  DHS and DOJ jointly found no evidence that foreign actors had “any material impact on the integrity or security of election infrastructure or political/campaign infrastructure used in the 2018 midterm elections for the United States Congress.”  Likewise, as the Senate Committee on Intelligence has reported, there is no evidence that any vote totals were altered or changed by any foreign actors in the 2016 Presidential election.

But interference with infrastructure is not our only concern.  We are also concerned about another threat, known as malign foreign influence.  The key word is “influence.”  Much of the time that is disguised propaganda.  Other times, it is using pressure tactics on influential people.  It can also take the form of hacking and disclosing private emails or phone messages.  It comes in many different forms, all designed to influence how Americans think about issues and cast their votes.  There are good lists of these on the FBI and ODNI websites.

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We cannot escape the reality that the opportunities for malign foreign influence in our elections are far-flung, so it remains a challenge for Americans as voters.  That didn’t end in 2016.  But it didn’t begin in 2016, either.  Malign foreign influence efforts have been a longstanding concern in American elections, and that historical context can teach us some lessons.  I’d like to use these remarks first to discuss some of this historical context, then to offer a few comparisons with what we’ve seen more recently, and finally to share a little advice we can borrow from our predecessors.

I think it helps to clarify a few definitions to describe what we mean by “malign foreign influence,” as opposed to what we might consider legitimate diplomacy or candid expressions of legitimate national interests that all nations share with each other.  One definition that’s easiest to remember is the 3 C’s framework: coercive, covert, or corrupt activities by foreign governments to influence U.S. policies, political sentiment, or public discourse, or to interfere in our political processes themselves.  Under this framework, we recognize that foreign governments often have preferences about U.S. policies or the outcomes of our elections.  Sometimes those preferences are expressed openly.  Our government sometimes has open preferences about other countries, too.  When those preferences are open and attributable, no one is deceived or misled.

But we are concerned when those preferences manifest themselves through malign foreign influence activities that are coercive, covert, or corrupt, whether the aim is specifically to influence our elections, or to influence policymaking and public discourse more broadly.

          Historical Context

  1. Coercive Activities

One thing that has not been much noted in recent years is that malign foreign influence in our elections has been a concern since the Founding of our Republic.  Using the 3C’s framework, I want to start with coercive activities.

Going all the way back in 1787, when the Founders were debating the merits of “our new Constitution,” Thomas Jefferson told John Adams that he was “apprehensive of foreign interference, intrigue, influence.”  Adams too worried that “as often as elections happen, the danger of foreign influence recurs.”  Nine years later, the two squared off in the first contested presidential election in American history.

The election of 1796 occurred while Britain and revolutionary France were locked in war.  Adams favored the Washington Administration’s pro-British trade policy, while Jefferson favored the French Republic.  A few months before the election, in his famous farewell address, President George Washington issued a stern public warning: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake ….”

Nonetheless, France tried to exert its influence.  The French minister to the United States, Pierre-Auguste Adet, told his superiors that he could “get out the vote for a man devoted to France.”  He suggested that France should “adopt measures that will cause the merchants to fear for their property, and to make them see the need to place at the head of the government a man whose known character would inspire confidence in the [French] Republic.”  On the eve of the election, Adet sent the U.S. Secretary of State a series of letters effectively threatening that France would begin to seize American merchant ships and trigger war unless Jefferson were elected.  Adet had them published in the Philadelphia Aurora, one of the most widely circulated and partisan newspapers of the era.

The public threats, however, backfired.  Adams “suspect[ed] they will have a contrary effect, from what he intended.”  He was right; Jefferson’s confidante James Madison soon reported that Adet’s action was an “electioneering maneuver” that could risk “a perpetual alienation” of the United States and France.  Jefferson’s supporters disowned “this interference” in the election, while Adams’ supporters resented it as an attempt to coerce the voters, “and their exertions against the candidate Mr. Adet was understood to favor were the more determined and the more vigorous.”  Jefferson ultimately lost by three electoral votes.

Adams did not forget the risk that France’s attempted coercion posed.  In his inaugural address, he implored the American people never to “lose sight of the danger” that foreign influence, whether “by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality,” presents to our “free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections.”  The next year, Jefferson, too, objected to France’s continuing coercive efforts to stir up American partisanship, telling Madison that the efforts were “very unworthy of a great nation.”  He felt that they contributed to a mistaken presumption that Jefferson’s supporters’ “first passion” was “an attachment to France, and hatred to” Adams’s party, rather than what American voters’ passion really was: “the love of their country.”

  1. Covert or Deceptive Activities

Since the twentieth century, as the United States evolved into a superpower, malign foreign influence has been less about coercion and more about deceptive or covert efforts, meaning that the foreign government has tried to disguise or conceal its role.  In the 1930s, Nazi Germany directed an extensive underground effort to influence U.S. public opinion.  One German agent, for example, entered the United States claiming to be a clergyman and used Nazi funds to take over small, established newspapers and civic organizations until he was indicted for failing to register as a foreign agent and fled the country as a fugitive.  Congress responded to these and similar activities by enacting the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938, which requires disclosure of foreign influence activities.  The Justice Department successfully prosecuted some of Germany’s “most useful American agents” who tried to hide their activities.

Germany also targeted U.S. elections, including the 1940 election, which occurred while World War II raged in Europe.  Nazi leaders viewed President Franklin Roosevelt as pro-British and interventionist,  so they employed several “schemes for influencing the outcome of our 1940 Presidential election, as well as the platforms of both major political parties.”

One scheme entailed forging documents and fabricating stories that they hoped would capture the American public’s attention.  In March 1940, the Nazis released diplomatic documents they had supposedly recovered from the Polish Foreign Office’s archives when they captured Warsaw.  The documents purportedly showed that the Roosevelt Administration had promised aid to Poland before the war and assured Poland that the United States would “finish” any war on the Allies’ side.  Germany’s top diplomat in the United States, Hans Thomsen, called the documents a “bombshell,” and two members of Congress demanded a congressional investigation.  But most members of Congress and even the American press were more circumspect; they largely followed the advice that President Roosevelt gave when the story broke “to take all European propaganda at this time with a grain of salt,” which he immediately amended “to stretch it to two and then three grains.”  In the days before the 1940 election, Germany tried to plant another fabricated story claiming evidence that Roosevelt had long been planning to intervene in Europe even before 1939, but no mainstream newspaper would take the bait.

After World War II, the Cold War produced a whole new set of challenges from malign foreign influence.  The Soviet Union employed covert or deceptive tactics as part of its so-called “active measures,” a phrase it used to describe malign influence activities like disseminating forgeries, disinformation, and propaganda and sponsoring front publications to undermine American interests.  Most active measures were directed abroad, such as when, just a few weeks before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the KGB mailed athletes from Africa forged letters supposedly from the Ku Klux Klan with threats against them, or when the Soviets published stories in dozens of Soviet-controlled publications around the world claiming that the AIDS epidemic was started by U.S. military experiments.  But the Soviets also used active measures to undermine public confidence or influence public opinion in the United States, including covertly forging documents and funding conspiracy-mongering books that supposedly tied the FBI and CIA to President Kennedy’s assassination or tied FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the Ku Klux Klan.

The Soviet Union also targeted U.S. elections.  For example, during the 1976 Democratic primary, the KGB adopted a wide-ranging set of active measures to disparage Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a known anti-Soviet hawk, by instructing their agents to use confidential contacts to find “dark spots” in Jackson’s background.  When they did not turn up much, the Soviets sent a forged FBI memorandum dated June 20, 1940 to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign purportedly concluding that Jackson was secretly gay.  Neither the journalists nor the Carter campaign published the phony document.

After the 1980 election, Soviet leaders soon grew to loathe and fear President Reagan’s administration, according to an ex-KGB defector, and they ordered the KGB to weaken his 1984 reelection bid.  Intending to discredit President Reagan by portraying him as a McCarthyite, Soviet agents covertly sent American journalists a forged letter, dated October 15, 1947, supposedly from J. Edgar Hoover, that purportedly showed Reagan colluding with the FBI to root out Communists in Hollywood.  The FBI publicly denounced the document when it surfaced in January 1984, explaining that it contained stylistic touches that Hoover would not have tolerated and violated rules for FBI correspondence.   Soviet agents also covertly tried to develop contacts at the Republican and Democratic national party committees to find ways to subvert President Reagan’s campaign.  In addition, they developed a package of narratives to disseminate about President Reagan, trying to portray him as a corrupt warmonger who was subservient to the military-industrial complex and responsible for tensions with NATO allies.  But all of the Soviets’ efforts failed, and President Reagan was re-elected.

  1. Corrupt Activities

So let me turn to the third “C” of malign foreign influence: corrupt measures to influence elections.  One attempt was apparently made in 1968, when, according to, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin,  “the top Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations,” and ordered him to offer Vice President and Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey’s campaign secret financial aid. But when Dobrynin asked Humphrey about his campaign’s financial state, Humphrey replied that it “was more than enough for him to have Moscow’s good wishes,” and Dobrynin did not formally convey the offer.  Six years later, Congress made it illegal for foreign nationals to make campaign contributions.

By the mid-1990’s, that again became important when the People’s Republic of China (PRC), “undertook a covert program to influence the U.S. political process through political donations, and other means, during the 1996 election cycle.”  Over Beijing’s strenuous objection, Taiwan’s President was granted a visa in 1995 to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University, after Congress passed resolutions supporting the trip.  The PRC then implemented a plan to influence the U.S. political process to be more favorable toward pro-Beijing policies by making campaign donations through middlemen who could provide access to, and seek to influence, candidates and elected officials at all levels of government.  The Justice Department prosecuted a number of the middlemen who were involved, and a 1999 Congressional report identified the PRC conduct as “a serious threat to our national security.”

And with regard to the 2016 election,  just last week some declassified FBI documents were released by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which indicate that the Clinton campaign was warned about efforts of a foreign government to influence her through campaign contributions that “may come in a form outside established parameters for such contributions.”  The threat of corrupt malign influence activities requires continued vigilance.

          Comparisons with Current Media and Technologies

So malign foreign influence efforts in our elections has been a perennial problem.  But though the general threat isn’t novel, some of the challenges we’re facing now are different.  As President Trump put it in Executive Order 13848: “In recent years, the proliferation of digital devices and internet-based communications has created significant vulnerabilities and magnified the scope and intensity…”

Historically, malign influence operations were often limited by their reliance on third parties, such as mainstream news outlets or popular magazines, to reach sizeable segments of the American public.  For much of our history, the media were cautious about being used in this way.  For example, many American journalists wrote exposés about Nazi propaganda in the United States and, at least by 1940, the press was largely “immune” to it.  Decades later, the FBI told Congress in 1986 that “[t]he American media is sophisticated, and generally recognizes Soviet influence attempts.”  But today, the media environment is considerably different, and the internet and social media also allow foreign actors to reach unprecedented numbers of Americans covertly, inexpensively, and directly, without ever setting foot on U.S. soil.  We are all now familiar with the findings that, in the 2016 election cycle, the Russian Internet Research Agency “spent a total of about $100,000 over two years on advertisements” on Facebook to promote social discord and division, and similarly placed disguised posts and tweets on several social media platforms.

While the tools of malign influence have proliferated, foreign governments such as Russia and China have also become more sophisticated and more bold.  Back in 1986, the FBI told Congress that Soviet active measures had relatively little success in the United States because they were “often transparent and sometimes clumsily implemented.”  Forged government documents, for instance, could be exposed.  But the arsenal of modern malign influence — like impersonating Americans on social media platforms, or manipulating digital content through “deep fakes” — can be more difficult to detect and counter.

As to boldness, as the FBI Director has recently pointed out, the PRC has been “engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign,” using bribery, blackmail, and other malign tactics to influence our year-round policymaking, which certainly has implications for our elections.  Beijing’s corrupt methods are not always as blatant as its illegal campaign financing was in 1996; PRC tactics are more subtly pernicious and complex.  Beijing, for example, works relentlessly to co-opt seemingly independent middlemen who can influence members of Congress on a host of policies.

What is being done about all these malign foreign influence efforts?  Rest assured, as this old problem takes on new looks, the Department of Justice has been responding to these challenges with our own tools.  I’ll mention five of them.

First, the FBI has established a Foreign Influence Task Force that brings together cross-disciplinary and cross-regional expertise, encompassing counterintelligence, cyber, criminal, and even counterterrorism agents and analysts who investigate and counter malign influence by China, Russia, Iran, and other foreign actors.

Second, the Department of Justice has been assisting social media companies, campaigns, and election officials in hardening their platforms, networks, and infrastructure against these threats, and has been providing them with defensive counterintelligence briefings and  steps they can undertake to reduce their vulnerabilities.

Third, the Department of Justice has strengthened compliance efforts for the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, in order to identify and expose malign foreign influence.  FARA helps to ensure transparency by requiring persons who engage in certain foreign influence-related activities to register with the department and publicly disclose those activities.  It doesn’t prohibit any speech, but instead enhances the public’s and the government’s ability to evaluate foreign influence-related speech by ensuring that the source is clear.

Fourth, where malign foreign influence operations violate our federal laws, as with hacking of email systems to make their contents public, these department of Justice has brought criminal charges.  The department remains prepared to bring criminal charges where they are warranted.

Fifth, the department has supported the Administration’s broader efforts to counter malign foreign influence.  For example, the Administration has imposed financial sanctions for Russian efforts to sow discord in connection with the 2016 election, and imposed further sanctions in the last twelve months for Russia’s additional influence operations since then.  In short, the Justice Department and our colleagues in government have been adapting to foreign actors’ malign activities—and actively combatting and defending against them.

The 2020 Landscape

At this point, I want to touch briefly on the current threat landscape as we head toward Election Day.  The department of Justice, DHS, and other federal agencies, have engaged in an unprecedented level of coordination with and support to all 50 states and numerous local officials to ensure that their election infrastructure is secure.  We have yet to see any activity intended to prevent voting or to change votes, and we continue to think that it would be extraordinarily difficult for foreign adversaries to change vote tallies.

We do, however, continue to see malign foreign influence efforts relevant to the 2020 presidential election.  Some foreign actors are covertly trying to undermine confidence in our elections because they are authoritarian governments opposed to representative democracy.  As the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) recently made public on August 7, some foreign governments have preferences about our election — and have taken or planned malign activities in support of their preferences — including efforts by China and Iran to undermine President Trump and his Administration’s policies and efforts by Russia to undermine former Vice President Biden.  The Intelligence Community, including the FBI, have briefed Congress, as well as both presidential campaigns, about these threats.  ODNI also has also taken unprecedented steps to educate the public about these threats to “better inform Americans so they can play a critical role in safeguarding our election.”

We are working to counter all of these influence activities.  But it is important to remember that there are times when drawing attention to the threats can be precisely what the bad actors want, to generate concern and distrust, division and discord.  And as Americans, we need to avoid the temptation to seek political advantage from the revelation of influence activities that were meant to divide us.

Instead, the right response is for our electorate to be knowledgeable and careful about the sources of information they rely on, to look for accurate information, to inform themselves about the candidates, and to cast their ballots accordingly.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves.”  So let me offer some final thoughts about what the historical records tells us that Americans can do to protect ourselves from the malign influence efforts of foreign governments, in addition to the strong measures being taken by the Justice Department and other government agencies.       

Advice from Our Predecessors

First, we just need to be aware that malign foreign influence efforts have always existed and they still do.  It’s one of the warnings that President George Washington shared when he counseled Americans that “against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.”

Second, this means we should not take information from foreign governments or questionable sources at face value.  Information from countries or regions that have a history of propaganda, should be taken with “a grain of salt,” if not “two and then three grains,” as President Franklin Roosevelt said.  We’ve been warning the public that “some foreign governments” have a track record of spreading fabricated stories, disinformation, and propaganda to try to shape voter perceptions, and the Intelligence Community continues to share information about what those governments are doing in 2020.  All Americans can control what information they rely on and can exercise care by evaluating that information with a critical eye.

Finally, while we must remain vigilant, Americans should not be deterred from participating in elections by concerns of malign foreign influence efforts.  All Americans, in the end, can control who they vote for. Foreign propaganda and other influence activities have been concerns since the founding of our Republic, but they are challenges that we’ve been successfully navigating for more than two hundred years.  The measures I’ve outlined today can help us to do so once again this year.