(CNSNews.com) – For the first time, the State Department is leveraging a 36-year-old program created to help bring terrorists to justice, to counter efforts by cyber criminals backed by foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move at a briefing at the department, and indicated that Russia was foremost among those suspected to be involved in such activities.
“Speaking of Russia and other malign actors,” he said, “the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of any person who, acting at the direction or under the control of a foreign government, interferes with U.S. elections by engaging in certain criminal cyber activities.”
He did not elaborate, but the department said in a statement the activities being focused on include malicious cyber operations designed to interfere with federal, state, or local elections, and subject to prosecution under a statute that “prohibits unauthorized accessing of computers to obtain information and transmit it to unauthorized recipients.”
Citing an executive order issued by President Trump in September 2018 declaring that year’s midterm elections a national emergency, the department said, “The ability of persons, as well as foreign powers, to interfere in or undermine public confidence in United States elections, including through the unauthorized accessing of election and campaign infrastructure, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
“For example, foreign adversaries could employ malicious cyber operations targeting election infrastructure, including voter registration databases and voting machines, to impair an election in the United States,” it said.
“Such adversaries could also conduct malicious cyber operations against U.S. political organizations or campaigns to steal confidential information and then leak that information as part of influence operations to undermine political organizations or candidates.”
It’s the first time the Rewards for Justice Program has been used to go after cyber criminals suspected of election interference.
Bringing terrorists to justice is the program’s primary function, although it has offered rewards of up to $5 million for information about individuals engaged in money laundering, sanctions evasion, censorship, human rights abuses and WMD proliferation relating to the North Korean regime.
Last year the program was widened further, with an offer of up to $15 million “for information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of” the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Qods Force.
Also last year, the program offered a reward of up to $20 million for information leading to the safe location, recovery, and return home of the missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago.
(Levinson’s family said last March information received from U.S. officials had led them to conclude that he had “died while in Iranian custody.”)
Administered by the department’s Diplomatic Security Service, the Rewards for Justice Program has since its creation in 1984 paid out more than $150 million to more than 100 people across the globe.
The biggest payout was $30 million given to an individual who provided information that led U.S. forces to Saddam Hussein’s fugitive sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein, killed in a July 2003 shootout in Mosul.
Other terrorists captured as a result of rewards offered under the program include 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef, apprehended in 1995. He is serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.
Intelligence agencies’ investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election led to the U.S. Treasury announcing in March 2018 sanctions on Russian entities and individuals for cyberattacks and interference. They were the first sanctions targeting Russia under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which President Trump had signed into law the previous summer.
In July 2018 the Department of Justice announced indictments against 25 Russians, including 12 military intelligence officers, suspected of trying to interfere in the election.
The report on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling concluded that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election through the release of hacked information in an attempt to influence voters, and through disinformation and social media campaigns designed to sow and amplify political and social discord.
The report also said the inquiry “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”