Monday 19 November 2018

US Democrat warns of Russian meddling across Europe

Senator Ben Cardin speaks to reporters as a sweeping new report by congressional Democrats warns of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Senator Ben Cardin speaks to reporters as a sweeping new report by congressional Democrats warns of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

A sweeping new report by congressional Democrats warns of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe and concludes that, even as some Western democracies have responded with aggressive counter-measures, President Donald Trump has offered no strategic plan to bolster their efforts or safeguard the US from again falling victim to the Kremlin's systematic meddling.

The report is the first from Congress to comprehensively detail Russian efforts to undermine democracies since the 2016 presidential election, and calls out Mr Trump personally for what it describes as a failure to respond to Russia's mounting destabilisation activities in the US and worldwide.

The report was obtained by the Associated Press in advance of its official release on Wednesday.

"Never before has a US president so clearly ignored such a grave and growing threat to US national security," the report warns.

The 200-plus page report released by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comes without a sign-off from Republicans on the panel.

But even without GOP backing, the report's recounting of Russian operations in 19 European nations foreshadows the still-unpublished Senate intelligence committee's bipartisan inquiry into Russia's role during the 2016 US presidential election.

Mr Cardin commissioned the report so Americans can see the "true scope and scale" of Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to undermine democracy around the world, he said in a statement.

"While President Trump stands practically idle, Mr Putin continues to refine his asymmetric arsenal and look for future opportunities to disrupt governance and erode support for the democratic and international institutions that the United States and Europe have built over the last 70 years," he said.

Mr Cardin's inquiry lays blame directly on Mr Putin for a "relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States".

Concerned that Mr Trump has failed to identify Russian aggression as a national rallying point, the report urges a "stronger congressional voice" in pro-democracy efforts and funding, and calls for committee hearings and other bipartisan efforts to aid European nations in countering Russian aggression.

The Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, did not join Mr Cardin's report. But some of the suggested policy changes have garnered GOP interest, including the aggressive use of financial sanctions aimed at Russia and pressuring social media companies to be more transparent about Russian political messaging.

The report also pushes for the administration to fully fund and utilise the State Department's Global Engagement Centre, which it says is hampered by "a lack of urgency and self-imposed constraints" under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The centre, created in 2016 to blunt terrorist propaganda, had its duties expanded to include countering Russian propaganda under bipartisan legislation last year authored by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Mr Cardin's report sketches a bleak portrait of European nations besieged by a recent spate of Russian encroachment.

It also cites years of cyber-attacks, disinformation, clandestine social media operations, financing of fringe political groups, corruption and, in the extreme, assassination attempts and military operations which destabilised fledgling democratic governments in the Ukraine and Georgia. The report leans heavily on open source information as well as staff interviews with European diplomats and government officials.

Labelling Russia's activities an "asymmetric assault on democracy", the report shows how even elections in countries such as Britain, France and Germany were reportedly wracked by Moscow-sponsored cyber-hacking, internet trolling and financing for extremist political groups.

It also credits those nations and smaller European countries, such as Finland and Estonia, with responding quickly and often effectively.

Facebook officials told Mr Cardin's investigators that Kremlin-backed trolls that stirred up political tensions on its American pages also "pursued a similar strategy in the lead-up to the 2017 French political election, and likely before Germany's national election" last year.

Similarly, Finnish officials told Mr Cardin's investigators that Finland has ramped up anti-disinformation efforts after Russian-leaning Twitter accounts "began tweeting misinformation and fringe viewpoints" before that nation's 2015 parliamentary elections - foreshadowing the surge in Russian-sourced fake Twitter accounts that proliferated during the US presidential election.

And just as Senate Intelligence Committee officials have questioned efforts of Facebook and Twitter to accurately determine the extent of Russian political messaging during the 2016 US election, Mr Cardin's team also noted alarming discrepancies between the extent of Russian troll activity found by independent researchers and far lower figures claimed by social media companies in European countries. The report advocates for social media companies to do a better job of auditing their platforms to determine the full extent of Russian disinformation flowing across them.

Mr Cardin's report urges Mr Trump to set up an inter-agency "fusion cell" on Russian interference modelled on the National Counterterrorism Centre that was created after the 9/11 attacks launched on US cities by al Qaida.

It also recommends that he convene an annual global summit based on similar forums on combating Islamic State or homegrown violent extremists. Rapid response teams should be formed to defend ally countries after cyber-attacks, with an international treaty governing the use of cyber tools in peace time.

It also calls on the government to increase the amount of aid it provides to promote democracy in Europe and publicly to expose any organised crime and corruption links to Mr Putin. It adds that social media companies should be required to publicise the sources of funding for political advertisements along the same lines as broadcast and print media.

So far, the president has personally shown little interest in addressing Russia's activities. During a November trip to Asia, where he met Mr Putin, Mr Trump said "he said he didn't meddle" and added: "I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it."

Other administration officials have been more sceptical of Russian behaviour.

Defence Secretary James Mattis has said the US is prepared to deter Russian aggression in Europe and the US agreed late last year to allow sales of lethal anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

CIA director Mike Pompeo said on CBS's Face The Nation on Sunday that the CIA is working diligently to prevent Russia or any other US adversary from interfering in future elections.

"I continue to be concerned not only about the Russians but about others' efforts as well," he said.

AP

Press Association

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