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Arkansas is at war with a hostile foreign power. This is not a traditional military conflict, but is no less threatening to American democracy.

In this conflict, Arkansas--like other states--is a central target of covert foreign operations. The question between now and the 2020 election is: What are the nation and the state doing to repel this new threat?

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's recent testimony before Congress highlighted the extensive Russian clandestine operations to influence the 2016 national election and urgently warned the nation that Russian programs to undermine American democracy will continue into 2020.

The next day, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan report stating that the election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016 and warned that the U.S. remains vulnerable to Russian attacks.

The entire U.S. intelligence community has aggressively warned policy-makers and the public since 2016 about Russian operations to undermine American democracy. Except for the extreme faction of the Trump supporters, there is no question about these Russian attacks on the United States.

The Russian operations have three objectives: 1. They are designed to sow domestic discord by dividing Americans into extreme and hostile groups. 2. They seek to undermine the confidence of Americans in their elections and political institutions. 3. Russian election attacks in 2016 favored one candidate--Donald Trump--for president.

Russian cyber operations stole confidential Internet communications and made them public to help Trump. They attempted to enter state voter registration and other election files to manipulate the data.

Russia uses sophisticated techniques to determine the political inclination of individual Americans and created a vast Internet operation to feed false and divisive information.

Americans of all political views should understand that as individuals, they are Russian targets. Americans who get their facts from vague Internet sources other than established professional news organizations are exposing themselves to political exploitation by Moscow.

The U.S. response to Russian and other covert foreign aggression should be aggressive and decisive. But at the national level, the Trump administration has failed to create an adequate response to the Russian threat. The nation has no national security strategy, adequate defenses or effective deterrents to protect the 2020 election from Russian attacks.

The Mueller report shows how Trump tried to block investigations into his campaign's relations with Russians. To expect Trump, who is most likely to benefit politically from Russian operations in 2020, to act against Putin's scheme is to expect the fox to protect the henhouse.

These attacks are bigger than Trump. If foreign governments or groups can influence elections in the future, they can affect the outcome of votes for any party. Congress has also failed to act in defense of the constitution. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked multiple recent bills to fund election defenses, increase transparency, and deter future attacks on U.S. elections.

McConnell even blocked a bipartisan bill, co-written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a consistent supporter of President Trump, that would have protected legislators from cyber-attacks.

In the case of the 2020 elections, state and local governments, which are primarily the responsibility for conducting accurate elections throughout the country, are the center of gravity for Russian aggression.

Without national leadership, every state must have comprehensive defenses in place to protect the 2020 elections. In Arkansas, the Hutchinson administration and the state Legislature are ultimately responsible for the security of the elections. They must have a strategy to use all measures in their power, including old-style paper ballots, to defend voter registration and ensure that votes are accurately counted.

Arkansas voters can act individually by taking care not to be manipulated by foreign misinformation programs. They can demand that their local, state and national representatives act with urgency to defend the nation, Arkansas and local communities from foreign attacks on the most important of democratic practices--the right of citizens to cast votes for their leaders and to have those votes accurately counted.

The dangers to American democracy are extremely high in this ongoing war. The question is whether national, state and local leaders can muster the strength to defend the nation in the political chaos of today.

Jonesboro native is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary general of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.

Editorial on 08/11/2019

Print Headline: Protect our elections

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