Trust and Distrust in the American Political System

Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Leah Millis/Reuters
Joan Dempsey

Former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence for Community Management 

Executive Editor,; Author, In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth About America’s “Deep State”

Intelligence Studies Project Director, Inman Chair in Intelligence Studies, and Clinical Professor, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin; Former Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform, National Security Council 


Senior International/Defense Researcher, RAND Corporation; Member, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss the intersection of U.S. politics and the theory of the “deep state,” including the devolution of public trust in government agencies and what effect this has, how to combat public distrust, and the role and responsibility of U.S. government agencies throughout history.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Good afternoon, I'm Linda Robinson, senior researcher at Rand, and I'm delighted to be asked to moderate this panel discussion on trust and distrust in the American political system. It really could not be more timely and I'm aware that we have a very large group of members attending so my plan is to conduct this event with the goal of including as many of you in this conversation as possible. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the theory of a “deep state” and more generally, the problem of the erosion of public trust in the U.S. government, as polling data has suggested, and the implications of both of these for U.S. democracy.

A few quick framing comments, the definition of a “deep state”—there may be many, but I will throw out one—which is the idea of unelected government bureaucrats scheming to manipulate, subvert, or overthrow democracy. In addition to that theory, there certainly are indications through polls that there's widespread concern that government is not responsive, it may be overreaching, it may lack transparency, and generally that government is not acting in the interests of the governed. Specific agencies of the government have come under critique and vitriolic attack to include the intelligence community, the FBI, regulatory agencies, and of course Congress has enjoyed very low poll ratings for many years. This level of vitriol, misinformation, and dysfunction constitutes, in the view of many of us, a real crisis of governance and a fraying of the social contract in America.

We are fortunate to have a stellar panel to explore the causes of this phenomenon, as well as the possible remedial actions. I will introduce the panel now, Joan Dempsey is with us today and she has a long career and served in a senior position in the intelligence community as the deputy director of central intelligence for community management. David Rohde is a longtime veteran journalist who is executive editor of the He is a well published author and has written most recently a widely regarded book called In Deep: the FBI, CIA, and the Truth About America's "Deep State." And then finally, we have Stephen Slick joining us from Texas. He's a veteran of the intelligence community. He is now the chair, Inman chair, of intelligence studies at UT, University of Texas Austin, and he's a former senior director for intelligence reform and programs at the National Security Council.

My plan is to engage the panel in discussion for no more than 25 minutes and then open it up to all of the members. Let's first start with exploring the problem. I would like to start with Joan and ask each of you in turn to provide your synopsis of your view of the causes of this phenomenon of mistrust in the U.S. government and the particular aspects that you believe are most critical in terms of the government agencies affected and the functioning of the U.S. government. So Joan, we'll start with you and then go right on to David. Thank you.


DEMPSEY: Great, thank you, Linda. I also want to thank the Council for inviting me to participate today. I've had the opportunity to participate in a number of Council activities in the past and I always get more out of the interaction than I give, so thank you. I want to start today with talking about a definition of trust in government. I'll take it right out of the dictionary, it says that it's a "firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of government to meet citizens’ needs." Now for our purposes today, I've defined those basic needs as safety and security, advancement for the common good, and finally, creating conditions that allow people to pursue their own version of happiness without fear or favor—to pursue the American dream as it were.

Now, there's concern among large segments of the population that government is not meeting these basic needs today and I want to offer a few examples of each one. I'll start with two quick ones related to the safety and security of our citizenry. There's growing agreement among all races that the safety and security of black men in particular is not being met, on the other extreme nor is our safety and security from foreign interference in vital democratic processes in this country being met. As to the common good, redefining voting districts in the form of gerrymandering along extremist ideologies, which has been underway by both parties for a number of years, has undermined this notion of common good and led to the rise of what I refer to as "my good." As I said, both parties have participated in this activity, but I think it's one of the things that we could focus on to try to fix. None of these are going to be easy to fix, but that's one that we could actually take demonstrable efforts to try to fix.

There also is a growing segment of voters who believe that globalization—traditionally supported by government elites in both parties—has left them behind. President Trump has capitalized on this phenomenon, but he didn't create this issue. This voting segment doesn't trust that government can deliver for them. You see this phenomenon largely in those whose jobs have been dislocated by technological advances or have shifted overseas, they've lost faith in their ability to pursue the American dream. Finally, also, there's an emerging majority of the young who are wondering whether democracy works anymore at all. Can it deliver against issues they care about, like climate change and social injustice, just to name two. We could probably spend the rest of our time unpacking each of these ideas, but I hope it provides a starting point for discussion. And I'll stop there and turn to my colleagues to refute, build upon or take us in a totally different direction. How's that for latitude, David Rohde?

ROHDE: I'm not going to dare refute Joan Dempsey and I agree with many of the things you said, Joan. I should say, up front that Joan, I spoke to her for the book I wrote. Thank you, Linda, for that introduction. I should say thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for having me on here. I agree, I mean, there's a tremendous growth in distrust in government and my research was to try to look at it historically. I think people are very familiar with the pattern, you know, the Pew surveys of public trust and government—highest in the Eisenhower era—started cratering through Vietnam and Watergate, they frankly never recovered. The percentage of Americans who said they trusted the government to do the right thing was 17% for Barack Obama and again, it's 17% for Donald Trump. In terms of this fear of a "deep state" plot, which I'll talk about a lot today, I also want to talk about the failings of the news media as a member of that field and I think that they have struggled in many ways, but it's a wakeup call for all of us.

There is a belief in a "deep state" on the left and the right. They use different terms to describe it - Conservatives talk about the administrative state and that would be an ever-growing government that's constantly infringing on our personal rights and on our lives. Liberals use a different terminology—they talk about the military industrial complex. They fear a cabal of generals and defense contracting firms pushing the country into endless war, but it's a reflection of the same deep distrust that is on the left and on the right. And yes, President Trump has taken advantage of this, but it's not going to disappear whenever he leaves office and my broad sort of thesis for this moment, and I'll come back to this again, is I think we're facing the greatest information crisis in U.S. history. It could be disinformation, you know, the strict definition is someone spreading information they know is faulty or misinformation and that's someone spreading information that's wrong, but the person doesn't even know it. I'll keep speaking as a journalist, I think the source for this is the beauty, the amazement of the web, but also this unprecedented situation where you have privately owned tech platforms where rumors can spread across the country and the world within minutes. And there's really no significant fact checking going on by Facebook and Twitter and Google and these other platforms, they face no legal liability for information that's posted online, people can be slandered. I have restrictions on that, as a journalist, I can be sued. So that's my quick... It's an attack on government from all fronts. There's an inability to agree on basic fact. It's going to be a big challenge, whoever's in the White House, and it's, I think, the biggest challenge of our time, this crisis of disinformation. And now I'll hand it over to Steven.

SLICK: All right, thank you very much. Great to see you all today. Thanks for the opportunity to join the discussion - thanks to the council. It's great to see my friend Joan again and to meet Linda and David. First thing I wanted to do is congratulate you David, In Deep, it was a great book. I enjoyed the read. I appreciated your account of some events that I played a small role in and other events that I do my best to teach.

ROHDE: I'm sure got things wrong, but that'll come out in the Q&A.

SLICK: No, the errata sheet will come later, yeah, but your book will help—I appreciate that. I'll confess though I went straight to the end, to the epilogue. I was interested to see where you were going to come out on whether there is in fact a "deep state" functioning in the United States—and I agree completely with you, there is not. I don't want to characterize your views, but this is another conspiracy theory. It's one that's clearly fascinating the president and he uses it both as the scapegoat for policies that haven't worked out or as an all-purpose insult against people who aren't carrying out his orders quickly enough. So I'm going to go from the general to the to the more specific. I don't have any unique insight into the broader questions of trust in government, but I do appreciate the special significance for the intelligence community which is where I worked for almost three decades.

So our intelligence agencies are just like any other government institution, in that they depend on popular support for democratic legitimacy and without that legitimacy, they can't expect to survive for long. But that support is quite difficult to marshal for the intelligence agencies because of the secrecy that surrounds their work and the limited direct dealings they get to have with the government. So here, I'll turn and borrow from my friend, Joel Brenner. Many of you may know, Joel's the former inspector general of the National Security Agency. Well, Joel went back to Fort Meade a couple of years ago and his speech and an anniversary event, I got a copy of it, and I use it regularly in class and here's what he said. He said, "Americans distrust two things, power and secrecy, and the intelligence community has both of these in abundance." I thought that pretty much summarizes the challenge that we face.

Now in ordinary times the IC benefits from public support, shared with them by an elected president, and by members of Congress who serve on the intelligence oversight committees, but, alas, these are not ordinary times. The current president for the last three and a half years has persistently denigrated the intelligence community. Congressional oversight of intelligence work is largely dysfunctional, not entirely, but largely dysfunctional, because of the partisanship that pervades the exercise and the IC leaders have quite rationally, they can't be criticized for it, they've adopted a low-profile survival approach. They are trying to avoid angering the president, keeping their heads down. So all that means that the next group of leaders for our intelligence community are going to have an immediate task of restoring trust to a number of key relationships. I'm writing about it in a separate venue, but one of those relationships is certainly the standing with the American public - and if we have time later in the session, I'll come back to some polling that we've done here at UT that that provides a glimmer of hope in that regard - our IC is genuinely still favorably regarded by the people and that's a strength for them. But I'll pass now.

ROBINSON: Yes, I want to give a brief opening here so that we have a conversational aspect to the event, if any of the panelists would like to immediately take on opening comments of the other, otherwise I'll move on to my next topic.

ROHDE: I'm all set.

DEMPSEY: It would be hard to improve on my colleagues.

ROHDE: Let's keep going.

ROBINSON: Good. Okay, thank you. What I'd like to do actually is have you drill down now on what some of the ramifications and consequences are of this crisis of trust in government. And it occurs to me this could be addressed in two ways, one is with regard to specific policy challenges—Russian interference has been a concern over many years and being now on the very eve of a presidential election the ability to address such US national security and foreign policy challenges is one area I'd like to solicit thoughts on—but also internally, people are starting to write and raise concerns about the prospect of a crisis in transition after the election and a large debate dispute occurring that creates a real crisis during the transition. And I'd like to ask whether any of you have thoughts about how this dysfunction in government may actually manifest itself, either in policy or in this critical juncture. And we'll start this time with David.

ROHDE: All right, now I've got the hot potato. I think it's having an impact in myriad ways and I'll start with one basic thing I want to say, I tried really hard in this book to not be partisan or sort of blame all this on Donald Trump. I think that ignores, again, the kind of crisis of confidence we all face, including the media. I talked to many aides, people, current informers who worked with him and, you know, I'll just put this finding out. The president himself, according to the people I spoke with, doesn't believe that nonpartisan public service can exist. He's a product of kind of the New York real estate world so he believes that everybody's sort of putting spin on the ball, everybody's exaggerating the facts in a way that benefits themselves, whether it's an intelligence analyst who's briefing him in the morning or a reporter who's asking a question and writing a story that afternoon. And he also does not. He believes the intelligence community actively undermined him and his legitimacy and the Trump-Russia investigation was unfair, and he doesn't trust the aides beneath him. This is why he feels he has to tweet his policies to get them implemented because these "deep state" folks won't carry them out.

The danger of all this is that, as Steve said, low profile survival approach of the intelligence experts in our government. You don't have Chris Wray and Gina Haspel, and other senior intelligence officials testifying in public. You have all, you know, many listeners have heard this already, but you had the DHS whistleblower recently who said that they were not allowed to issue reports about Russian interference. Beyond that case though there's well documented reporting out there that people in the government are afraid of raising the issue of Russian interference with the president because he gets enraged or very suspicious of it. And then I think a more dangerous way it's impacting things is that recent announcement by the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, that there would no longer be in person briefings on foreign interference in the election. A sitting president is two months away from facing reelection. The intelligence chiefs are afraid or minimizing their public statements about what they know and then you have a new official, John Ratcliffe, blocking information from Congress and from the public. To me, this is all unprecedented and incredibly dangerous. But I mentioned the Trump thing, and I'll finish with that, and that there's a human level of distrust that the President himself feels. I had one former Trump aide say he wished that there could be a small circle of aides the President trusted that he would rely on as information sources. But right now it's a very destructive cycle and the President himself may be convinced, if he loses the election, that it was fixed - he may sincerely believe that. So I'll leave you with that difficult and distressing thought.

ROBINSON: Let me turn to Joan next to give your thoughts on what's the most acute impact of this phenomenon and then we'll go back to Steven. Thank you.

DEMPSEY: All right. Thanks, Linda. You know, we talk about distrust of the political elite towards the bureaucracy, towards the government professionals as I prefer to refer to them. There's also a counter argument that, and Steve touched on this a little bit, there's also the distrust of the government professionals towards the political elite when they see activities being carried out that are inimical to law, or to truth to power—which is something that we in the intelligence business like to claim as our motto as it were—and so seeing that break down in the ability of the political elite to trust the government officials and the government officials to trust the political elite is very destructive to our form of government and to getting things done.


There was only one time in my entire career when I felt like I was asked to do something that was not within the boundaries of the law, and I made a point of saying that I thought this was wrong and that we had to go to Congress and get it approved. And as a result of taking that stand, I got an invitation to go see a special prosecutor and a grand jury to explain why I took upon myself that prerogative and I said because there were only about 30 people in the entire government who knew about this activity and if I or one of those other 29 didn't raise our hand then who was going to raise an issue with this activity? It all turned out fine—I'm still here—but you have to be able to speak truth to power and you have to feel like the processes are safe and are legitimate and that you can undertake those kinds of actions and that's what I worry about most about what's happening today. I don't see that give and take very much. I don't know, Steve, if you feel the same way.

SLICK: That's a terrific point, Joan and it brings up something that we spend a lot of time with our students on. Students are hungry to talk about ethical and moral dilemmas that arise in public service, and I have no doubt you and many others displayed that during your careers, but it's something that the next generation is keenly interested in - it's important to them and it's great to see examples. So while we could paint a relatively bleak landscape for the security agencies in the current administration, I must say there are bright spots. Everybody will recall, you know, the testimony by foreign service officers, NSC staffers, inspectors general, who put their careers and positions on the line and most of whom were punished for their ethical conduct and for fulfilling their responsibilities, and so these are important examples to draw out.

Now, in the interest of time on this issue of impact, I'll just focus on one small thing that David mentioned and that's, again, the issue of Russian electoral interference. I guess I would just describe it as a disappointing performance for not only the administration, but the career professionals in government and that we experienced this in 2016. So you can be tolerant and understanding that perhaps the Obama administration, in the summer of 2016, didn't have all the answers may not have made, as the Senate report has made clear all the correct decisions about when to raise these issues with the public, what actions to take and when to take them so I think they get an allowance for that, but that was for years ago, right? And so fast forward to today, we have a situation where I have no doubt through our enormous collection capabilities and diligence we understand a great deal about what Russia, what Iran, what China, and perhaps other states are doing to influence our election. That information is, I'm assured, being shared with the two campaigns and the candidates. So the President receives it in his capacity as President, Vice President Biden knows everything that we know in his capacity as a challenger. And other than this, this hiccup with not allowing oral briefings, but rather conveying information to the Congress in writing, the members of Congress and the oversight committees are also being told about what's happening.

My question, and I've asked it several times, is who's talking to the American public, telling them, the voters, which sources of information they should believe in, have confidence in, which ones they should challenge, what foreign governments are attempting to steal their franchise and interfere in our election? There have been several attempts, always involving a different cast of characters. It usually ends in a two or three paragraph statement that says foreign governments are attempting to interfere in our election. Don't worry, we're on top of it, it will be okay, right? And I just find that woefully inadequate and unsatisfactory. After four years of planning and preparation for what was certain to be foreign attempts to influence our election, we don't have a strategy in place. We don't have a person, we don't have an organization, a spokesman to convey this to the American people in a way that's useful to them and I find that absolutely shameful. I'm sympathetic for the mid-level officers that they've been trotting out to give this testimony and to convey these generalities to the public, but we should be hearing from the DNI, from the CIA director, from the attorney general of the United States and people that have responsibility for this matter, but we're not. And so I think that's something that needs to be looked at intensely after this election, whether the president's reelected or not.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Steve. And I appreciate your leaning ahead into the next question - which is really what needs to be done? And I would like, hold on, because I'm going to come back to you for the first round on this last question before I open it up. Certainly the lack of briefings on the hill is just a fundamental gap in the ability of the public to be informed and the lack—for example, I think the first time, at least in my memory, there was no worldwide threat assessment briefing by the DNI this year, a vital and comprehensive briefing. But I'd like to push further and think of programmatic reforms that any of you think maybe should be enacted, whether it's in the executive branch, actions Congress should take, or and I know, David, you've been very concerned with the health of the news media, which is how a citizen democracy functions. So let me first come back to Steve for any specific programmatic reforms you might—or steps you might take—there could be prosecutorial steps, I don't know. But then go down the line as well for some quick thoughts so we can open up in about three minutes to the group. Thank you, Steve.

SLICK: Okay, thanks so much. I'll just say briefly, I think if the president's reelected, I don't think this landscape is going to change particularly. It will be a challenge, I think, for the intelligence and law enforcement organizations, frankly, to survive through another four years of that behavior like the current administration, but I want to talk about the challenge that the next administration is going to face. And I think they're going to need to renew relationships. The first thing is they're going to have to develop a different kind of relationship with the President and the President's inner circle of policymakers. The intelligence committees in the Congress, as I mentioned, are going to need to be restocked to remove the partisanship. They should be looking for bipartisan, if not nonpartisan, members interested in serious oversight to assign to these committees. The powers and responsibilities of inspectors general I think need to be looked at closely and probably bolstered.

And finally, I'd say the IC itself needs to open up and make a serious attempt to control over classification which is endemic and never been hampered and take up the transparency project that the Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, in 2015 started and is now largely stalled. They need to be more open, more accessible to the people, explain who they are and what they do, and field responsible questions, and take away the perception that they hide behind secrecy rather than use essential secrecy to be effective in their missions. And the last thing I want to say—I don't want to steal all the time, but I just want to leave with an optimistic note and tell you, as I mentioned, that our polling over the last four years University of Texas has confirmed that most Americans do believe their intelligence community is vital to the safety of the United States and also that they're effective at doing their job. And also that we have full classes of graduate and undergraduate students anxious to get into public service and do something impactful with their lives and that's a great start because they recognize the value of civil service.

ROBINSON: Excellent. Thank you, Steve. Let's go to Joan for about sixty to ninety seconds of comment and David. I'm very committed to getting our two hundred and forty-four people into the conversation. Thank you.

DEMPSEY: Great, Linda. Thank you. And Steve, thanks for that last comment—I think it's great. Another area where I think there is great trust in government is that the local level. Citizens appreciate what their local political leaders and permanent career people inside local government do for them. And we saw this a lot at the state level too, regarding some of the activities with the pandemic and they've stepped in to fill some voids I think that the federal government has left. But I think unifying leadership - which I have no way of projecting whether that's going to be a focus in the next administration, whoever wins—but a leader, a president who takes on leadership of the entire country is something that we've enjoyed in the past and I'm hopeful for the future. I also think that electoral reform is—and there's a whole host of issues here, financial, objective districting for voting, those kinds of things that we need to take on in the future. Those are sort of pie in the sky though, I really go back to this idea of unifying leadership, giving people hope. Without hope it's very hard to have confidence in your government and I think that's one of the biggest things we need to try to restore. Rather than going on, David, I'm going to turn it over to you and let you sum up all of this for us.

ROHDE: And I'll—Linda, I'll keep this short. You know, there are opinion polls about views of the news media and actually the American public sees the role of the news media, in calling political leaders to account and in calling out false statements, as more important than ever. But what people are frustrated with is what they see as growing partisanship in the news media. So in terms of... you know, I'm optimistic too. I think reporters need to report and be less partisan. We've got plenty of opinion columnist that are sort of filling the airwaves and the web with opinion, but I think sticking to facts is more important than ever for journalists and that will increase the public's trust in journalism. And just more broadly, my book goes back and starts with the Church reforms and Frank Church and John Tower and all of the people they examined in the FBI and CIA faced a tremendous doubt and loss and public confidence. But that generation rose to the challenge. They enacted reforms in the government, in the media, across society that worked fairly well over the last several decades. So I think we can rise to this challenge as well. It's vital to be optimistic, our enemy is sort of cynicism and alienation and I there are lots of young journalists out there, as Steve said, classes are full. So let's, let's keep trying, let's not give up.

ROBINSON: Thank you all so much. I appreciate it and I'd like to turn immediately now to our members and Teagan will field the questions. I would urge you to be succinct in your question and direct it to one of the three panelists. I will strive to get at least a dozen to fifteen comments and perhaps we can work out a way for an ongoing dialogue. But thank you and over to you, Teagan. This is all on the record, by the way.

STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions) We will take our first question from Bobby Inman. Mr. Inman, please accept the unmute now prompt.

Q: Bob Inman, University of Texas at Austin. To add a slight optimistic note in the current activity, my sense is that the Senate Select Committee is in fact continuing to perform in a bipartisan manner. The extensive report they put together on Russian activity in 2016 seems to me to be a pretty solid product and my understanding is that they are continuing to get briefings. The challenge here is, the House Select Committee where the leaks are alleged to have been consistent. Confirmation? Disagreement?

DEMPSEY: Well, Bobby, I would never disagree with you.

SLICK: Yes, I feel compelled to state as a matter of principle, I never disagree with the man who my chair is named after, my great friend and mentor Bob Inman. I think you're absolutely right. And you'll remember when we hosted an event last year down here with Chairman Burr and Vice chairman Warner, and we congratulated them then, and we congratulate them now. They did really stellar work over a period of years on the Russian election interference matter. And I think that stands as an exception to the partisanship that otherwise pervades that body. So I think you're absolutely right, sir.

DEMPSEY: I agree with that ad roll. And also, I think the staff should be commended. It's a professional staff. It's not a partisan staff, and they really do work on behalf of the Congress, the American people, and on behalf of the intelligence community, frankly, to try to get as much good out of intelligence as it's possible to get so absolutely agree with you, one hundred percent.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Let's go right ahead to the next question. Thank you.

STAFF: We will take the next question from Mansoor Shams.

Q: Hello. This question is for David. You talked about the role of media and misinformation and disinformation at the onset of your remarks earlier and I've thought a lot about this in a personal capacity. I'm a Muslim American U.S. Marine veteran and the founder of, where I use my platform of Muslim and Marine to counter hate and bigotry, Islamophobia, through education, conversation and dialogue. Now, I've done over one-hundred-plus interviews on some of the largest media outlets. I write regularly op eds, again on some of the largest media outlets, and many people who see me on TV, or the role of seeing myself on TV, make certain interpretations—this guy must be an expert, this guy is this or that, he must know it. And I say this because when I see someone on television that's exactly how I think, because they must be someone special that they were able to get on television. It's a very powerful, influential platform with huge ramifications of, as you said, misinformation and disinformation. With the exception of one time on PBS, I was asked for verification information. One time.

I'm asking why, why is it this way? Who's to say I am who I say I am? Who verifies this? Thank you.

ROHDE: First of all, Mansoor, thank you for your service in uniform and then it sounds like the work you've been doing since then is a public service also and please keep going. The quick and not great answer is that there was a giant economic crisis for journalism that occurred with the rise of the web, newspapers have gone bankrupt. And the way you make money is by—particularly in terms of then cable television as well, everything is being divided into smaller and smaller audiences and niches. It's still profitable, but essentially for cable TV you go hard to the right, hard to the left, you drive up your ratings and that works. It's similar digitally - that's what you see. I've done television interviews myself and I don't think there is enough vetting. I guess back to this crisis of information, there's kind of a sense of free speech and information is information and people can say whatever they want, but you know, information is power. The President, I think, has been very effective at attacking alternative sources of information and discrediting them. And so I think that the media needs to think in the long term, and the short-term pursuit of ratings and clicks undermines the media and I thank you for your work. That's not a great answer, but I want to let others ask.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much. Thank you. Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Ronnie Heyman.

Q: I'd like to ask Stephen, we spent quite a lot of time on this session on the foreign election interference.

What is your opinion of the proliferation of mail in ballots? And what impact will that have on the level of distrust about any election result?

SLICK: Yeah, thank you very much. It's a very important question. I have to confess that I bring no particular insight to the issue to be honest. I watch the news; I hear the competing claims. I guess the most succinct way I can describe my approach to it is I will be sending in a mail ballot in the vote for the presidency and I have complete confidence that it will land where it's supposed to be and be counted, and that will be how I exercise my franchise. But other than that I may invite David or Joan if they have a view. I claim no special expertise in the reliability of the mail or incidences of fraud associated with mail in ballots. I know what I hear on the news just like you.

DEMPSEY: I agree.

ROHDE: And I would just say in my reporting, I found there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail voting. I emphasize widespread, there's cases here and there, but that has not occurred, and everyone cites Utah which is a conservative state but mail in voting. So it is not widespread.

ROBINSON: Thank you both. Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Charles Herman.

Q: Chuck Herman from Texas A&M University's Bush School.

What can be done to increase public confidence in the outcome of the November election?

ROHDE: Can I jump in?

Q: Please.

ROHDE: Everyone should wait several weeks if needed for the outcome of the election. The old model of all the TV folks sitting around and there's a call that night might not apply this year and we shouldn't sort of panic if there isn't an immediate result. And I would—I worked years ago on checking manual voting of hanging chads in Florida. That process worked well, I know it was mocked on TV. So we have this hugely diffuse electoral system with county boards of elections controlling things. So patience, waiting, trusting that there are nonpartisan public servants who are counting these votes, that there are observers from both parties watching them, and ignoring all the noise, I think is the best thing and that should be the message to the public, from journalists and from elected officials, is patience in November.

SLICK: May I jump in and just again return to the issue of foreign election interference and share a view? Although I was critical earlier in my remarks about how this administration has prepared for the election and for describing foreign election interference to the public, there's still time and I would fully anticipate or not be surprised to have us experience a tremendously untidy, difficult period while we sort out who won the election. And during that there will be a great deal of information and misinformation claims both false and possibly legitimate of what role foreign governments may have played or how they may have manipulated vote counts. I think they should be anticipating that, and we should know who in the government is going to speak on a factual basis to the truth or falsehood of those claims. This is not going to be a matter of waiting for six weeks for an intelligence assessment to come out. The responsible individuals and government have to be prepared to step up and describe exactly what foreign governments did or didn't do, based on the information we have because there will be doubtless court proceedings, there will be debates in public or possibly even worse, and this is a matter the intelligence community should anticipate and be prepared to step up to.

ROBINSON: Let's go ahead to the next question, please.

STAFF: We will take the next question from Vera Zakem.

Q: Thank you all. Vera Zakem from Institute for Security and Technology. I would love to ask the question, this is kind of related, which is you've mentioned especially to Stephen, and I would like others to comment if appropriate, how should, past this election, how should the U.S. government be organized to combat the threats and challenges holistically?

And this is also really beyond the intelligence community when it comes to election interference and disinformation issues. Where should, in your opinion, where should the belly button sit to really not just produce evidence-based assessments and policy, but also create this level of trust from the public?

ROBINSON: Hi Vera. Joan would you like to take that one on first and we'll see what the others may also wish to add?

DEMPSEY: I just want to note that she asked Steve first, but I will say very, very important question and I don't think I'm qualified at the moment to say where that responsibility ought to reside in the government. I am heartened by the fact I mentioned early on that there is a lot of faith in local governments and local governments are the ones that are primarily today responsible for the election processes. Not that they don't have major challenges, they do, and I think we could make some definite improvements in that regard. But I think your question is a really good one. Should we have a more centralized place to manage the election process in this country? I don't know the answer to that—there's lots of implications from it. But today, it's in local governments and we need to reinforce their ability to ensure that those elections can be carried out the way that we want them carried out in a democracy. Steve?

SLICK: Yeah, I think that's right, Joan. And I'm also reluctant to hazard a guess to pick, as we say, in Washington a belly button for all of this because it does, indeed the issue of defending our democracy and our electoral processes against foreign manipulation and foreign interference, whether they're state or non-state actors, that's a really big deal and it's not going away and it's going to implicate bureaucratic turf, it's going to implicate budgets, it's going to involve accountability. I suspect it resides somewhere in the neighborhood of Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. I would argue that it doesn't rest with the director of national intelligence, just because of all the dealings that have to take place with the private sector and with American technology firms. That's not a place where you—that's not a job that you want to give to your intelligence professionals—it belongs elsewhere. There is an information role for them to play but that's a real threshold question that you've raised that again, four and a half years after we first learned of foreigners interfering in our elections using technology, we can't answer for you, who in your government, your federal government is responsible, directly responsible and accountable for this. And that should be corrected.

DEMPSEY: I do know Vera that, and to Steve's point, although it has not been put out publicly in any large way, but there have been a lot of improvements at the state and local level in securing voting rights and voting opportunities. Every state has made improvements because they are very much aware of foreign interference and even potentially domestic interference. So there has been a lot of work that's done, unfortunately that hasn't been widely distributed or isn't widely known, but the states and the localities are trying very hard to make sure that their processes have integrity and that the American people can trust in them.

ROBINSON: Let's go ahead to the next question. Thank you.

STAFF: (Repeats queueing instructions). We will take our next question from Mark McLaughlin.

Q: Hi, this is Mark McLaughlin. I'm a strategy lead at IBM and my question is, not surprisingly, technology related.

And this is probably for David, but maybe pertinent to all the panelists, I think, touched on the question, how should government regulate technology going forward? What should Congress do? What should the president do to increase potentially the public's trust in government and how can government do that without actually eroding the trust further by appearing to sort of take a partisan view? What remedies do you see the government having in that realm?

ROHDE: Two things. Thank you, it's a great question, and no one has an answer. I do think we have utterly failed to legislate for the digital age. We don't have clear laws about what government can look at, how to protect our privacy, and when you can slander people or not, but anyway, the best thing the government do is more transparency. If you're a government official, easy for me to say, do more interviews with the jackals of the press, go to more of these painful hearings and be questioned by grossly partisan Democrats and Republicans, trust the American public to trust you. Over classification is a huge problem that Steve mentioned earlier and have faith that it if you're out there showing you're a nonpartisan public servant that most people will recognize that in interviews and in stories, so that's one thing. Second, Senator Warner, I applaud the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee also. I do think there's a problem where these tech platforms have no legal liability whatsoever for the information that they're posting online. That so much is posted that they can't really track it. There's a lot of talk of revising section 230. I don't want it to be, you know... the government is deciding what's politically biased or not. But I do think there's a way to look at liability or the amplification, when people should have the right to post anything they want, but do these companies have any liability for amplifying false or derogatory or defamatory information would be one way to try to create a check and balance that does exist in the press now. If I print something that's defamatory, I can be sued. There should be something like that to apply to online information, it's just as important and just as impactful.

ROBINSON: Oh, Steve or Joan, would you like to add anything before we move ahead?

DEMPSEY: No. Great answer on David's part.

ROBINSON: Good. Thank you. Yes, please go ahead to the next question.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Garrett Mitchell.

Q: Thanks very much. I'm Garrett Mitchell. I want to ask the relative to the question about whether there ought to be a central or more federal focal point on our elections.

I want to go to the state level and ask whether, if it were politically feasible, which I doubt it is, would you favor the de-politicization of the secretary of state's role at the state level—given that they're the ones that oversee elections and we think about Georgia as a classic example. Might that be a way to de-politicize this process?

DEMPSEY: It's a really good question.

ROHDE: I can—you want to go Joan?


SLICK: All you David.

ROHDE: So when I interviewed Joan for my book about the "deep state," she talked about most government officials, career government officials as being competent do gooders. I think journalists needs to be more nonpartisan and I think there needs to be an increase in government and nonpartisan positions. It'll be incredibly difficult, you would need a political process to make secretaries of state nonpartisan, but I do think there's a growing audience of Americans who sort of welcome that. They see how…the public sees how this division endangers public health in terms of the pandemic and I think we have to double down on the concept of nonpartisan public service. We have to punish people who are found violating that, but I think that's our answer, is more nonpartisanship, not less. And again, an earlier generation faced the same crises in the seventies and came up with reforms and made progress.

DEMPSEY: Garrett, I will add, and I do think it's an excellent question and an excellent suggestion, but I think I mentioned the sort of extremist gerrymandering and the fact that we redistrict many voting districts into highly politicized groups and that creates all kinds of problems for us. If we can't fix that problem, then I don't see how states are going to make their secretaries of state, nonpolitical. So I think it's sort of the flip side of the same coin, but it's an excellent suggestion.

ROBINSON: So we'll go ahead, I do note that the great intelligence expertise on the panel may not extend to the mechanics of the electoral system, but I think it's clear from the dialog thus far that election security is absolutely front and center and we might hope for more programming in that regard. I believe I will turn it back to our manager to queue up the next question and look forward to the last seven minutes with anyone else who wants to jump in. Thank you.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Ronald Tiersky.

Q: I'm Ronald Tiersky from Amherst College, Emeritus.

What strikes me, one of the things that strikes me about the—let's talk about Russia—the Russian interference in our election—is that nobody is talking about what our response is to Russia. Seems that Facebook taking down accounts and that sort of thing is what we do. In terms of trusting governments, it seems to me that it would be very good if someone in authority in the government talked about what actions our government is taking to deal with the Russian government. If we're so convinced that the Russian government is involved. Otherwise, I think the public, in terms of public confidence in government, public confidence in government needs to know that our government is not helpless, that we are not just undergoing this or accepting this influence, that our government is actually doing something.

SLICK: If the panelists will allow me, I'll start this off, but I'm sure it leads back to David, you've done reporting on this I know, and Joan will have a view as well. But I think it's a great question. You're asking essentially what is our policy, our bilateral policy with respect to Russia on the issue of interfering in our election, and so I'd take it in two swats. I think there's a strategic and tactical here. On the tactical level I think we do know a little bit and some of the leaders of the relevant agencies have been public and been vocal about this. In specific I'm talking about NSA and some of the public explanations they've given for the work in the midterm election in 2018, right?

It's not completely detailed and well understood, but a number of people in government, in the community, have gone out and described something, an informal structure called the Russian small group, that was convened in advance of the 2018 elections and met regularly and coordinated a number of tactical responses. I'm talking about servers and dealings with foreign states and upgrading defenses for networks that we knew were being actively targeted. So I think there was a tactical response, at least at the midterm election, it was well organized, and the people involved in it claimed that it was quite successful, and there's no reason to doubt them. Although we don't know what Russia's actual intentions were for that election, whether they were going all out or simply playing at half speed. So I do think there's some information out there for you and for others in the public about what we did tactically to keep the last election safe. And so that requirement is satisfied. Strategically, bilaterally, diplomatically what we've said and done to Russia is clearly, David will confirm this, something that senior officials in this administration are simply not allowed to talk about at the White House. It is no trespassing. It apparently lights off the president and is a major blind spot. If we can't hold interagency discussions about how we should react to Russia it's unlikely we're going to have an effective policy, but I'll hand that off to David on the strategic bilateral front.

ROHDE: I'll just say we have no agreement what our long-term strategy should be towards Russia because we're so divided politically, there's sort of no agreement on the importance of Russia interference, the effect it might have had in 2016. Again, I’ve got to go back to Texas here – Jones’s dad is from Texas too - one of the characters in my book is representative Will Hurd, former CIA officer. You know, when he was on the House Intelligence Committee watched the whole impeachment proceeding regarding President Trump and Ukraine and he sincerely told me he found the President's actions towards Ukraine to be amateurish and unorthodox, but not criminal. So I just want to think that there will be a price to pay for politicians if playing to partisanship and sort of presenting these two different realities, that just leads us to have no policy, the American people see the impact of that. I think you see that with the pandemic, the inability to agree on whether we need to wear masks or not. If there's ever evidence of why you need a nonpartisan public servant, I would argue it's Dr. Tony Fauci. I know he's criticized by some folks seen as being against the president, but I call it the institutional government, I did not find a "deep state." That's rhetoric that Donald Trump uses to discredit government officials who disagree with him. But I think we all have to work to regain that trust and part of that trust is coming up with realistic policies, not simply partisanship and paralysis.

ROBINSON: So I want to thank all of you. We have come to the end of our time, I wanted to note that since it's a Council on Foreign Relations event and with regard to this last topic, Foreign Affairs has a very good article by the Cyber Commander General Paul Nakasone and his senior adviser Michael Sulmeyer, who is a colleague of some of you. So I think that was an effort by a senior government official to assure people with regard to the elections and what Cyber Command is doing. With regard to external threats. So again, I want to thank you all very much for an important discussion and we look forward to convening again on these important topics. Thanks again.


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