DOD advancing cyber capabilities in preparation for 'enduring' election security mission

By Justin Doubleday / September 19, 2019 at 6:04 PM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper considers election security an "enduring mission" for the Defense Department, as DOD advances its cyber capabilities to thwart potential influence operations executed by adversaries like Russia and China ahead of 2020.

"Moving forward, I consider election security an enduring mission for the Department of Defense," Esper said today during an address to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's annual summit at National Harbor, MD. "Our adversaries will continue to target our democratic processes. This is a reality of world we live in today."

U.S. Cyber Command supported the Department of Homeland Security in defending against cyber threats to the 2018 mid-term elections, an effort Esper deemed "a proof of principle."

"We must remain adaptable and continue to advance our capabilities," he said. "This is already happening in preparation for the 2020 elections."

The defense secretary also said influence operations targeting the American public are "at a scope and scale never before imagined" and asserted DOD's role in defending against the propagation of misinformation.

Esper tied the success in 2018 in part to DOD's new "defend forward" cyber strategy. Rather than relying entirely on defending networks against attacks, the strategy prioritizes letting U.S. cyber forces intrude on or even attack adversary networks to thwart their cyber and influence operations.

"By defending forward, we are able to see and understand the malicious cyber behavior, allowing us to publicly expose that activity and its culprits," Esper said. "It's also posturing us to take action against these threats at their source before they reach the homeland."

He also credited interagency cooperation. Last year, ahead of the 2018 elections, the leaders of DOD and DHS signed a "memorandum of understanding" that laid out a more expanded role for the U.S. military in the nation's cybersecurity efforts while outlining parameters for cyber cooperation between the two agencies.

President Trump has also loosened the parameters under which DOD can launch an offensive cyber operation through the classified National Security Presidential Memoradum-13 signed last August, according to the defense secretary.

"The passage of NSPM-13 gave us the authorities needed to more fully employ our cyber capabilities in an offensive manner," Esper said. "This policy reflects a shared understanding of the need to maximize the effectiveness of the department's cyber warriors."