An election official holds “I Voted” stickers at a polling location during the primary election in Lebanon Church, Virginia, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

U.S. Says It Will Alert Public to Foreign Influence Operations

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Justice Department is considering ways to alert the public to foreign efforts to influence Americans and U.S. elections as the threat from adversaries such as Russia “continues to grow," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said.

"Influence operations are a form of information warfare," Rosenstein said during a speech Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "Covert propaganda and disinformation are among the primary weapons."

Rosenstein’s comments came as the Justice Department released a 156-page report describing the department’s plans to respond to cybersecurity threats and, in particular, malign foreign influence operations. The report includes a new policy that the department will follow when deciding whether to make evidence public -- and how much to make public.

"It may not be possible or prudent to disclose foreign influence operations in certain contexts because of investigative or operational considerations, or other constraints," the report said. "In some circumstances, however, public exposure and attribution of foreign influence operations can be an important means of countering the threat and rendering those operations less effective."

Elections provide “an attractive opportunity for foreign influence campaigns to influence our political processes," Rosenstein said. The deputy attorney general cited comments by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said last week that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

Malicious Influence Operations

The report of the Justice Department’s Cyber Digital Task Force identifies five categories of malicious influence operations, many of which appeared to address point-by-point findings by the American intelligence community about Russian activities during the 2016 election.

The categories cited in the report include hacking attacks on election infrastructure; covert and overt operations to harm or assist political organizations; and activities to manipulate public opinion or sow divisions.

Rosenstein, who last week announced the indictment of 12 Russians for election hacking just days before President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki, cited Russian election meddling in 2016 as part of a long history of activities directed by Moscow.

“Russian intelligence officers did not stumble onto the ideas of hacking American computers and posting misleading messages because they had a free afternoon,” Rosenstein said. “It is what they do every day.”

The threat is increasing, he added, and getting more sophisticated.

"The internet and social media platforms allow foreign agents to spread misleading political
messages while masquerading as Americans," he said, adding that there is also a threat from government-controlled media outlets and paid lobbyists.

"People should be aware when lobbyists or media outlets are working for a foreign government so they can evaluate the source’s credibility,” the deputy attorney general said. "When respected figures offer opinions" on public policy issues "it may matter to know that they are taking guidance from a foreign nation."

Rosenstein, who oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, received a standing ovation when he came to the podium. He didn’t take questions from the audience afterward.

Beyond hacking and attacks on elections, the report also says the Justice Department should consider “whether legislation to address encryption (and all related service provider access) challenges should be pursued.” That appears to be a reference to law enforcement efforts to get companies including Apple Inc. to provide access to locked mobile phones.

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