100 years of Russian electoral interference — David Shimer transcript

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with David Shimer, author of “Rigged: America, Russia and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference.”

Shimer provides examples of Russian and American electoral interference in countries around the world over nearly a century. He explains how Russia’s playbook has been applied repeatedly and in novel ways to influence American democratic processes — including in 2016. Morell and Shimer discuss ways the U.S. should try to bolster its defenses against new potential Russian incursions in 2020. 

Highlights:

  • History of Russian influence campaigns:  “The KGB interfered in our 1960, 1968, 1976 and 1984 elections. Russia interfered in our 2016 elections. This is a long running story and that story will continue regardless of whether Donald Trump is active in American politics.”
  • Looking ahead to 2020: “[W]e should be ready for there to be some sort of plan here to degrade, disrupt our democracy by delegitimizing the outcome of the election. Because what Putin’s after here, is chaos, is dysfunction, is corrupting democracies. Trump is a means to that end. But there are other ways of achieving it, one of which is just making Americans wonder whether their election was fair at all.”
  • How Putin wins: “[I]f Putin’s vision is realized — and we should be under no illusions that he doesn’t have a vision, he does — America will become a society we don’t necessarily recognize and Americans will no longer believe in their process of succession. And without a process of succession, you don’t really have a democracy because the process of succession provides for the future.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS — DAVID SHIMER —TRANSCRIPT

MICHAEL MORELL: David, thank you for joining us. It is very good to have you on Intelligence Matters.

DAVID SHIMER. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: Congratulations on your new book, Rigged: America, Russia and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Influence. I found it to be an absolutely terrific read. And I would recommend it to my listeners. It is certainly timely given the election that is only four and a half months away. So the book Rigged is a history of covert electoral interference. So, David, perhaps two questions before we dig into it. The first is, how did you come to write it? What got you interested in the entirety of the subject?

DAVID SHIMER: Yes. So I would say after the 2016 election, I’ve been studying very intensely Russian and Soviet history, and the thought was just in my mind that while Russia’s operation was treated as sort of novel and out of nowhere, that there might be more of a history there. And I spent the summer of 2017 reporting for The New York Times as an intern in Berlin. And while I was there, I was able to interview a former East German intelligence officer for about six hours, and he worked for the Stasi and he helped execute a spectacular operation to interfere in an electoral process in West Germany in 1972. 

So I started digging into that and ended up spending just a year researching that operation extremely intensely. And once I had that operation sort of established, I also in 2016, as a point of comparison, I thought ‘What else is out there?’ And then I was able to start pursuing my PhD at Oxford. And while I did that, I just dug and dug, found more and more operations across history of covert interference in elections. And eventually I started blending them together, reestablishing sort of an arc around this and trying to restore history to the subject of covert electoral interference from 1919 all the way through to our present moment.

MICHAEL MORELL: So just so our listeners are clear what we’re talking about, and this is the second kind of basic question, what’s the definition of covert electoral interference? So what are the conditions that have to be met for you to call it that?

DAVID SHIMER: Exactly, yeah. And that’s essential. So a covert electoral interference operation, it has to meet the qualifications of those three words: covert, electoral and interference. So for something to be covert, it means that it’s not attributable. It means that the hand of the interfering actor is hidden. So a public endorsement wouldn’t count because let’s say Barack Obama endorses the remain campaign in the United Kingdom. That’s attributable. We know he did that. But let’s say Russia releases e-mails through a third party. The effect of that is visible. We see the emails, but it’s through WikiLeaks. So we don’t know it was Russia and therefore it’s covert. 

If something’s electoral, that means that it’s targeting a democratic vote of succession. It means it’s targeting an electoral process. So, you know, a lot of folks who’ve studied coups, staged coups in countries like Iran and Guatemala, that would not qualify because that is not targeting and targeting an electoral process. We’re talking about when people are casting ballots for one leader or another. 

And then interference means that you’re deploying active measures. It means that you’re trying to influence what is happening. You’re not just watching, you’re acting. And that can range from you know, there are many different tactics. I’m sure we’ll talk about what those are. But the idea there is that you are, in fact, interfering. So in general, what I’m talking about is a concealed foreign effort to manipulate a democratic vote of succession. And when you meet those three qualifications, you’re then engaging in covert electoral interference.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, the book is divided into three parts. The long history of covert electoral interference, including by the United States, our more recent experience with 2016 and a look at what we need to do to defend ourselves. So let’s take each of those in turn, along with a couple of questions about the 2020 election as well. 

So first, some questions about the long history of this covert electoral interference. You found in your research that both Russia and the United States have a history of doing this. But what I found particularly interesting is what you identified as the key differences between the two. One of those is that one country stopped such interference at one point and the other kept going. Why did the U.S. stop? What’s the answer to that question?

DAVID SHIMER: So I would say that maybe in terms of the historical arc of it — because whether the CIA did stop is sort of part of a larger story and that story can be broken down into three phases.

And that is this broader history where, from 1919 up until 1948, the Soviet Union was interfering in elections all over the world, first under Vladimir Lenin, then Joseph Stalin. The U.S. wasn’t. In 1948, the CIA is authorized to engage in covert action with the express purpose of interfering in the Italian election in 1948 and then engaged in electoral interference in many countries thereafter through the Cold War in competition with the Soviet KGB. 

A divergence then took place after the Cold War, where Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has doubled down on this practice, has been interfering in elections aggressively and frequently through enhanced methods, incorporating new digital tools into his operations, whereas the CIA has moved away from this practice. The last recorded instance that I could find the CIA engaging in covert electoral interference was in 2000 in Serbia against the tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. There was a debate over whether to do so against Iraq in 2004. But the general arc here is that the CIA has moved away from this practice. And the reasons they’ve done so is because, A) there isn’t a call to action as there was during the Cold War that’s consistent, clear. And B) the risk of getting caught is much higher.

And if you’re America, unlike Russia, if you’re getting caught, it could end up actually undermining you because you’re purporting to say, ‘We support democracy. We support free and fair elections. We oppose what Russia’s doing to our elections.’ And yet we’re actually manipulating elections behind the scenes top. That contradiction became untenable and therefore American foreign policy adjusted.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do you have any idea whether the Trump administration may have gone back in this direction? Gone back to using covert electoral interference?

DAVID SHIMER: My sense from folks who I talked to who left either the CIA after — who served in the CIA under the Trump administration or his key aides like Steve Bannon or H.R. McMaster, who I was able to interview, is that there hasn’t been a meaningful policy shift here and that the idea still holds that this could be an exceptional weapon in exceptional circumstances to use. But now that there hasn’t been some sort of monumental shift or we’ve effectively re-entered our Cold War posture. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, the other the other difference I wanted to ask you about between the U.S. and Russia is the targeting of the system of government as opposed to a particular individual within a system. Russia and the United States have historically had some different objectives in those two regards. Can you talk about that?

DAVID SHIMER: Yeah. So that’s the essential difference, really, between the history of American and Russian electoral interference, which is that Russia has —  Well, I guess it’s easier to start with what’s the same and what’s the same is that across history, American and Russian intelligence have interfered in elections in order to help their preferred candidate and disadvantage the candidate they oppose. The historical record spells out very clearly that both countries have done that in many, many different elections. But the difference, as you alluded to, is about sort of your hopes for the system.

So the Soviet Union and then Russia have sought to tear down the system, which is a democracy, because elections are held in democracies. So the Soviet Union aimed to get Communist candidates elected who would actually stop holding elections. And that’s what you saw happen in countries like Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia at the start of the Cold War in the immediate post-war period. 

And then with Putin today, his aim is to elect candidates who are authoritarian-minded, divisive, exclusive rather than inclusive, nationalist rather than internationalist, who are corrupt and tear down their democracies from within. 

Contrast that with the American objective, which is that when America has engaged in covert electoral interference – and this is again spelled out, I reviewed thousands of documents, thousands of declassified transcripts – and what those showed is that the motivation behind these operations for American presidents is to support candidates who will strengthen or guard their democracy. So whether that means supporting candidates who are running against Communists in the hope, as was the case in, for example, Italy in 1948, we interfere there because the CIA believed that if the Communists won, Italian democracy would collapse again. 

In 2000 in Serbia, the idea was that if Milosevic were no longer in power, Serbian democracy would be stronger. So sometimes U.S. presidents have been wrong or have made missteps. But the general intentions here of Soviet and Russian leaders versus American leaders have differed in that regard.

MICHAEL MORELL: So there’s a there’s one particular story which which you’ve already mentioned, the East German effort in 1972 to influence the outcome of a no confidence vote in Germany. I would love to have you recount that story for us, because I think it has an extraordinarily important bottom line. Can you walk us through that?

DAVID SHIMER: Absolutely. So the story of 1972 is that Willy Brandt, who is the chancellor of West Germany, had been engaging in a foreign policy known as Ostpolitik, which was outreach to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the hopes of agreeing to normalization agreements and thawing relations between East and West. The Soviet Union and East Germany really liked that. 

So Willy Brandt is doing that in 1969, ’70, ’71. As ’72 approaches, he’s reached a series of agreements with the Soviet Union, with Poland. He’s negotiating one with East Germany. And conservatives say, ‘We want to throw you out. We don’t like this. We don’t agree with your foreign policy.’ 

There’s a no confidence vote. Willy Brandt is expected to lose that no confidence vote, but he ends up surviving by a margin of two votes to the surprise of not only West Germany, but really onlookers around the world. 

And the operation in that regard was that the two decisive votes that kept Willy Brandt in office were actually purchased by the East German Stasi, East German intelligence officers targeted two vulnerable lawmakers who were womanizers, gamblers, debtors, every sort of indication you could imagine that would mean that they could be corrupted. 

They targeted those folks. They drew them in slowly as just sort of people who would pass on intelligence. And then they actually gave each of them 50,000 deutschmarks, almost 100,000 dollars in U.S. dollars, adjusted for inflation today, to abstain from the vote. And had they not done that, the vote of no confidence would have passed. And Willy Brandt would have been removed from office. 

And people suspected there was foul play. There was an investigation into potential meddling in the vote thereafter conducted by the West German state. But it came up short and didn’t uncover the operation. And in terms of why this matters for our purposes, it shows us A) that these operations can be decisive, that they can change the history of another state, because had that vote of no confidence passed, the entire trajectory of West German history would have changed.

It also shows the power of targeting that, if you find particular people, if you know what makes them tick, if you know what their beliefs and interests are, you can therefore manipulate them in a much more effective manner. 

And the third thing is that we all have to be — or I believe that we need to be — humble in saying what we do and don’t know about these sorts of operations. It took decades for this operation to come to light, even though there was a state investigation into it. So as we look at Russia’s operations both in America and around the world today, before Vladimir Putin’s advisors start talking, before, you know, the GRUs papers are released, only Russia knows what Russia does and we know what we know. But what we know is not necessarily the whole story.

MICHAEL MORELL: So overlay the Mueller investigation on top of your East Germany story, right, to just drive home the point.

DAVID SHIMER: Yeah. So the Mueller investigation happened right after Russia’s operation in 2016. The purpose of Mueller’s investigation was to try to put together what Russia did and also to figure out whether there was cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia. And what the Stasi case tells us is two things. One is that that question of collusion kind of misses the point, because in the Stasi instance, Willy Brandt was specifically left out of the fold, purposely left out of the fold, the idea being that if he had been looped in and then that cooperation had been uncovered, Willy Brandt’s political career would have collapsed and the Stasis’ objective would have been completely undermined.

So there’s a strong case to be made for not actually cooperating at all with the person you’re trying to help to protect that person. 

The second thing that this shows is that the Mueller investigation is certainly a really great start. But when I interviewed folks who were serving in the intelligence community in 2016, they say, they’re the first to say, we don’t know the full extent of what Russia did. Something that I imagine we’ll talk about is the extent of Russian activity in voting systems. 

You know, it was striking to me that when I ask people like Jim Clapper or Susan Rice, ‘Do you know that Russia didn’t alter voter data or vote tallies? What they said was ‘We saw no evidence of it, but that by no means means that it didn’t happen.’ And that’s sort of just the best we can do when it comes to covert operations, because the point of covert operations is that they’re covert. We can try our best to get to the bottom of them, but the state that executed them knows what that state did. And then all of us are just trying to put the pieces together.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, two more questions on the history. And the first is we just heard an example of covert electoral influence that actually worked. Right, that actually changed the outcome. But in general, does it work? What’s your sense on that?

DAVID SHIMER: So I would actually say the question of effectiveness is one of the most clear themes in this history, and it’s also one of the most instructive because there is the reality and there’s the perception.

So the reality in operations to influence voters — not operations to change votes, because that’s where you could really measure impact — but most of the time, what these states are doing is trying to manipulate people. So for those sorts of operations, the reality is that you really can’t measure it, which is that whether it’s a 1948 in Italy where the CIA and KGB went toe to toe, the same thing in ’64 in Chile, elections all over the world, in Guyana and in Japan, in El Salvador, etc., even up until Serbia in 2000, all of the officers, the intelligence officers who I interviewed involved in those operations said, ‘You know, we don’t actually know how effective this was. We can guess, but we don’t know.’ 

And I interviewed the chief historian of the CIA and even 70 plus years later after Italy’s 1948 election, I asked him, ‘Do you know that the effectiveness of this?’ And he said, ‘You know, we still debate it. We still debate how much of a difference we made.’ And that is 70 plus years later. So that is the reality. 

But the perception matters from the sense of the interfering actor. There’s a pattern here, which is that when an interfering actor’s preferred outcome is achieved, when you interfere to help someone and that person wins, interfering actors tend to sort of just assume that that was because of them and that it was the case. 

After Italy’s 1948 election, when the CIA’s preferred candidate won, everyone was, you know, metaphorically popping champagne and saying, ‘This was because of us and we therefore need to do it more.’ 

That’s why after Russia’s 2016 operation, I was struck by intercepted communications that have been released of the social media trolls at the Internet Research Agency saying, you know, ‘We made America great.’ They don’t actually know if they did that. But if they believe that they did that, that indicates to me that Russia will A) believe in the efficacy of this sort of operation and then, B) continue to interfere not only in our elections, but elections around the world because they believe that it’s working even if they can’t actually prove it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the second question and last question on the history piece of this, David, is the book focuses on Russia and the US. And we’ve heard of one story about the East Germans, but have other countries besides Russia and the United States, and in this one case, East Germany, have other countries been involved in covert electoral interference?

DAVID SHIMER: Yes. So I would say that up until now, this has really been a Russian and American story. You know, first up, number one is Russia. Number two is America. And perhaps now we’ll see other countries trying to get into the game. But it really is a tradition of Russian and American intelligence. And I scoured as many materials as I could.

I interviewed more than 130 officials, including the former KGB general and eight former CIA directors. I examined archives across six countries, CIA, Stasi, KGB and others trying to put this story into as full a view as possible. And what I found is really that this had been first a Soviet thing, then a Soviet and American thing, with rare exceptions like the Stasi. And then now it’s a Russian thing. And if it starts to fit the objectives of other states, perhaps to start doing it on a case by case basis.

But to do this on a global basis – you need to have a global reason to do it on a global basis. We had that with Containment. The Soviet Union had that and was seeking to spread Communism. Putin now has that and is seeking to back disruptive and authoritarian-minded candidates. I’m not necessarily sure that any other state has that reason to be interfering covertly in elections around the world, let alone the experience and tradition to actually do that, which no other state does, in fact, have.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so, 2016, let’s shift to 2016.

One of the key points in your book, I thought, is that it’s very important to see what the Russians did in 2016 as a continuation of their long history. Right. With one twist, which is taking advantage of the digital technologies that are now available. Talk about that.

DAVID SHIMER: So I would say the number one myth, if there is a myth that I’m trying to dispel in this book, is that Putin is some great inventor or that what he did in 2016 came out of nowhere, because in fact each of his three tactics, as well as his overarching operation, was a direct continuation of what Russia has done in the past and also in some cases, what America has done. 

I mean, look at what he was trying to do. He was trying to sow discord, help one candidate and hurt another candidate. That is nothing new. The KGB did that in many different U.S. elections during the Cold War. And Russian intelligence has done that in many elections around the world. 

What Putin did in our voting systems in 2016 was that he used his hackers to penetrate our election infrastructure, to position him to manipulate vote tallies or voter data. OK. Well, in the postwar period, Joseph Stalin manipulated the election infrastructure vote tallies, voter data of states across Eastern Europe and Russia has been doing the same thing in countries around the world, including Ukraine in 2014, where hackers actually did sabotage Ukrainian voting systems. 

The second thing with the DNC hack and release and the Podesta hack and release, releasing stolen e-mails, what that really was, was taking private information about public figures and publicizing it, outing it, revealing it to the world. And that is as much of the KGB tradition as anything. I mean, like Kalugin, a former KGB general who I interviewed, when I talked to him about that in particular, he was like,  “Of course, that’s what we’ve done to the U.S. for decades.’ 

In the 1976 election, they tried to find personal information about a presidential candidate, Henry Jackson. They couldn’t find it. They just made it up. And then they leaked it to a bunch of newspapers with the idea of publicizing his private life in order to destroy his candidacy. It didn’t work, but they tried. They just didn’t have the Internet to do it. 

And then social media is maybe where the gulf is the widest, where people assume it’s all new, but it’s actually anything but.  What Russia tried to do across social media was to inflame racial tensions, target voters based on who they are. Prop up one candidate at the expense of another. Turn out some voters, suppress other voters. Use cutouts to hide your hand, third parties to hide your hand. Again, I can point to examples where the Soviets, the Americans and now Russia have done that in elections all over the world. So, yes, was the scope and scale of Russia’s operation new, for sure.

But to treat it as if that makes it all new leaves us blind, because what these patterns tell us is that we can actually anticipate what’s ahead and prepare for it as such. Whereas if we just treat everything is unprecedented, we have no history and we’re stuck in the here and now bracing for what’s next, without any actual plan of action to defend against it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, there’s been a ton written on 2016 and Russian interference. I found your rendition of it, one of the best I’ve seen. But I also found some unique perspectives that I haven’t seen in other renditions of the story. And I’d love to get you talking about those unique perspectives, at least how I see them. And the first is that you say that we can really only understand the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s operation if we distinguish between efforts to change ballots and efforts to change minds. Talk about that.

DAVID SHIMER: So that distinction was what drove the Obama administration’s policy making in the summer and the fall of 2016, which is that of those three Russian tactics that I just listed out, social media was extremely poorly understood. So we can kind of put that off to the side.

So you have the email hacks which started with the DNC release in July. And then you had aggressive Russian intrusions into our voting systems, into our voter registration databases all over the country. And the Obama administration was extraordinarily captivated by, startled by and afraid of what Russia would do with that access. Whether Russia would seek to disrupt our voting process, would change ballots, would cause chaos on Election Day, would undermine the legitimacy of the election in doing so. 

And the Obama administration’s policy response in the summer and fall of 2016, in the words of of his chief advisers, was around one objective, which was to prevent that from happening, was to guard against an attack against our election infrastructure. So that was the priority. 

The emails, which folks tend to view as what the Obama administration was responding to, were sort of dismissed as not really that important. And it’s something that could be responded to later. So that was why there was a fear that this question of when Obama was going to retaliate against Russia, there was a fear that if he were to hit back against Russia for releasing emails, Putin would then respond by manipulating our voting systems. He would be provoked into escalating. 

So the argument that won the day was that retaliating against him for releasing e-mails could wait so long as he didn’t cross a red line, in the words of his adviser, of Obama’s advisers. That was actually proceeding to affect ballots. And as long as he didn’t cross that red line, retaliation could wait until after Election Day. So that’s what was driving their response. And that’s why on Election Day itself, there were crisis teams actually in the White House and DHS bracing for a Russian cyber attack against our voting systems, that was the priority.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the second unique perspective I saw is you saying Putin had absolutely no intention of ceasing his interference in American politics had Secretary Clinton won. Talk about that.

DAVID SHIMER: Yeah, that’s another great myth, which is that this is all about Donald Trump. You know, Russia’s operation started in 2014. And the initial goal of that was to sow discord and to undermine Secretary Clinton, whom Putin loathes. 

Once Trump actually ran or announced his campaign, the objective shifted. A third objective was added to the fold. But on Election Day itself, according to Jim Clapper and John Brennan, Putin still expected Trump to lose. And Russia was preparing to destabilise Secretary Clinton’s administration by releasing more damaging materials, by, some people who were in government at the time believe, revealing that voter data had been altered in order to try to undermine her standing. So Russia had plans to continue interfering. 

And there’s the general point here, too, is that interference operations do not stop with a single election. When a country decides that it’s in its interests to interfere in another country’s elections, that lasts beyond one vote. If you just interfere in one election and achieve your objectives and then ignore the next, then that’s undoing, whatever you achieved the previous time. And, you know, the KGB interfered in our 1960, 1968, 1976 and 1984 elections. Russia interfered in our 2016 elections. This is a long running story and that story will continue regardless of whether Donald Trump is active in American politics.

MICHAEL MORELL:  So, David, before we switch to what we should be doing about all this, take a moment and talk about 2020. The election is now only four months away. And I’m wondering, looking back over the history and everything we’ve just talked about, what do you expect from the Russians this time around?

DAVID SHIMER: Yeah, I mean, I would say thinking logically, I’m watching for a couple of different things. What I’m watching for from between now and Election Day is how Russia seeks to manipulate voters, how Russia seeks to corrupt our information space in order to get Americans to support Donald Trump, and also in order to sow discord and chaos in our society. I’m watching for, on Election Day itself, whether Russia will proceed to affect ballots — the fear of the Obama administration the last time around — whether with Donald Trump in office or someone who has invited rather than deterred, or sought to deter foreign interference in our elections, whether the calculus of Russia government of Putin will change and they’ll choose to escalate their operation. 

The next thing I’m watching for, I would say, is whether Trump will up his asks or will make new asks if he seems to be losing. A pattern of history is that leaders who are comfortable asking for foreign help tend to ask for more and more and more if they feel like they might fall from power. That’s something that I would keep my eye out for. 

I would also keep my eye out for whether Trump will seek to incite unrest or seek to delegitimize the election if he loses. That’s something that has always been a pattern in contested, heated elections in which foreign actors are engaged. The fear that if it goes one way or another, violence will erupt. That the outcome will actually be deeply delegitimized in itself. We’re especially vulnerable to that because of the coronavirus and because of Trump’s allegations of a rigged vote. 

And then the last thing I’m watching out for, I would say, is whether there’s a contingency plan, whether, you know, even if, let’s say, Trump loses. What else is Russia then gonna do? How will Russia continue to engage in our politics? And that question remains to be seen. And, of course, a couple of different things would have to happen to make that so. But there should be no illusion that if Donald Trump loses, Russia will be done with engaging in American politics. That’s just not how the Russian government works.

MICHAEL MORELL: Is there anything that the Russians have done in terms of covert electoral interference historically that they didn’t do in 2016, that might appear in 2020? That’s a tough question.

DAVID SHIMER: Yeah, I mean, what have they done historically? They didn’t do, so far as we know, or so far as I know, the Russians weren’t bankrolling the Trump campaign. So that is a tactic that certainly has been used in the past, to fund a campaign. I doubt Russia would use that now because I don’t think it’s necessary and I think it could be detected and caught and I think then that would undermine Trump. So I don’t expect to see that. 

I do think the main thing to watch out for that Russia did not do the last time around but what Russia has done abroad is seek to cause chaos at polling places, is seek to delegitimize confidence in the election. In Ukraine, for instance, in 2014, Russian hackers had planted a program in Ukraine’s electoral commission that would have displayed an inaccurate vote tally, that would have said, ‘This person won,’ when really someone else won. So you wouldn’t really change the results. You would have just announced the wrong results, which would have created tons of confusion within Ukrainian society. And ironically, the Ukrainians caught that virus and took it down but Russian state media still posted the inaccurate results because they were ready to go. 

And I would say that we should be ready for there to be some sort of plan here to degrade, disrupt our democracy by delegitimizing the outcome of the election. Because what Putin’s after here, is chaos, is dysfunction, is corrupting democracies. Trump is a means to that end. But there are other ways of achieving it, one of which is just making Americans wonder whether their election was fair at all.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, how much of a threat do you think Russia’s covert interference is to our democracy at the end of the day?

DAVID SHIMER: So I’m biased here because I study this, but I think it’s an extraordinary threat because it’s ironic, almost, that Putin’s aims are more ambitious than Soviet leaders’ were, at least when it comes to American politics. Because what Soviet leaders tried to do was just get friendlier American governments. You know, they tried to undermine Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan because they thought that their opponents would have policies that were more in line with Russia’s or with the Soviet Union’s. 

What Putin’s trying to do is actually transform the American system. Putin is trying to elect leaders who will degrade American democracy, who will bring to American democracy Russian attributes, and who over time will cause America to be unable to lead abroad, to be unable to function as a democracy, to make it so that he, Putin, can say to his own people, ‘See, Democracy doesn’t work,’ to make it so that Putin can latch on to our allies who we’re moving away from because of those nationalist isolationist instincts. 

So if Putin’s vision is realized — and we should be under no illusions that he doesn’t have a vision, he does — America will become a society we don’t necessarily recognize and Americans will no longer believe in their process of succession. And without a process of succession, you don’t really have a democracy because the process of succession provides for the future. 

But if folks start assuming that their elections aren’t in fact valid, if they feel as though leaders in their government are corrupt, then our country is no longer functioning. As the system that we have now is a system that I really value as a young person who wants to live in a well functioning democracy where progress can be made and where we can believe that our leaders not only deserve to be there, but where they are because of the will of the American people and not foreigners. So I think it’s essential.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, what do we do about all this? What’s the right policy approach to dealing with these attacks? Walk us through your thinking.

DAVID SHIMER: My thinking here is that if Russia is trying to tear down our democracy, which it is, then we need to try to renew our democracy and we need to try to just make ourselves less vulnerable to this, both at home and abroad. And what that means at home is we need to fortify our voting systems. That’s not something that, in my opinion, can be left as, ‘Oh, maybe Russia could alter ballots.’ That needs to be resolved, whether it through cybersecurity requirements passed by the Congress or otherwise. We can’t be in a position where foreign adversaries manipulate the ballots of American citizens. 

We also have to address efforts to manipulate voters’ minds. That means tackling both the social media and email components with social media. That means transparency by the companies themselves. It means private public cooperation. It means congressional legislation with emails. It means journalists being a bit more mindful of what they’re covering and why and who wants them to be covering it. And it means American citizens deciding not to be gullible and let themselves be played because some sort of emails were released that might seem a little, you know, sensational or otherwise and actually wonder: who wants you to be seeing this?

And beyond that, we also need to be getting at the figures in our society, the dysfunction in our Congress, in our legislative process, because when a country is divided, when a country isn’t functioning, it’s much more vulnerable to subversion. And if we can get our democracy working better and also renew things like local media, like our education system, we get around digital education, we become much less vulnerable to this. 

And in conjunction with that renewal at home, we need to renew our leadership abroad by leading democracies against this kind of digital war. I mean, I think it’s ridiculous that if a Russian tank goes into Estonia, we’re obliged to go to war, and yet if Russian hackers attack the heart of Estonian democracy, which is their elections, we all shrug. It doesn’t make sense. 

So I think we need to work with other democracies to unite against this threat, to define costs for it, to prioritize it in our conversations with Russia and other countries who decide to imitate them. 

And we also need to not engage in this type of behavior ourselves, to have any sort of credibility in making that argument, which is why I believe the CIA should ban the practice of covert electoral interference. And I think if you have that renewal at home and abroad, you can make meaningful progress in mitigating the effectiveness of these operations. But we also have to have clear eyes that it’s not going to just go away. Lenin, Putin, they’re right. This is this is a practice. Elections are penetrable. The question is just how we can make them more defendable. But this has been happening for 100 years. It’s going to continue to happen. And we just have to make sure our democracy can function despite it.

MICHAEL MORELL: The book is Rigged: America, Russia and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference. The author is David Shimer. David, thank you so much for joining us. 

DAVID SHIMER: Thank you so much for having me.

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