TIME

HACKING THE VOTER

WHAT’S BEHIND RUSSIA’S EFFORT TO INFLUENCE THE U.S. ELECTION

THE LEADERS OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT, including the President and his top national-security advisers, face an unprecedented dilemma. Since the spring, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have seen mounting evidence of an active Russian influence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election. It is very unlikely the Russians could sway the actual vote count, because our election infrastructure is decentralized and voting machines are not accessible from the Internet. But they can sow disruption and instability up to, and on, Election Day, more than a dozen senior U.S. officials tell TIME, undermining faith in the result and in democracy itself.

The question, debated at multiple meetings at the White House, is how aggressively to respond to the Russian operation. Publicly naming and shaming the Russians and describing what the intelligence community knows about their activities would help Americans understand and respond prudently to any disruptions that might take place between now and the close of the polls. Senior Justice Department officials have argued in favor of calling out the Russians, and that position has been echoed forcefully outside of government by lawmakers and former top national-security officials from both political parties.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The President and several of his closest national-security advisers are concerned about the danger of a confrontation in the new and ungoverned world of cyberspace, and they argue that while the U.S. has powerful offensive and defensive capabilities there, an escalating confrontation carries significant risks. National Security Council officials warn that our critical infrastructure—including the electricity grid, transportation sector and energy networks—is vulnerable to first strikes; others say attacks on private companies, stock exchanges and the media could affect the economy. Senior intelligence officials even worry about Russia exposing U.S. espionage operations in retaliation. And while U.S. officials have “high confidence” that Russia is behind what they describe as a major influence operation, senior U.S. officials tell TIME, their evidence would not yet stand up in court.

And so with five weeks to go, the White House is, for now, letting events unfold. On one side, U.S. law-enforcement agencies are scrambling to uncover the extent of the Russian operation, counter it and harden the country’s election infrastructure. On the other, a murky network of Russian hackers and their associates is stepping up the pace of leaks of stolen documents designed to affect public opinion and give the impression that the election is vulnerable,

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