Suzanne Spaulding is a scholar at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum.
Foreign interference in our democracy goes well beyond elections. As we look to the courts to resolve constitutional clashes between Congress and the White House, an adversary nation is actively working to undermine the legitimacy of those courts. As part of its broad campaign against democracy, Russia’s information operations are targeting public faith and confidence in the independence and impartiality of our justice system. This attack on a fundamental pillar of our democracy needs to be recognized and countered as a serious national security threat.
Exploiting institutional and societal vulnerabilities of our own making, adversaries exacerbate tensions within democracies with the hope of gradually eroding overall public confidence in the whole of the democracy, not just elections. Institutions like the US justice system—a system traditionally held in high regard—have gotten caught in the crosshairs of these attacks. Preying on sensationalist and divisive topics, the Kremlin has promoted stories that paint the justice system as corrupt and hypocritical. There are four primary frames that we have identified Russia pushing across platforms:
- The justice system tolerates, protects, and covers up crimes committed by immigrants
- The justice system operationalizes the institutionally racist and corrupt police state
- The justice system directly supports and enables corporate corruption
- The justice system is a tool of the political elite.
Russian-backed accounts and bot networks routinely promote this messaging online. Further, these ideas are reinforced on Russian state-sponsored media programs targeting democratic audiences. For example, RT America has a regular program called ‘America’s Lawyer,’ and Sputnik has a podcast called ‘Criminal Injustice’, both of which are dedicated to unrelentingly depicting the US justice system as irrevocably broken. Senior Russian leaders, including Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, openly participate in this propaganda effort through their public statements.
It is easy to rationalize why these adversary threats to our justice system go unnoticed. First, they often amplify legitimate grievances and domestic voices. But there is a critical difference: justice reform advocates are working to make our country better and stronger. Putin wants to weaken us by portraying problems as immutable and causing us to “walk away” from the civic engagement that is essential to a healthy democracy. Second, there is insufficient appreciation for how much of the courts’ legitimacy, as well as its ability to protect and promote the rule of law, is derived from public confidence. Finally, judges and legal professionals often do not view themselves as consequential targets and as a result, do not take appropriate precautions to prevent, deter, and mitigate the effects of ongoing attacks.
We need to understand that the justice system is, and will continue to be, a vulnerable target ripe for exploitation. At a time when public trust in institutions is declining, we should not assume the courts will be immune. The consequences could be dire. What happens if court rulings are not viewed as legitimate? If a sizeable segment of the public concludes that a court’s decision can be ignored and leaders in Congress and/or the Executive Branch do not defend the binding authority of the court, what happens to the Constitution and our republic? Even at a more personal, local level, if Americans don’t believe they will be treated fairly by the justice system, they are far more likely to give up on the democratic system generally.
Defending against this pernicious campaign to exacerbate declining public trust in democratic institutions requires that we become more resilient. The institutions must defend themselves and work to live up to our aspirations. And the citizenry must take responsibility for being informed and engaged. We need to raise awareness of the threat, develop a rapid response capability, and view civics education as a national security imperative. Our democracy is under attack and we have not mobilized to defend it.
For more information on adversary threats to the US Justice System, see the CSIS report, ‘Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the US Justice System.’
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.