When U.S. intelligence officials released on Jan. 6 a declassified report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Julie Sirrs was already familiar with the threads of the story. Like so many others, she'd begun tuning into the drumbeat of political hacking and leaked campaign emails last summer, weeks before anyone publicly implicated Russia. The report largely confirmed what nameless sources had been telling national news outlets for months, but Sirrs was astonished at the level of detail that intelligence officials opted to release for public consumption.
"They came out and said it was clear that the Russians weren't doing this just to sort of generally undermine faith in our Democratic system, but were really trying to defeat Hillary Clinton and trying to get Trump elected," Sirrs says. "The fact that they were willing to come out and say that surprised me, because usually declass intel assessments are pretty watered down. I thought, 'Wow, this actually said something.'"
The report's contents reinforced Sirr's concern that a foreign government had attempted to undermine American democracy, an act she considers "more of an existential threat to the United States than ISIS or anything comparable." So late last month she joined several other people from Missoula and Bozeman with past ties to the military and intelligence communities in penning a letter to Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines requesting an "independent, thorough investigation" of the operations allegedly ordered by Vladimir Putin.
It's been nearly 20 years since Sirrs left her job as a military intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, where her work primarily focused on developing threats in Afghanistan. These days her Missoula life doesn't cross over into politics very often, and she doesn't go into much detail about her background in the intelligence community, preferring to let a Google search do the talking. A lengthy 2004 story by the online news outlet Observer credits Sirrs as being the "first intelligence officer to report on the significance of Osama bin Laden moving his terrorist operation from the Sudan into Afghanistan."
Russia is partly the reason Sirrs joined the intelligence community in the first place. Her interest in the Middle East started with the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. And while she's miles removed from her former line of work today (she's an attorney with the Missoula law firm Boone Karlberg), her sensitivity to the ramifications of Russia's "hostile action" is enhanced by past experience. Foreign meddling in U.S. elections—as well as those in other Western countries like Britain—could not only destabilize military and trade alliances, Sirrs says, but ultimately cause nations to "turn inward."
"It could show terrorist organizations, for example, that if they can develop a sort of cyber warfare capability, that they could interfere in countries in perhaps the most damaging way."
Montanans are no strangers to outside influence in elections, a fact Sirrs believes makes the state's voters particularly attuned to the Russian narrative. As evidence, she points to the influx of dark money in Montana politics and the outrage sparked in 2014 when researchers from Stanford and Dartmouth circulated fliers in a Montana Supreme Court race as part of a political science study. The researchers later apologized for any interference they may have caused in the election.
"This concern that outside actors can come in and manipulate elections and potentially cause a result that doesn't really reflect the will of the people, and maybe pushing an agenda that's maybe not in America's interests—Montanans are probably more sensitive to that than other states that don't seem to be as energized on that issue," Sirrs says.
Russia's purported actions may also speak to the growing debate over the electoral college system. "I think to approach the electoral college from a national security perspective is kind of new," Sirrs says, but in an era of cyber warfare, the ability to target key swing states could make elections even more vulnerable.
Before Sirrs and her fellow signatories sent their congressional plea last month, Sen. Tester was already pressuring the Senate Homeland Security Committee to launch a full investigation into the Russian allegations. In an interview with the Indy, Tester stressed the need for such an investigation to be conducted "very transparently." Only when we know all the facts, Tester said, can we begin developing strategies to prevent such interference in the future.
"This really can have some real negative effects on our form of government," Tester concluded, "and I'll be damned if under my watch I'm going to sit back and let Putin do things to this country that are negative to our way of life."