Few people in Washington now doubt that Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. As more information about the response to that interference has been publicly disclosed, it’s become clear that key decisions were made by good people trying to do the right thing for the right reasons that nevertheless led to bad outcomes. The accounts of former FBI Director James Comey and of other government officials indicate that, in the run up to the election, their choices were influenced by the fear of appearing political—even as their actions inadvertently may have created exactly that impression.
Make no mistake—Russia will attack again. Yet right now, America hasn’t made any progress towards building a nonpartisan system that could respond to Russia—or any other foreign adversary. The United States has made no policy changes to ensure that if the exact same situation presented itself in next year’s congressional midterms or in the 2020 presidential election, its leaders wouldn’t face the same hard choices that Obama’s White House faced last summer.
Neither Obama nor any future president can respond to interference in our election without provoking accusations of partisanship. America needs a system that credibly protects its electoral system and responds to foreign actors in real-time. In my service as the assistant attorney general for national security until last October, I saw first-hand the determination of foreign adversaries to exploit American vulnerabilities. After the 2016 campaign, foreign actors realize that effective attacks can disrupt American democracy. Unless the United States takes the response out of the realm of partisan politics, by setting up something akin to a “dead man’s switch” that triggers automatically when something goes awry, they’ll attack again—and succeed.