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The national security cost of Trump’s politicization of U.S. intelligence

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In the world of national security, what we don’t know can hurt us. The men and women of the intelligence community work every day against that unknown, searching for the truth — uncovering our enemies’ secrets to help keep Americans safe.

Presidents do not always agree with the intelligence community’s recommendations, and that independence can be good. But the role of U.S. intelligence services is, and must be, to speak truth to power, even when it is not politically convenient.

Over the past three years, President Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the intelligence community’s independence, which is fundamental to its proper functioning. As vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have been deeply disturbed watching the president disparage the work of these brave Americans and publicly cast doubt on intelligence findings that run counter to his political narrative. But some of the president’s actions are more worrying than his words or tweets, and I have been particularly troubled by the politically motivated firing of senior intelligence leaders. These firings threaten to do lasting damage to the intelligence community.

Late on a Friday night this month, in the midst of a global pandemic, the president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson. It’s clear that Atkinson was not targeted because he had failed in his job as the intelligence community’s chief watchdog or because he had broken a law. No, Atkinson was fired precisely because he did his job and followed the law requiring him to alert Congress about a whistleblower complaint, a report that later led to the president’s impeachment hearings.

This firing adds Atkinson to the disturbing number of intelligence officials who have been pushed out by this president — a list that includes two directors of national Intelligence, multiple well-regarded career intelligence officials, and the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

What each of these ousted intelligence officials has in common, besides a history of service to our country, is that all were punished for speaking truth to power. They were fired because they had the temerity to brief the president and Congress about threats to the United States that are politically inconvenient to Trump. 

In the case of the most recent director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, his offense was permitting the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to be briefed about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election. And Maguire’s predecessor, Daniel Coats, was, according to media accounts, forced to step down because he provided assessments on Russia and North Korea, among other matters, that angered the president.

Already, the consequences of this remaking of the intelligence community in Trump’s image are visible. Senior intelligence officials are increasingly reluctant to engage in otherwise routine, nonpartisan communication with the congressional committees that oversee the intelligence agencies, for fear that something they say in a hearing or briefing will anger the president. At a more basic level, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lacks a single Senate-confirmed official. For now, this crucial office is headed by a temporary appointee and career political operative with little experience in intelligence and few obvious qualifications beyond political loyalty to the president.

These actions send profoundly dangerous signals to career intelligence professionals. If presenting objective information about threats to the United States is treated as political disloyalty to the president, our intelligence community simply cannot function as it was intended to. The consequences of this breakdown will undoubtedly be measured in American lives.

The intelligence community is far from perfect. It makes mistakes. As vice chairman of the Senate committee overseeing our nation’s intelligence agencies, I often see the worst consequences of those screw-ups. But I also see the best our intelligence community has to offer. And that best is made up of professional men and women who work hard every day gathering objective information about what the bad guys of the world are doing to harm our country, and what we can do to stop them.

Their objectivity and the credibility it gives them are our first line of defense. Efforts by this president to intimidate and extract personal loyalty from U.S. intelligence services may be politically advantageous in the short term, but over time the consequences for our country will be disastrous.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 09/05/2019

As we move into the fall, there’s one overriding foreign policy priority for the United States: Find a strategy to deal with a rising China that protects U.S. interests but doesn’t subvert the global economy.

China is the challenge of our time, and the risks of getting it wrong are enormous. Huawei, the Shenzen-based communications powerhouse, argues in a slick new YouTube video that its critics want to create a new Berlin Wall. That’s not true — Huawei and other Chinese tech companies have allegedly been stealing intellectual property for years and are finally being held accountable — but there’s a real danger that the United States will talk itself into a digital cold war that lasts for decades.

We are at a crossroads: At a conference on U.S.-China relations last month at the University of California at San Diego, a Chinese participant offered a blunt prediction about the future: “We think we are heading toward a partial decoupling of our relationship.” Trump administration officials argue that China has been decoupling itself — denying access to Western firms, even as the United States and its allies provided technology, training and market access.

But what comes next? Trump administration officials hope that progress toward a trade deal might happen at last, now that a meeting with a senior Chinese official has been set for October. But Myron Brilliant, who runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s international programs, cautions, “There’s a trust deficit between Washington and Beijing that needs to be restored before there’s progress.”

President Trump reiterated on Wednesday that the administration plans to deny Huawei access to U.S. technology. “It’s a national security concern,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei.” That leaves a little wiggle room, but not much.

White House officials tell me the Chinese are mistaken if they think the administration is seeking to cripple China technologically. Officials say their goal isn’t a rerun of the anti-Soviet strategy of containment but something more flexible. One administration official says his colleagues sometimes refer to this still-unnamed strategy simply as “the noun.”

The Trump administration’s problem is that it has gutted the national security process that could devise a systematic plan for dealing with China. Instead, policy is highly personalized and shaped by Trump’s erratic decision-making style. “President Trump is our desk officer on China,” says Michael Pillsbury, an informal White House adviser on Asia policy. Strange as it sounds, that’s probably accurate.

This administration’s sharp policy debates on China strategy are exacerbated because there’s no decision-making process to resolve them. On one side are China hawks such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro; on the other are would-be dealmakers such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the middle is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who seems to have an instinct for where Trump will eventually land.

“On no issue is the lack of a policy process more visible or dramatic than China,” says Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration. He contrasts how the presidents of the world’s two superpowers spent the last weeks of summer. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with top party officials at a beach resort and emerged with a new honorific, the “People’s Leader.” Trump spent those weeks in very public and sometimes self-destructive Twitter barrages, at home and abroad.

Trump has a simple four-word summary of his China baseline, notes one administration official: “Xi is my friend.” Personal diplomacy has its uses, but it’s no substitute for clear policy.

Framing a real China strategy should be Job No. 1 for Trump (and his successor in 2021, if Trump is defeated). Pillsbury described the scope of the challenge in the title of his 2016 book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon.” He told me this week: “We need to change the trajectory that we’re on now. That means running faster and slowing them down.” That’s a good formulation, but both goals require disciplined U.S. policy — something in short supply.

Making good decisions about China (and, implicitly, about the future of global technology) requires a sound U.S. policymaking structure. The best idea I’ve heard is a bipartisan bill introduced this year by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), which would create a new “Office of Critical Technologies and Security” to oversee decisions about China and other key countries.

Trump was right to take the China trade and technology problem more seriously than his predecessors. But the time for Twitter diplomacy and deals with “my friend” Xi is over. U.S. moves on this chessboard should be guided by clear planning, not whim.

This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on August 1, 2018.


Do you ever stop to think about how much our world has changed just in the past few years?

Today, some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world — Google, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few — build and rely on technology that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago, dramatically transforming our society along the way.

As someone who was in the tech business longer than I’ve been in the Senate, I’m a big believer in the power of technology to improve people’s lives. I was living out of my car when I founded my first cell phone company. I later founded Nextel, and in the years since I’ve had a front row seat to the ways the phones in our pockets have changed the world.

But anyone who’s ever told their kids to put their cell phones away at dinner knows technological advances sometimes come with unintended consequences — and social media is no exception.


We need to learn from our internet failures

Over the past year and a half, Sen. Richard Burr and I have led the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, uncovering the unprecedented ways Russia abused social media to divide Americans against each other and undermine our democratic process.

In many ways our intelligence community was caught off guard by this new threat. But with each new story about fake news, bots, trolls or Facebook’s mishandling of 87 million Americans’ private data, it has become even clearer that these social media companies were caught flat-footed — unable or unwilling to predict, detect or stop the abuse of their platforms.

Americans are increasingly expressing concern over how their data is being used, and whether they maintain control over their digital identities. As some of these companies have grown to the point of dominance, we’ve reached the point where one company’s mistake can have society-wide consequences.

I believe a national conversation about these issues is long overdue. The companies, the federal government, and individuals all share in the responsibility to make sure these great American technologies continue to work for the good of our county and its citizens.

>That conversation has to start with companies taking responsibility for their platforms and the potential for their abuse. Common-sense rules of the road for social media — like labeling bots and preventing the use of false identities and fake accounts — is a great place to start.

We also need to recognize that our every like, retweet, and search query leaves a trail of data unique to each American on the internet. We have not yet had a national debate about who should own that data, and what responsibility the companies who profit from it have to their users. It’s time we ask ourselves if Americans have the right to exercise greater control over their own data, and whether that right can be signed away simply by clicking an “I agree” button at the bottom of a screen full of indecipherable legalese.

This week, I released a set of 20 proposals, which I believe are a good starting point for this overdue debate on the future of our nation’s technology policy. Should public interest researchers have access to closely-held company data so that they can help identify problems early? Should data be portable and systems interoperable, allowing users to take their accounts to a competitor without losing all their content? Should the platforms be held responsible in some way for removing provably false content?

Government must have some role in answering these important questions, but it must also make sure regulation doesn’t stifle innovation. Congress also needs to substantially improve its understanding of technology in order to make smart laws.


Past time to adapt our laws for the tech age 

I have hope that we can strike the right balance. Last year, I introduced the Honest Ads Act with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., John McCain, R-Ariz., which creates some modest transparency rules for online political advertisements. Facebook and Twitter used our legislation as a road map to create their own ad transparency tools, and I hope Congress will pass this still-needed legislation.

But at the end of the day, the responsibility lies in the hands of every American to decide the roles and responsibilities of technology in our lives, our economy, and our democracy. We should all strive to be active digital citizens — skeptical of what we read on the internet, protective of our private data, and vigilant against cybercriminals, foreign adversaries, and other bad actors who would do us harm.

And we should begin, belatedly, to address the challenge of adapting our laws and regulations to new technology and business practices. The American people have risen to every technological challenge we’ve faced as a nation, and I have faith that the challenges of the digital age will be no exception.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkWarner

This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on July 12, 2018

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report last week concurring with the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a massive influence campaign aimed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The attack included the targeting of election infrastructure, email hacks, weaponized leaks, overt propaganda and a covert, large-scale disinformation effort on social media feeds like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In many ways, this threat is not new. The Kremlin has been conducting information warfare or “active measures” against the West for decades. What is new, however, are social media tools with the reach and power to magnify propaganda and false information with a scale and precision that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall.

The Soviet Politburo could only have dreamed of the capability Russia now has to target voters directly in the U.S., Europe and other democracies with propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Twenty-first century social media tools have the potential to further erode public confidence in western institutions and undermine the shared sense of facts that is supposed to be the foundation of honest political debate.

In 2016, we were taken by surprise. In 2018, there are no excuses. We must be ready.

Message to Russia as Trump meets Putin

That is why we are teaming up with legislators from Canada and Europe to sound the alarm. Following this week’s NATO summit, parliamentarians from across Europe and North America will meet Monday in Washington, D.C., the same day President Donald Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki.

Our goal must be to demonstrate to the world that the community of democratic nations does not intend to accede to Putin’s or any other authoritarian’s view of the world. We will resist Russia’s aggression. As legislators, we have a responsibility to address that threat — particularly on social media.

First, as elected officials, we have a duty to use our positions to shine a light on Russia’s actions and capabilities. Utilizing our investigative tools and public platforms, legislators must expose the full scale and scope of Russia’s schemes to weaken democracies.

The two of us are currently engaged in a bipartisan effort in the Senate Intelligence Committee to uncover Russia’s activities during the 2016 elections and publicly detail its array of asymmetric capabilities. Similarly, our colleagues in the British Parliament, led by Damian Collins, are conducting an inquiry on “fake news” and how it was used by both foreign and domestic actors to influence the Brexit vote.

But it is not enough simply to shine a bright light on Russian aggression. As legislators, we also are responsible for crafting and passing laws to protect our democracy while also preserving freedom of expression.

More: Donald Trump is right to question NATO

Don't call it 'meddling.' The Russians attacked our democracy.

Blame social media for making us more hasty and emotional. Can we fix this?

There is little doubt that our own government and our laws have not kept pace with technological change. The magnitude of this challenge is poised only to expand with improvements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and related advancements like “deep fake” video manipulation. This technology can literally put words in someone’s mouth, creating a false narrative that can spread across the globe in minutes.

As our committee’s work has helped to establish, a key goal of Russian disinformation is to fracture the ability of open societies to reach social and political consensus — an objective significantly furthered when Americans can no longer "their lying eyes." If we hope to stay resilient against these threats, we’re going to need laws that keep up.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has put forward several bipartisan proposals to improve election security and ensure that the intelligence community does a better job of tracking, sharing and responding to efforts by any foreign power to influence our elections, including through social media.These include making clear to adversaries that we consider attacking our election infrastructure a hostile act and will respond accordingly, and to states that they should replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems as quickly as possible.

As stewards of oversight, we also have a responsibility to ensure our respective governments are ready to track and attack the ongoing threat from influence operations. In the U.S., we are not convinced that the national security community is currently organized to adequately rise to this challenge. 

Informed public best defense against Russia

Finally, we have a responsibility as public officials to raise awareness and ensure that the voting public are fully informed of how our adversaries are trying to manipulate us. At the end of the day, there is really no better defense against Russian aggression on social media than an informed citizenry — a voting public that is fully aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to divide us from within and rejects them.

But social media companies also have a civic responsibility to prevent abuse from proliferating on their platforms and to inform users when they’ve been exposed to it.

We in the U.S. have much to learn about Russian tactics from our allies across the Atlantic who have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of Russian information operations. Vladimir Putin wants to divide us — both internally, here at home, and externally, from our transatlantic friends. Next week, legislators from across the NATO alliance will send him a strong and direct message that it won’t work.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees. Follow them on Twitter: @MarkWarner and @marcorubio

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released the below statement today on President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea:

“Diplomacy is the most viable option for pursuing the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. But it’s clear that Kim Jong-un walked away from Singapore with exactly what he wanted – the pomp, circumstance and prestige of a meeting with the President of the United States – while making no specific commitments in return. Whether this will result in a verifiable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, America and the world will wait to find out.”



On March 1, 2018, Senator Warner delivered the keynote address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's launch of the Global Russia Project. Video of the speech and text of Senator Warner's remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

Historic Context

After the Berlin Wall fell, the United States reached out to the “new Russia” under Yeltsin and attempted to bring it into the western community of nations. We, perhaps naively, assumed that Russia’s eventual integration into institutions like the G7 and the EU was both natural and inevitable. Many of us imagined that, after the failure of communism, the allure and the success of western, free-market democracy would attract and breed success further east. At the same time, we watched as Russia’s conventional military capabilities atrophied and its economy stagnated, and concluded that the Russian threat was reduced.  Facing this changed world, we declared victory in the Cold War, and moved on. 

We turned our focus from superpower rivalry to counterterrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges emanating from failed states. We worked to track, chase and kill terrorists around the world. This was a logical and understandable transformation, given the 9/11 attack, and other threats to our security posed by failing states. However, there was a cost to these decisions – and we took our eyes off the re-emerging threat posed by Russia.

What we did not imagine at the time – and perhaps we should have – was the resentment many Russians felt at the economic uncertainties of the free market… the chaos and inflation that wiped out life savings… the corruption of a small clique of oligarchs… and the loss of the Soviet Union’s superpower status.

These feelings fed directly into ordinary Russians’ desire for stability and their disenchantment with the Russian experiment with democracy, ultimately entrenching President Putin’s authority. 

Meanwhile, Putin continued to nurse a grudge against the West. He called the demise of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He used his growing control of television, the press, film, and popular culture to stoke and encourage Russian disillusionment.

Putin relied on these powers to boost his standing with the Russian public and breed a new Russian nationalism. And he began an ambitious program of rearmament – all with the aim of challenging the United States and the global order.

So while our gaze shifted away from Russia – which we began to write off as a “regional power” – Russia never really lost focus on us. Its geo-strategic aim remained squarely targeted on the western liberal order, and more specifically, on what its KGB-trained leadership still views as the “Main Enemy” – the United States.

So Russia diligently honed and updated its toolkit for a different kind of Great Power rivalry. They couldn’t match us in the old Cold War paradigm, so Russia needed a strategy that would allow them to compete with us on the new emerging battlefield. Russia’s Chief of General Staff, General Valéry Gerasimov, gave Putin exactly what he needed. 


Gerasimov and Hybrid War

General Gerasimov outlined a new security doctrine for the Kremlin – one that was more suited to the type of fight they could win, and one that could bring Russia back on par with the West.

He recognized a “blurring” of the lines between war and peace in the 21st century. He emphasized “non-military means” … “informational conflict” … and measures of a “concealed character.” Gerasimov outlined a vision for Russia’s military doctrine that relies not just on the conventional military, but on asymmetric means.

In Gerasimov’s vision, hacking, cyberattacks, information warfare, and propaganda would be the weapons of choice. He painted a vivid picture of a fight in the shadows – a type of “hybrid warfare.” It is a fight the Kremlin is intent on winning. 

Putin quickly went to work implementing the doctrine across the border in Ukraine, employing “little green men” and information warfare to create a state of perpetual chaos and instability. He also targeted Estonia and Georgia, and continued to invest in the types of deniable, asymmetric tools that would help him overcome the West’s more traditional advantages. He has now aimed those weapons directly at the United States, and we are inadequately prepared to defend ourselves.


Today’s Asymmetric Weapons

In recent months, Senator Cardin and the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered an extremely well researched report on Russia’s asymmetric assault on European democracies. They outline a comprehensive array of weapons in the Kremlin toolkit, including the use of organized crime, corruption, energy security, and even the Russian Orthodox Church to increase Russian influence. We don’t have time to get into all of those today, but I recommend that everyone read Senator Cardin’s excellent report.

What I do want to address today are the three main avenues of attack that Russia employed during the 2016 election: the targeting of election infrastructure; the hacking and weaponized leaks; and information warfare. The Senate Intelligence Committee – on a bipartisan basis – is intently focused on each of these three areas.

First, the beauty and curse of our voting system is that it is fragmented and decentralized. But that thought is less comforting than it might seem, since non-national elections can often come down to a few hundred votes, and even Presidential elections can be decided by a few thousand votes in one swing county in one battleground state. 

And even the threat of potential Russian incursions is enough to undermine public confidence in our electoral process. The Russians have tremendous cyber capacities, and we still have much work to do to ensure that our elections infrastructure can withstand anything the Russians or others might try. 

Second, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to foster one of the most permissive environments for malicious cyber activity in the world today, including hacking and weaponized leaks. While Putin maintains some of the most prolific state-sponsored cyber capabilities, much of his active measures have not been state-led.

The Kremlin is able to employ, co-opt, and at times, compel assistance from a detached corps of non-governmental hackers that Russia has nurtured, and now harbors from international law enforcement.\

Rather than being always government-employed and taking direction top-down, these hackers are generally free to engage in criminal activity and money-making endeavors around the globe… as long as they keep their activities focused away from the private accounts of Russian oligarchs.

When it suits them, Putin and his cronies are able to utilize these capabilities to further their own active measures campaigns, while allowing the Kremlin to deny any involvement. Putin himself has trolled us here in the states by denying meddling during the U.S. election, but allowing for the possibility that, quote, “Russian patriotic hackers” may have done something. 

Hacking is obviously not unique to the Kremlin; however, weaponizing leaks from those hacks is a growing part of the Russian playbook.

The truth is, we should have seen this coming a lot sooner. Recall in 2014, when a bugged phone conversation between then-Assistant Secretary of State Toria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine made its way onto YouTube, where it caused a diplomatic uproar. In retrospect, we should have seen this incident as a test-run for the types of attacks and leaks we saw during the 2016 Presidential campaign.  

Third, the Kremlin is also making an unprecedented investment in 21st century information warfare.

During the Cold War, the Soviets tried to spread “fake news” that the U.S. government was involved in Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and that the American military had manufactured the AIDS virus. Much like today, their aim was to undermine Americans’ faith in democratic government. 

But the widespread use of social media has allowed Russia to super-charge its disinformation efforts. Before, the KGB had to go through the tedious, time-consuming process of starting a newspaper in a neutral country, or crafting a dubious forgery that would ultimately be seen by a very small audience. 

Now they have instantaneous access to hundreds of millions of social media accounts where propaganda and fake news can spread like wildfire. While we all recognize the power and value of social media platforms, from the viewpoint of a hostile intelligence organization, they are nearly ideal vehicles for information warfare. 

The rise of new platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has reshaped our entire culture, and the ways we communicate and access information. But while we marveled at the new opportunities offered by this technology, our government and the companies themselves were slow to appreciate the ramifications of offering free and almost instantaneous access to millions and millions of Americans, and the degree to which these platforms could be abused.

Tracking the impact of Russian disinformation is inherently difficult. One 2011 Russian operations manual suggests that disinformation “acts like an invisible radiation,” silently and covertly pushing you in the direction that the Kremlin wants. But you don’t even know you are being attacked.

That’s how the Russians were able to target and co-opt unwitting Americans into spreading their content online. They even succeeded in transferring these efforts from Facebook into the real world – at one point, spurring a pair of dueling rallies at an Islamic center in Houston. The Russians succeeded in pitting Americans against Americans from a troll factory half a world away.


The Threat Continues and Expands

These active measures have two things in common: They are effective, and they are cheap.

We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on national security, and in this arena, we’re on our heels. The Kremlin is spending pennies on the dollar, and wreaking havoc.

Worse still, they haven’t stopped. The fact is, this threat did not go away on Election Day. Russian operatives remain active today, stoking hate and discord online.

We saw Russian-linked accounts pushing hashtags on both sides of the NFL national anthem debate. We’ve seen them attack the President’s National Security Advisor. We saw them push the “Release The Memo” controversy. More recent reports suggest that they were even stoking anger on both sides of the gun debate after the Parkland shooting.  

And now that this playbook is out in the open, we have to worry about more than just the Russians.  These tools can be used by other actors across the board – China, non-state actors, and terrorists.


What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers in this space – no single counter-measure that will stop this wave of attacks from Russia.

As the premise of Carnegie’s Global Russia Project notes, Russia seeks to take advantage where it can to amplify internal divisions. It is focused on boosting cynicism and tearing down Western institutions from the inside.

In response, we need to start right here at home. We need to recognize the threat, expose Putin’s game-plan and inoculate our society against these efforts.

In order to do that, we need to understand the Russian playbook and deliver a thorough accounting of what they did in 2016. This is why our Committee investigation, as well as the Mueller inquiry, is so critical. We have to get to the bottom of what happened, and we need to do so in a bipartisan way. Politicization will only undermine the American public’s understanding of the threat.

The question of whether any Americans knew about or assisted Russian efforts in 2016 is vital. However, it is only one part of the important work our committee is doing. This is not about Democrats or Republicans – this is about defending Americans and our institutions from a foreign attack.

Next, we have to recognize that we have much work to do to strengthen our security against these asymmetric threats. Our strategies and our resources have not shifted aggressively enough to target these new threats in cyberspace and on social media.

Russia spends about $70 billion a year on their military. We spend ten times that. But we’re spending it mostly on weapons designed to win wars that take place in the air, on land, and at sea.  And while we need to have these conventional capabilities, we must also expand our toolkit so that we can win on all the battlefields of the 21st century. Until we do that, Russia is going to continue getting a lot more bang for its security buck. 

No one questions that America possesses superior technological capability. But ironically, our technological dependence makes us more vulnerable on the asymmetrical battlefield where Russia attacks us.

We must spell out a deterrence doctrine, so that our adversaries don’t see cyberattacks against us as a “free lunch.” The U.S. has often done too little to respond to cyberattacks against us or our allies. When we do respond, it has often been done quietly, and on a one-off basis. That has clearly not been enough to deter our adversaries.

We need to make clear to Russia and other nations, that if you go after us using cyberweapons or disinformation, we’re going to call you out, and we’re going to punch back.

We need to more quickly attribute cyber-attacks. And we need to increase their costs with robust sanctions and other tools. That should include the sanctions against Russia passed overwhelmingly by Congress, but which the President has refused to implement.

The sad truth is, we are handicapped in our response by a lack of Presidential leadership. We need a president who recognizes this problem, not one who sees any discussion of Russian election interference as an affront. We need a president who will lead not just a whole-of-government effort, but a whole-of-society effort, to protect our institutions. We need someone who will unite our country against this threat. 

We can’t let Putin and his allies succeed. We have to – as a nation – learn how to fight back and shine a light on this shadow conflict. We have to get our act together here at home. Otherwise, we’ll still be shooting blindly into the shadows.


As Prepared for Delivery

In this age of social media, you can’t afford to waste too much time – or too many characters – in getting the point across, so I’ll get straight to the bottom line. 

Russian operatives are attempting to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against ourselves, and to undermine our democracy.  They did it during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing it now.  And not one of us is doing enough to stop it.  

That is why we are here today.

In many ways, this threat is not new. Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades.

But what is new is the advent of social media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall.  Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques. 

Russia’s playbook is simple, but formidable.  It works like this:

  1. Disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts, groups and pages across a wide array of platforms. 
  2. These fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others.
  3. Each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life followers have no idea they are caught up in this web.     
  4. These networks are later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda (like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content.

The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of as many potentially receptive Americans as possible and to covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants them to go.

As one who deeply respects the tech industry and was involved in the tech business for twenty years, it has taken me some time to really understand this threat.  Even I struggle to keep up with the language and mechanics.  The difference between bots, trolls, and fake accounts.  How they generate Likes, Tweets, and Shares.  And how all of these players and actions are combined into an online ecosystem. 

What is clear, however, is that this playbook offers a tremendous bang for the disinformation buck. 

With just a small amount of money, adversaries use hackers to steal and weaponize data, trolls to craft disinformation, fake accounts to build networks, bots to drive traffic, and ads to target new audiences.  They can force propaganda into the mainstream and wreak havoc on our online discourse.  That’s a big return on investment.   

So where do we go from here? 

It will take all of us – the platform companies, the United States government, and the American people – to deal with this new and evolving threat.

The social media and innovative tools each of you have developed have changed our world for the better. 

You have transformed the way we do everything from shopping for groceries to growing our small businesses.  But Russia’s actions are further exposing the dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have created.  And there is no doubt that their successful campaign will be replicated by other adversaries – both nation states and terrorists – that wish to do harm to democracies around the globe.

As such, each of you here today needs to commit more resources to identifying bad actors and, when possible, preventing them from abusing our social media ecosystem.  

Thanks in part to pressure from this Committee, each company has uncovered some evidence of the ways Russians exploited their platforms during the 2016 election.

For Facebook, much of the attention has been focused on the paid ads Russian trolls targeted to Americans.  However, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg.  The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed pages, which then spread widely on the News Feeds of tens of millions of Americans. 

According to data Facebook has provided, 120 Russian-backed Pages built a network of over [3.3] million real people. 

From these now-suspended Pages, 80,000 organic unpaid posts reached an estimated 126 million real people.  That is an astonishing reach from just one group in St. Petersburg.  And I doubt that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only Russian trolls out there.  Facebook has more work to do to see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000 pieces of content – more Russian content on Instagram than even Facebook.

The anonymity provided by Twitter and the speed by which it shares news makes it an ideal tool to spread disinformation.

According to one study, during the 2016 campaign, junk news actually outperformed real news in some battleground states in the lead-up to Election Day.[1]  Another study found that bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter over the entire presidential campaign.[2]   

I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly under-estimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation.  Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15% of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated.[3] 

Despite evidence of significant incursion and outreach from researchers, Twitter has, to date, only uncovered a small percentage of that activity.  Though, I am pleased to see, Twitter, that your number has been rising in recent weeks.   

Google’s search algorithms continue to have problems in surfacing fake news or propaganda.  Though we can’t necessarily attribute to the Russian effort, false stories and unsubstantiated rumors were elevated on Google Search during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, YouTube has become RT’s go-to platform.  Google has now uncovered 1100 videos associated with this campaign.  Much more of your content was likely spread through other platforms.        

It is not just the platforms that need to do more.  The U.S. government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet this 21st century challenge.  Unfortunately, I believe this effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at the top.  We have a President who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy.  President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American journalism and acknowledge this real threat posed by Russian propaganda.

Congress, too, must do more.  We need to recognize that current law was not built to address these threats. I have partnered with Senators Klobuchar and McCain on a light-touch, legislative approach, which I hope my colleagues will review. 

The Honest Ads Act is a national security bill intended to protect our elections from foreign influence. 

Finally – but perhaps most importantly – the American people also need to be aware of what is happening on our news feeds. We all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are reading and sharing, and who we are connecting with online. We need to recognize that the person at the other end of that Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at all.

The fact is that this Russian weapon has already proven its success and cost effectiveness. 

We can be assured that other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook and already taking action.  We must act.      

To our witnesses today, I hope you will detail what you saw in this last election and tell us what steps you will undertake to get ready for the next one.  We welcome your participation and encourage your commitment to addressing this shared responsibility.

[1] Oxford Internet Institute (Phil Howard): “Social Media, News and Political Information During the U.S. Election:  Was Polarizing Content Concentrated in Swing States?” (September 28, 2017);

[2] USC: “Social Bots Distort the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Online Discussion,” (November 2016)

[3] University of Southern California and Indiana University: “Online Human-bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation, and Characterization” (March 2017). 

by the Editorial Board

As Americans have learned since the last election, Internet ads can race halfway around the world before truth-squadders are even aware of their existence, much less who paid for them. But we now know that in the 2016 campaign cycle, at least 3,000 digital ads that ran on Facebook were linked to Russia, and more than 450 Facebook profiles were tied to Russian operatives, who spent an estimated $100,000 on those ads. And that Russians also spent considerable sums for advertising on Gmail and YouTube.

That’s valuable information to have, but it is scant comfort to learn it long months after the votes were counted. This country must do better to safeguard future elections.

The Federal Election Commission, never good at acting until it has to, in part because it often finds itself in partisan gridlock, has been caught flatfooted by the outside deluge of online ads. So, too, were the social media companies themselves. Embarrassed by post-election revelations, they are now promising to do more on their own to scrutinize ads, perhaps as a way to forestall new laws or regulations. Expect them to underline their planned ad-policing efforts when executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testify before House and Senate intelligence committees on Wednesday. But given their past asleep-at-the-switch performances and the too-little, too-late nature of those initiatves, leaving ad oversight to them is hardly a promising course.

Now Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and John McCain have stepped up with a bill that would apply the laws that govern broadcast political advertisements to the Internet ad sector.

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Specifically, paid Internet ads related to campaigns or elections would have to have clear and conspicuous disclaimers saying what entity was paying for them, the same way TV, radio, and print ads do. Further, those ads would have to include easy access to the name and street address, telephone number, or web address of the ad purchaser.

Facebook Will Disclose More on Political Ads, Similar to TV (1)
Facebook Inc. said it will start disclosing more about political ads, bringing the social network’s rules closer to what’s required of traditional mediums like television.
Amazon, Facebook and Google beef up lobbying spending

Additionally, any website with 50 million or more monthly users would be required to provide the FEC with digital copies of the ads from any entity that spends more than $500 on them and to detail the amount of spending, the audience targeted, the period during which they ran, the rates charged, the number of views generated, and the contact information of the purchaser. Those social media companies would also be required to make reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign entities weren’t buying ads on their platforms in an attempt to influence US elections.

“This would be a real step forward in providing transparency,” says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause. “It is not a panacea, but it is a critical step toward updating the law.”

The hope is that the proposed law would have two effects. First, by mandating more transparency, it should make foreign agents more cautious about attempting to interfere in US elections via digital ads. Second, by requiring greater information, it should give media outlets and other interested parties a way to discern who is behind those ads.

As the favored candidate of Russia and a man who can barely force himself to acknowledge the Russian election-interference efforts, President Trump can’t be counted on to play any kind of leading role in passing this legislation. That will be left to Congress.

The danger is that this will come to be seen as a partisan issue. It isn’t and shouldn’t be. In the 2016 election cycle, we saw a serious attack on American democracy. Efforts to prevent a second such occurrence need to be pursued with bipartisan determination.

As a response to the Russian campaign to sow discord in the 2016 presidential election, the so-called Honest Ads Act is wholly inadequate. It is also entirely necessary.

The legislation, introduced last week by Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, requires online platforms with at least 50 million monthly users -- think Facebook, Google and Twitter -- to make a public record of advertisers who spend at least $500 on political ads regarding campaigns or significant legislative issues. The record would include information regarding the ad's content, its target audience and its cumulative views, as well as its cost. It would also list any candidate referred to in the ad and contact information for the entity that purchased it.

All this information would be placed in a publicly accessible database. Under the legislation, platforms would be required to make "reasonable efforts" to police foreign purchases.

True, this legislation focuses solely on advertising, so would not have prevented some of the most successful subversions of the 2016 election -- the Russian propaganda that spread over social networks as unpaid media. Still, a U.S. defense against election interference has to begin somewhere. Russians spent at least $100,000 on Facebook ads. Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he believes such spending constitutes the "tip of the iceberg."

The challenge will only grow more complex as the internet becomes an ever-larger conduit for political communication. Digital spending reached $1.4 billion in the 2016 election, up more than 700 percent over 2012.

Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter will testify before House and Senate panels next week. They should come prepared with suggestions on how their powerful, pervasive and lucrative platforms can help root out foreign agents seeking to undermine American democracy, through paid advertising and otherwise. It's not an impossible task: Internet platforms shut down thousands of suspicious accounts during last spring's French election.

Requiring online platforms to perform the minimal record-keeping and due diligence required of television and radio stations is a necessary step toward protecting the integrity of U.S. elections. This is a cause that transcends both commercial and partisan concerns -- the bill has the support of Republican Senator John McCain. Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act. Then build on it.

by Rana Foroohar

If there was ever a piece of no-brainer legislation that should be passed by Congress, it is the Honest Ads Act put forward last week by US senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain. This bipartisan group is asking for online political advertising to be subject to the same rules of disclosure as ads on television, print, and radio. The idea is to make sure that foreign nations like Russia cannot use platforms such as Facebook, Google or Twitter to influence US elections, as they did in 2016.

The legislation is necessary for three reasons. First, it would even the playing field between platform companies and the rest of the media industry. This is long overdue. Google and Facebook together take roughly 85 per cent of all new digital advertising revenue. For years, they have come up with absurd excuses for why they should not be subject to the same rules as everyone else (online ads are too small to include disclaimers; it is too tough to figure out if ads are commercial or political, and so on).

Their reasoning does not hold water. These businesses have traditionally been just fine using the smallest of small print on privacy policies, so it should not be too much trouble to do the same thing with political disclosures. And if it is too tough to figure out what is political, play it safe and disclose everything.

Of course they do not want to do that, because opacity is a key part of what political operatives are paying for. That is reason number two that this legislation should pass — it would go some way towards cleaning up dark money and influence in politics.

Online advertising is hyper-targeted. That is the whole appeal. We get to see things that are meant for our eyes only. Rather than clear, broad messages that are put where everyone can see them, online advertising can play to the deepest fears of individuals, allowing them to be exploited with divisive or hateful messages that could be much more easily called out and debunked if they were, say, being shown on national TV or in a print advertisement in a major paper.

Indeed, as one political insider put it to me, it is not just the Russians, but our politicians themselves who want to keep their advertising in the dark. Consider, for example, the Trump campaign’s xenophobic pre-election posts on Facebook. The US president is somewhat singular in that he does not seem to mind openly dog-whistling. But others might well be deterred from taking the low road if they could be openly named and shamed for doing so.

The third reason the Honest Ads Act should pass is it would be a step towards reframing the regulatory debate around Big Tech. Large and powerful industries and companies that enjoy monopoly rents often like to portray themselves as “special” or “different”, and thus in need of a separate set of rules.

After a time, this idea of a separate playing field gets normalised. Monopolists also use complexity to obfuscate clear debate about what they are actually doing, and whose interests they are serving. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with fast talking financiers — and more recently, technologists — who try to throw as much jargon against the wall as fast as possible to see what sticks.

Yet the best questions are often the simplest ones. In the case of the financial sector, it was and remains: “What is the industry doing that is good for the real economy, versus what is good only for the financial industry?” We await a clear answer there. In the case of Big Tech, we might start with the question: “Are you playing by the same rules as everyone else, and if not, why not?”

The answer to the first question is clearly no. I hope that the Honest Ads Act will pass, and that lawmakers will move on to examining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that platforms are not responsible for what their users post.

It is a get-out-of-jail free clause which has protected the industry from all sorts of legal issues that most businesses deal with every day, and is as outdated and unfair as the loopholes around political ad disclosure online.

Regulators should also look a lot more carefully at whether the M&A practices of the tech titans are anti-competitive. Consider Facebook’s recent purchase of tbh, a polling app aimed at teenagers, on which 5m users have posted 1bn questions since its launch three months ago.

As Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a think-tank, tweeted: “Facebook is buying a competitor that undercuts its data-harvesting business model. FTC [the US Federal Trade Commission] should block this merger.”

I also hope that lawmakers will begin to educate themselves more thoroughly about the 21st-century digital economy. There are a handful of politicians who have done so. But not many.

I recently asked one high-level software developer from a Big Tech company, someone who frequently visits Washington, to rank technological understanding among not only Congress members, but among the Capitol Hill staffers who brief them. On a scale of zero to 10, he put that understanding at “negative 10”.

That is great for his company. But it is dangerous for the rest of us, because understanding Big Tech is now crucial to understanding not only politics, but the economy at large.