When senior national security officials gathered in the White House Situation Room in December to prepare for the 2024 election, they faced a pair of stark, simulated scenarios that tested the limits of any federal response to election-related chaos, four people familiar with the meeting told CNN.
What if Chinese operatives created a fake AI-generated video showing a Senate candidate destroying ballots? And how should federal agencies respond if violence erupts at polling stations on Election Day?
For nearly an hour, the No. 2 officials at the FBI, CIA and departments of Homeland Security and Justice wrestled with how to respond to the deepfake video, including whether and how to notify the public about the activity if they weren’t sure that China was behind it, the sources told CNN.
When it comes to a coordinated federal response to things like rampant disinformation, deepfakes and the harassment of election officials, “We’re all f—king tied up in knots,” said one US official familiar with the election security drill.
The previously unreported meeting was the first such drill the Biden White House has held in more than three years in office. It highlights the wrenching questions confronting the administration as it games out potential threats to the 2024 election —and the limits of federal power to respond to them.
US national security officials have to weigh whether publicly calling attention to disinformation might inadvertently amplify the very message they’re trying to bat down. And they can act more swiftly to speak out publicly if they know that a foreign actor is behind an information operation targeting the election. If there’s a chance an American citizen is involved, US officials are more reluctant to counter it publicly out of fear of giving the impression that they are influencing the election or restricting speech.
In both scenarios, federal officials favored a muted public response, largely choosing to let state and local governments take the lead. That points to a deep-seated dilemma they face: How does the federal government protect voters from election threats when many of those voters don’t trust the federal government in the first place? State and local officials run elections and are more trusted voices in their communities, but how can federal officials act decisively to support them?