July 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department announced on Thursday a policy to alert the public about foreign cyber operations like Russia’s alleged hacking and disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The U.S. government has been hesitant to publicize such foreign operations, fearing their disclosure could be seen as tipping the balance in an election.
But warning the American public about disinformation can help mitigate its harm and allow people to make better-informed decisions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in remarks to the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado announcing the policy.
“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” Rosenstein said. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”
An uproar erupted this week over President Donald Trump’s failure to publicly confront Russian President Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit over Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia used hacking and disinformation to try to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Putin has denied the accusation. Trump has at various times rejected or grudgingly accepted the conclusion.
Critics have said the Obama administration should have done more to inform the American public about Russian interference.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Monday that the Russian threat was “ongoing” and “pervasive” ahead of the November congressional elections.
The policy announced by Rosenstein is part of a report issued by the Justice Department’s Cyber Digital Task Force, which was created in February.
The report establishes guidelines for the department on whether to inform the public, private groups and companies about covert attacks.
Rosenstein cautioned that the department’s ability to disclose foreign operations could be hampered by concerns about protecting intelligence sources and methods.
He also said “partisan political considerations must play no role in our efforts. We cannot seek to benefit or harm any lawful group, individual or organization.”
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, welcomed the announcement.
“In instituting this new policy, the Department of Justice has taken a vital and necessary step to protect the integrity of our elections and deter foreign meddling, and has made an unprecedented commitment to the American people,” Schiff said in a statement.
Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney