U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coates said Thursday that Russia is “a keyboard click away” from disrupting America’s midterm elections. Joined by a collection of top security officials for a White House press briefing, he noted that Moscow’s meddlers “are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party.”
One must commend Coates for his candor. He is trying, desperately, to raise awareness about one of the gravest, immediate threats to American democracy, despite his boss’s intransigence on the matter. President Donald Trump has continued, in contrast, to prevaricate when asked about Russia’s interference in U.S. politics. His go-to: ignoring the consensus of the intelligence community, casting doubt on its findings, and offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a free pass. (As recently as two weeks ago—days after the disastrous Helsinki summit—he called Russia’s interference “all a big hoax.”)
Whether Trump realizes it or not, this approach serves to further the Kremlin’s aims: fomenting mistrust through disinformation. It is a shame to see it. These are not times for sophistry; the American public—and its allies abroad—deserve clarity and guidance. Nothing less than the integrity of the electoral system—the bedrock of this nation’s right to govern—is at stake.
During my cybersecurity session at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. last month, I cited another one of Coates’ recent remarks as a prompt for my panelists. Coates had warned in the days prior that “the warning lights are blinking red again” in a way not observed since the lead-up to the coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001. Jen Easterly, a security leader at Morgan Stanley and former White House counterterrorism official, replied lucidly. Her answer was so eloquent, I must quote it here in full.
“I’ll try not to use any double negatives,” Easterly began, alluding to Trump’s thin, post-Helsinki summit walk-back regarding Russia’s election interference. “There is no mystery. There is incontrovertible evidence of nation state-sponsored attacks and deliberate—it’s not just espionage—but deliberate sabotage against what we hold dear as part of our constitutional democracy: fair and free elections. I don’t say this as an employee of Morgan Stanley; I don’t say it as a former senior White House official; I say it as an American and, frankly, as a former military officer who spent 22 years in the army sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies both foreign and domestic.”
Her words were refreshing. It’s the kind of statement one might hope to hear from a chief executive.