The U.S. intelligence community and federal officials need to be more transparent and open about the intentions of malign foreign influence campaigns to dampen their impact on the general public, lawmakers and experts said during a panel event hosted by the Heritage Foundation on Monday.
The event—which focused on countering foreign disinformation while also safeguarding Americans’ First Amendment rights—discussed how countries such as China, Russia and Iran are using both interference and influence campaigns to sow discord across the United States and accumulate power and support on the global stage.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, used his opening remarks to note that foreign adversaries are looking “for ways in which they can undertake nefarious activities or malign activities to try to either destabilize or to influence the American politik.”
The event was a part of Turner’s “Beyond the SCIF”—or sensitive compartmented information facility—series, which is designed to connect Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee with “experts and leaders in the national security field to create an open dialogue on threats facing our nation and what committee members can do to counter the malign actions of our adversaries.”
Foreign influence campaigns aimed at U.S. elections have received significant attention in recent years, with Russian and Iranian state actors targeting voting systems and election officials with cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns during the 2016 and 2020 elections. With the establishment of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in 2018 and the designation of election systems as critical infrastructure, however, federal officials have been able to better streamline the information sharing process needed to more effectively combat and deter those threats.
Brian Cavanaugh—a senior vice president at American Global Strategies who previously served as special assistant to the president and senior director on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration—said that his firsthand experience educating election officials and secretaries of state about foreign influence campaigns during the 2018 and 2020 elections showed the importance of having “more holistic conversations about what you’re seeing in the malign influence space.”
“There are a lot of lessons learned on the election front that can be taken and applied to general mainstream malign influence across a diversity of issues,” Cavanaugh added. “It’s really just identifying the right agency, the right leadership to be that point person to carry the water and have credibility, whether it’s the FBI on some issues or the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence].”
This type of information-sharing approach was critical in the leadup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, when the U.S. intelligence community was able to quickly declassify and publicly refute Russia’s misinformation and influence campaigns surrounding the conflict, according to Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who moderated the panel discussion.
“The Russians had a malign information plan from the very get-go, and we outed them on that—we declassified stuff—and we started letting people know they were going to attack from the very get-go,” Kelly said. “We were telegraphing everything that was going to happen.”
Kelly said that the majority of influence campaigns conducted by foreign adversaries largely fail, estimating that “for every ten that they run, nine are unsuccessful.” That’s why efforts to proactively counter these campaigns are so important—both to get ahead of foreign adversaries, and to limit the spread of disinformation across social media platforms before it’s too late to effectively refute.
“The American people are much smarter than the Chinese and the Russians give them credit for,” Kelly added. “And I would say that there is some of this disinformation—and there is influence, and there are other opportunities that they use—but for the most part, I think most of the time it comes out that it is disinformation.”