Could a cyber national guard have a role in safeguarding elections?

During a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, senators toyed with the idea of the National Guard protecting the 2018 elections from foreign tampering.

computer hack (MARCUSZ2527/Shutterstock.com)
 

With midterm elections this year, some members of Congress are wondering what the Defense Department can do to guard against foreign meddling.

At a Feb. 13 Senate Armed Services cybersecurity subcommittee hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) suggested that the National Guard should step in,.

“Were Russia to have bombed one of our states rather than attacked the election infrastructure, we would have treated it like an attack," she said. "But because of the ways we’ve set up our cyber capabilities, which we have done for good reasons … it seems to me that the DOD is hamstrung in trying to properly respond to an attack on our democracy.”

“I’ve asked this in many settings and every time they’ve said it’s not our job,” Gillibrand continued. “I’ve really tried to push National Guard as a place where this can be done. The National Guard already serves the states, they’re already under the control of the governors. So why not amplify what we’re already doing with our National Guard and Reserve to give them the expertise in cyber, but actually delegate this particular mission specifically to them in conjunction with all the other assets in the military?”

Heather Conley, director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program, suggested during her testimony that the National Guard Bureau be in used to help educate election officials on what hacking and tampering look like.

Working with the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard would “develop and facilitate training of state and local election officials to enhance cybersecurity awareness and to be able to detect patterns of influence,” such as “hacked emails surfacing online in conjunction with the spread of false rumors about candidates,” Conley said.

Conley added that National Guard units participating in the State Partnership Program (SPP), including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, and Texas, have ties with European partners and could share information about Russian influence operations.

Like other areas of the government, the National Guard has struggled to recruit and retain cyber talent. But fellow panelist Richard Harknett, head of the University of Cincinnati’s political science department, said the U.S. needs all the help it can get.

“We need to get at this, senator,” Harknett said. “We’ve been continually trying to shoehorn our cyber forces into existing authorities and working backwards.”

Part of that backwards approach, he said, is thinking that public-private partnerships work in cyber when they don’t.

“We have to move away from a partnership model,” Harknett argued. “The problem is that partnerships require shared interests at the beginning. The private sector has a very specific interest: profit making. The state has a very specific interest: security providing.”

The solution, he said, is an alignment model that incentivizes private companies to make money, “while producing an effect the state requires, which is security.”

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