Q&A: Getting to Know the Election Threats Executive
In the summer of 2019, Shelby Pierson was appointed the Intelligence Community’s first Election Threats Executive (ETE) to serve as the DNI’s principal adviser on all election security-related matters. Pierson coordinates and integrates all election security activities, initiatives, and programs across the IC and synchronizes intelligence efforts in support of the broader U.S. government.
Pierson discussed her role as the ETE, the current threat landscape, and the latest on election security efforts in the Q and A below.
Q: You are almost six months into the ETE role. What have you focused on since taking on this new position?
A: I am focused on a number of things. First, it is important that the IC understand that the ETE office is a service organization and is here to both provide support to all the agencies as they work this mission space as well as also provide an entry point to the IC for our customers. The other agencies have also identified election leads so we have spent time maturing how we work together to accomplish cross-community outcomes. Second, I have had the privilege of building a new staff that has brought new energy and focus to this topic. We are focused on how the IC can best support the FBI and DHS leadership roles they have in election security and countering malign influence. I want to see us evolve and continue to cultivate this whole-of-government approach to securing our elections and encourage our mission partners to reach beyond their limits and look beyond 2020. We have really great momentum right now but there is still more we can do in terms of sharing information, enhancing internal processes, and getting the right messaging out to the American public expeditiously. I’m lucky to be witness to such a great team of professionals from across the community and I am constantly impressed by all of the work that is being done across the government.
Q: What is the intelligence community’s role in securing the 2020 election?
A: In sum, the IC collects, analyzes, reports and operationalizes information of foreign threats to elections which includes threats to election-related infrastructure, as well as foreign influence operations. Through our FBI and DHS partners, the IC shares appropriate intelligence to state and local election officials, and private sector partners to include social and digital media platforms.
Q: How does the IC work with the FBI and DHS on election security?
A: The IC works “hand in glove” with FBI and DHS on all election security issues. We are working together to help state and local officials, security providers, election vendors, and campaign officials develop resilience through defensive briefings, downgrading and sharing intelligence, and providing technical information to network defenders. This mission requires active participation on all sides. State and local officials continue to help us better understand their concerns and how we can better support them which in turn creates a much stronger relationship.
Q: How have the federal government’s election security efforts evolved since the 2016 election?
A: Election security remains a top priority for the U.S. Federal government as a whole. We have significantly evolved since 2016 and I don’t imagine we’ll decelerate anytime soon. At least speaking for the IC, there are considerably more resources focused on all aspects of this issue, we have improved upon some of our info-sharing processes, we have a new strategy that has prioritized our threats, new data streams and broader engagement across the private sector and academia. Our efforts and integration on this topic are more robust then they have ever been and we will continually seek to improve as we go forward.
Q: When we talk about election interference and influence, what does the current threat landscape look like?
A: The threat landscape is diverse, complicated and larger that it has ever been. . On one end, you have Russia who seeks to polarize American voters by using social media to inflame and shape opinions, while on the other end, you have China who continues to use a variety of nefarious tactics to influence and challenge the U.S. as a global economic superpower. Iran, particularly in light of the current situations, continues to flex its abilities to promote their strategic goals and perspectives through social media channels and cybercriminals and they have already demonstrated attempts to compromise election infrastructure.
Q: How does the federal government engage with the states to protect our elections?
A: FBI and DHS have the primary role of engaging with the states. The IC works closely with them to provide downgraded intelligence through defensive briefings and share critical information. In partnership with DHS and FBI, the IC continues to meet with state and local partners to discuss information sharing and how we can enhance our support to them.
Q: What do you want the American people to know about the work of the ETE?
A: First and foremost, there are many dedicated professionals working across the Intelligence Community to ensure that our elections are free from foreign interference and influence. Also, this was not a unique, one-time challenge only seen in 2020. The threats we face have been long standing and are merely evolving before our eyes. In the clearest terms, technology has enabled our adversaries to reach into our democracy, and the American public is the target. For this reason, Americans should know that they too can help protect our elections by improving their media literacy and staying mindful of where information is coming from. The FBI’s Protected Voices initiative is a good resource to help individuals develop better cyber habits and find the tools they need to help protect themselves against online foreign influence operations and cybersecurity threats. Additionally, every voter should know the official website of their local election office to get accurate election information and FBI, DHS and the ODNI have dedicated webpages where all of this information and more, can be found.
Q: What does your work on election security mean to you personally?
A: Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people.” Americans and Americans alone should be able to decide the direction of our country through their vote. As an intelligence officer, I appreciate the diversity, complexity, and urgency of the election security issue. It pulls on every aspect of our enterprise and allows me to work across a broad mission spectrum. I can think of no more important or satisfying work than to do my part to protect our elections. And I am humbled to be part of the IC team.