WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is joining federal, state and local officials on the frontlines of the battle to protect the country's elections from foreign interference.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper made the announcement Thursday, saying that, from now on, election security will be one of the military's enduring missions, and that his department will seek to take the fight to the country's enemies.
"The lines between war and peace have now blurred," Esper said, citing an exponential expansion of dangers in cyberspace. "Our paradigm for war has changed."
"Our adversaries see cyberwarfare as a way to take on the United States and impose costs without confronting our traditional strengths," he said.
The decision to make election security a core part of the military's mission comes with campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election well underway, with more than a dozen candidates looking to unseat President Donald Trump.
It also represents a significant expansion of the military's role in protecting the integrity of U.S. elections, which until now had been more modest.
Despite concerns about Russian and Chinese efforts to meddle in last November's midterm elections, the Defense Department was in the background, standing up a handful of cyber protection teams that could have been called upon to assist the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), if needed.
"There would not be any independent DoD teams. We would operate in concert with DHS for incident response for election security," Ed Wilson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy, said at the time, emphasizing Homeland Security officials would be in the lead.
But Esper said the growing threat landscape necessitated a larger military role.
"We need to do more than just play goal line defense," he said. "The Department of Defense has an important role in defending the American people from this misinformation, particularly as it pertains to preserving the integrity of our democratic elections."
For months now, current and former U.S. intelligence and security officials have warned that Russia is actively working to interfere in the 2020 elections, whether with disinformation campaigns or by targeting U.S. election infrastructure, such as voter databases.
"It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here," former special counsel Robert Mueller, tasked with investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections, told lawmakers this past July. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
Intelligence officials' warnings
Mueller also echoed warnings from top intelligence officials that in 2020, Russia would not be alone.
"Many more countries are developing capabilities to replicate what the Russians have done," he added.
"Our adversaries will continue to target our democratic processes," he warned Thursday. "This is already happening in preparation for the 2020 elections."
In addition to Russia, officials have said evidence shows Iran and China tried to meddle in the 2018 elections. And they expect the list to grow.
"2018 was maybe a playoff game; 2020 is the Super Bowl with election security," Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Thursday.
"State and local election officials are standing on the frontlines of a renewed conflict, defending our nation's election systems against state and criminal actors," he said. "I'm committed to ensuring that they do not stand alone."
For state and local election officials, more help may soon be on the way.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday agreed to support legislation that would provide states with an additional $250 million for election security.
Congressional approval needed
The measure still needs approval from the full Senate and from the House of Representatives, as well as Trump's signature, for the funds to be doled out. But while lawmakers and officials see McConnell's support as a positive sign, other security officials worry it, by itself, will not be enough.
"I think (it's) a great step forward. But what's next?" Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said to reporters.
"Because if it's these inconsistent, mass injections of cash every 10 years or eight years, that creates some disruption," he said. "The thing they (state officials) want more than anything with funding, whether it comes from their state or whether it comes through the federal government, is consistency."
At least one key lawmaker believes the U.S. is at least on the right track.
"I'm quite confident in 2020, in terms of the election being legitimate and secure," said Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
"Russia has always been trying to interfere. They always have, always will. Iran, China. We just have to be more discerning as consumers," he said.