Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified Wednesday before the U.S. House Judiciary and Intelligence committees about the investigation he led into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He mostly reiterated the findings in his 448-page report, which was released in April. A lifelong Republican, Mueller became FBI director under President George W. Bush three days after the 9/11 attacks on our country. His nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference yielded seven guilty pleas and charges against 37 individuals and entities. Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, and Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager, were convicted and sentenced to prison.
We’re not going to address the political impact of Mueller’s testimony here. Or the optics. Or Mueller’s delivery of the facts of his investigation.
That is discussed elsewhere in today’s Perspective section from both the left and right sides of political thought.
Instead, we’d like to emphasize two essential facts, both offered by Mueller in his opening statement Wednesday morning to the House Judiciary Committee.
The “Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” he said.
And then this: “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. ... This deserves the attention of every American.”
It does indeed.
Every American — no matter his or her political affiliation — should heed this stunning fact: A foreign adversary attacked our election, the sacred means by which we participate in our democracy.
And, as Mueller stated plainly, “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign.”
And they’ll likely be joined in those malign efforts by “many more countries,” he noted.
We must not let them succeed.
We were deeply disappointed last week when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked legislation that sought to bolster election security.
The risks of failing to act were laid out in a bipartisan report released last week by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
— “Russian efforts exploited the seams between federal authorities and capabilities, and protections for the states.” The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI “alerted states to the threat of cyber attacks in the late summer and fall of 2016, but the warnings did not provide enough information or go to the right people.”
— “Aging voting equipment, particularly voting machines that had no paper record of votes, were vulnerable to exploitation by a committed adversary. Despite the focus on this issue since 2016, some of these vulnerabilities remain.”
— The Russians probed a “whole bunch of different state election infrastructure, voter registration databases and other related infrastructure on a regular basis,” Michael Daniel, President Barack Obama’s White House cybersecurity coordinator, told the committee.
— Samuel Liles, acting director of the DHS cyber division, described the Russians’ activity as “simple scanning for vulnerabilities, analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home. A small number of systems were unsuccessfully exploited, as though somebody had rattled the doorknob but was unable to get in. ... (However) a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door.”
— Several weeks before the 2018 midterm election, DHS assessed that “numerous actors are regularly targeting election infrastructure, likely for different purposes, including to cause disruptive effects, steal sensitive data, and undermine confidence in the election.”
— Daniel, the former cybersecurity coordinator, said that by August 2016, he had concluded that the Russians had attempted to intrude in all 50 states, based on the extent of the activity and the apparent randomness of the attempts. “My professional judgment was we have to work under the assumption that they’ve tried to go everywhere, because they’re thorough, they’re competent, they’re good.”
And so we must be better.
It’s no small comfort that most Lancaster County voters cast verifiable paper ballots in 2016 and 2018. The county’s new voting equipment should further strengthen the integrity of our vote, though county officials and the machines’ manufacturers must remain vigilant.
We need to ask our representatives in Congress — Republicans Rep. Lloyd Smucker and Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey — to vote for legislation aimed at beefing up election security. Urge them to urge their parties’ leaders to make such legislation a priority. They will pay attention if we call, write and email their offices.
We need to read critically the mass emails that land in our in-boxes, and the Facebook posts filled with spurious content that seeks to divide us as Americans. We can’t let ourselves — or our family members or friends — be duped by the Russians and other bad actors. If someone we know posts something we know to be false, flag it.
More fundamentally, we need to cease viewing these matters through the lenses of our political beliefs, and drop our partisan defenses that keep us from accepting basic truths.
We’re all Americans. We may not take oaths to protect and defend this country as our elected officials do, but we should make a solemn promise to do so nevertheless. Our parents and grandparents fought for our democracy with all their hearts and sometimes, with their lives.
It’s our turn now.