Senate Select Intelligence Committee begins public hearings on probe of Russian interference in U.S. elections
The Senate Select Intelligence Committee held the first public hearing in its probe of Russian interference in the recent U.S. elections, hearing testimony from experts on both Russia and information warfare. The scope of the investigation includes the means Moscow employed and the and level of its influence on the outcome of the 2016 presidential contest. FSRN’s Nell Abram has more.
Committee Chair and North Carolina Senator Richard Burr explained why the panel launched the proceedings that are officially aimed at unraveling how, and to what extent, Russia interfered in the recent presidential elections in the United States.
“The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections,” Burr said. “How they came to be involved, how we may have failed to prevent that involvement; what actions were taken in response, if any, and what we plan to do ensure the integrity of future free elections at the heart of our democracy.”
Ahead the inauguration in January, the CIA, FBI and NSA issued a joint report, unanimously finding Russia sought to delegitimize the US democratic process through a deliberate campaign in which operatives stole, weaponized and strategically deployed information to undermine public confidence in the political system.
According to Virginia Senator and Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner, this included sophisticated online campaigns in which Kremlin operatives gamed algorithms and influenced conversation on social media.
“This is not innuendo or false allegations. This is not fake news. This is actually what happened to us. Russia continues these sorts of actions as we speak. Some of our close allies in Europe are experiencing exactly the same kind of interference in their political process,” Warner said. “Germany has said that its Parliament has been hacked, French presidential candidates right now have been the subject of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the Netherlands in their recent election, the Dutch hand counted their ballots because feared Russian interference in their electoral process.”
The focus of today’s testimony was two pronged: First, a look at the history of Russian attempts to manipulate U.S. electoral outcomes, though that testimony on context didn’t include any reference to Washington’s long history of manipulating elections in other nations.
Clinton Watts is a senior fellow at the George Washington Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford asked him why the Kremlin’s campaign was so successful this time around.
“I think this answer is very simple and is what no one is really saying in this room, which is, part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because that the Commander in Chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts explained. “On 14 August, 2016, his campaign chairman, after a debunked…”
“When you say his, who is ‘his?'” Lankford asked.
“Paul Manafort cited the fake news story as a terrorist attack on CNN and he used it as a talking point,” Watts answered. “On 11 October, President Trump stood on a stage and cited what appears to be a fake news story from Sputnik News that disappeared from the internet. He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged – that was the number one theme pushed by RT News, Sputnik, all outlets, all the way up until the election. He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen, that Congressman Cruz is not a citizen. Part of the reason active measures work, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same lines.”
The second thread of the hearing delved more deeply into the intersection of social media platforms and disinformation campaigns. Experts testified in the afternoon about how technical tools like trolls, bots and botnets are used to manipulate conversations carried out online.
Thomas Rid is a professor at King’s College London who specializes in the vulnerabilities of information technology in conflict. He detailed some of the specifics of how the hacking occurred, but said a narrow analysis would miss the main political and ethical challenge: Soviet bloc disinformation specialists prefer exploiting so-called unwitting participants.
“Three types of unwitting agent, and I would like to close with that, stand out: WikiLeaks, Twitter – the company itself, and I can explain that later – and overeager journalists aggressively covering the political leaks while neglecting or ignoring their provenance,” Rid said.
The Senate probe begins as its counterpart in the House of Representatives has devolved and lost credibility. Even as the Senate hearing was underway Thursday, the House Committee that’s looking at connections between the Russians and the Trump campaign was beset by more controversy when media reports based on unidentified sources published the identities of alleged White House leakers.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has called a total of 20 witnesses to testify in hearings, including Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who allegedly earned tens of millions of dollars as Putin-proxy, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, already implicated in at least one meeting with a Russian envoy prior to the inauguration. The next public hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee is not yet scheduled.