There was an appropriately great deal of outrage surrounding the “Russian hacking” of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but that was by no means the first time a government has tampered with a foreign country’s change of power. As former CIA operative Amaryllis Fox explains, there is large historical database compiled by Dov Levin at Carnegie Mellon University which contains covert and overt cases of direct election meddling between 1946 and 2000—a dataset that does not even include coups and other attempts at regime changes. What may or may not (at all) be surprising to most people is that 11% of all global elections in that time frame had interference from the U.S. and Russia, and in 70% of those instances it was the U.S. pulling the strings—for example, the 2000 Serbian election, in which the U.S. funded and supported the opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica against human-rights violator Slobodan Milošević. There is a tense point at which legality and ethics clash, and Fox states that in some cases it may actually be irresponsible for a world power not to intervene in an election. Of course, everyone believes their cause is worthy, so which interferences are seen as “noble” as opposed to criminal can be subjective. What is much more certain is that technology is changing nations’ ability to tamper with elections significantly. Fox explains a few key methods—from information warfare to AI developments—and will leave positions of power more vulnerable to outside influence in the future. She holds onto the idea of integrity however, and hopes that notion is not completely of a bygone era.
Amaryllis Fox: So the current conversation around Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election, I think, is a quickly unfolding one and there’s a lot of information that has yet to come to light. But broadly speaking it’s not unusual for Russia in particular and larger geopolitical powers in general to try to influence the outcome of elections that are going to have ramifications for them on the world stage.
The United States certainly continues to do this and has done this in the past. You know, Carnegie Mellon did a really valuable study of elections from 1946 through to current day and found that 11 percent of elections conducted around the world in every country for that entire period of time had influence from either Russia or the United States—and 70 percent of those instances of influence were the United States, rather than Russia.
This is something that, actually when you think about it, seems almost irresponsible not to do, to a certain extent. So if the United States has a perspective around which country is going to sponsor attacks here in American territory and which candidate in a given government will not, clearly the United States is going to have a perspective there.
A recent example of this, in the context of the U.S., would be leadership in post-conflict Iraq. Obviously there has been a lot of interest from Iran and Shiite forces within the Middle East in influence now that the government in Baghdad is more up for grabs, post-Saddam era.
And the United States has a perspective around how much Shiite influence Washington would like to see in Baghdad. That’s one example. Every election in every major strategic territory around the world, the United States, Russia, and most other world powers have a perspective around which candidate they would like to see win and which they wouldn’t. Now the extent to which a government is willing to push that perspective on the electorate of that country is a matter of law.
And there are lines that, when a foreign power steps over them, they’re in breach of international law. There are certainly instances of every major world power, including our own, having overstepped those lines in the last century, less so in recent years. The United States has moved away from that habit over the last few decades. Russia has returned to it with great gusto, particularly in the form of information warfare—what we’ve come to know as fake news—and we’re just seeing the very, very beginning tip of the iceberg there. We are already seeing artificial intelligence in computer programs that are able to take—based on a small bank of words and a few images—any world leader and have them convincingly say on video whatever the program would like them to say. These bots are just in their infancy, and the notion of “to see is to believe” and video clips being compelling evidence of truth, is something that is unfortunately of a bygone era. And Russia is extremely advanced in that technology. So this is early days and I think rather than expect any world power and Russia in particular to back off on these kinds of attempts we need to expect our own leaders to have the integrity to do what’s right even when no one’s watching.
When I trained in service for the U.S. government the inside of our manual said, “Integrity is doing what’s right when nobody is watching.” And the temptation to yield to influence in exchange for power is built into representative democracy. And, by the way, it’s not just foreign powers like Russia and Moscow. It’s our own special interests in this country which can yield influence that can be just as damaging. And so this is not an issue that’s going to go away for us. I don’t think we’re going to be able to beef up our cybersecurity over the next couple of years and bid this threat farewell. And so while we will continue to be vigilant against it in every way that we can, I think we also need to rely on ourselves and our leadership to fend off that temptation if it does make it through the barricades and present itself in the room when nobody’s watching.