Congressional advocates for legislation on voting security said the Trump order was welcome but didn't go far enough.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Sept. 12 laying out an interagency process between the Intelligence Community and the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, State and Treasury to impose economic and other sanctions on countries, groups or individuals who are found to be meddling in U.S. elections, hacking into election or campaign infrastructure or conducting disinformation campaigns.
In a press briefing, National Security Advisor John Bolton said the order was designed to cover both "foreign interference in our elections and really the political process more broadly."
"It includes not just interference with election and campaign infrastructure, but it also covers distribution of propaganda and disinformation," Bolton said.
After news of the order broke, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) released a statement calling the executive order as described through press reports "insufficient" because it leaves the president with broad discretion to determine whether such sanctions are warranted.
"We remain woefully underprepared to secure the upcoming elections, and an executive order is simply no substitute for congressional action," Warner said.
In a joint statement, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the order "recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it." The lawmakers, who sponsored a bill to require consequences for election meddling, said that "mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent, which is the central tenet of the bipartisan DETER Act."
The order lays out a multistep process for imposing penalties on countries, groups or individuals. The Intelligence Community will have 45 days to assess whether an entity has interfered in an election or the political process. Those findings go to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which have an additional 45 days to assess the evidence. If they concur, those entities will be subject to a range of automatic sanctions.
The Departments of Treasury and State also have the option of imposing additional penalties down the line.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said this process is intended to kick off after an election has taken place, but Bolton also clarified that the order is "intended to be active now" and does not preclude the possibility of actions being taken before an election.
Bolton said the order was not specific to any single country, and Coats said the Intelligence Community has observed disinformation campaigns and foreign interference on this front from a number of countries.
Like other U.S. officials, Coats said the administration hasn't seen activity on the same level as 2016, but he noted a potential ramp-up is "only a keyboard click away and we're taking nothing for granted here."
"We have seen signs of [meddling] not just from Russia but from China, capabilities potentially from Iran and even from North Korea," said Coats. "It's more than Russia here that we're looking at."
Over the past two months, tech companies including Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have announced the discovery of hundreds of accounts, pages and websites that they believe are tied to foreign influence campaigns. Some appear designed to affect the upcoming midterm elections while others seemingly target broader influence objectives within foreign countries.
Congress has introduced a number of bills to clamp down on the kind of election-related cyberattacks or political disinformation campaigns that U.S. intelligence agencies believe were carried out by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election.
Bolton told reporters that the administration wanted to act decisively under its own authorities because "you never know how long legislation is going to take." He noted, however, that he has had discussions with at least two dozen members of Congress in recent weeks about legislative options.