A Smart, New Approach To Stop Foreign Interference In Elections

FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent warning that Russia is seeking to disrupt and influence US elections underscores the vulnerability of our elections and political campaigns to foreign influence and hacking. 

As is increasingly the case, whistleblowers likely will be a vital first line of defense.  

Recognizing that, the State Department has launched a promising way to turn the tables on foreign hacking operations and disrupt the disrupters: It is offering whistleblower rewards of up to $10 million to those who can identify or provide the location of individuals who are working at the behest of foreign governments to interfere with a national, state or local election.

Incentivizing knowledgeable insiders to report wrongdoing by offering whistleblower rewards has long been successful in other areas of federal law enforcement. While whistleblowers cannot wholly replace traditional law enforcement measures, they are essential sources of information and expertise regarding operations that are opaque to US investigators and difficult to penetrate by conventional methods.

Enforcement actions prompted by whistleblower information under Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission whistleblower programs have recovered more than $50 billion in fines and restitution and have significantly deterred wrongdoing that has caused losses to the US Treasury or cheated investors. 

Under these existing programs, the US has paid whistleblower rewards of over $8 billion for whistleblowers’ role in exposing fraud against the government and securities fraud.

Financial incentives combined with a strong sense of ethics spur thousands of whistleblowers from all over the world every year to report significant wrongdoing to US law enforcement authorities and regulators. 

Now, the State Department is looking to whistleblowers to help preserve the integrity of US elections by extending rewards to individuals under its “Rewards for Justice” (RFJ) program.

The program, established in 1984, has garnered critical information from individuals that has led to the capture of many terrorists and others the US desperately wants to arrest. It has paid more than $150 million in rewards to over 100 whistleblowers.

An informant who reportedly provided assistance that helped the US locate Osama bin Laden was, if the story is true, the program’s biggest success so far.

According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a Pakistani military officer walked into the US embassy in Islamabad and provided the whereabouts of bin Laden. The State Department paid the officer the $25 million reward it had offered and relocated him to the United States, Hersh reported in 2015.

(The US government denied Hersh’s report and said that CIA analysts tracked down bin Laden, who had remained elusive for 10 years before US soldiers killed him in 2011 when they tried to capture him in Pakistan.)

The State Department says the RFJ program paid sizeable rewards for the location of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein. An informant who provided that information was paid $30 million – $15 million for the location of each one. The brothers, who were hiding in a villa in Mosul, died in a firefight with US troops in 2003.

The State Department promises strict confidentiality and says whistleblowers and their families may be eligible for relocation if necessary to keep them safe.

Recent reports confirm the urgent need to pursue all methods to stop foreign hacking and interference. For instance, Microsoft revealed that Russian government hackers have targeted more than 200 organizations, including many linked to the 2020 election. Chinese and Iranian hackers were focusing their attacks on the Biden and Trump presidential campaigns, respectively.

Other ways that hackers could disrupt the election include altering voter registration databases in swing states so that the votes of one party are suppressed or launching ransomware attacks to block access to voter registration data. Hackers also might try to attack online systems for reporting election results and sow confusion about the outcome.

Whistleblowers who report state-sponsored hacking likely risk their lives to do so, making it even more important that the incentives to come forward match the risks they take. As Election Day draws closer, the State Department should increase the size of whistleblower rewards for information that shuts down a foreign hacking operation. The value of protecting our democracy is worth much more.

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