Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing designed to lay out Russia‘s intentions and techniques (“active measures)” to influence the U.S. 2016 elections, and to propose actions and solutions to address them going forward. According to Independent Senator Angus King, from what he heard during the hearing, “we’re engaged in a new form of aggression, if not war,” from Russia. King’s statement echoed former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said a few days earlier that, “in some quarters,” Russia’s interference in the U.S. election “could be considered an act of war.” Witnesses at the hearing agreed that Russia is engaged in cyber “warfare” against the U.S. This is a crucial first step in investigating whether Donald Trump‘s campaign colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election.
The hearing consisted of two panels of witnesses, featuring Retired General Keith Alexander, former NSA Director, as well as other experts. The witnesses testified about Russia’s efforts to influence the U.S. elections, in addition to elections in other countries such as France and Germany. Among the techniques used by Russia, according to the witnesses, are fake news and coordinated social media efforts (such as on Twitter), using both humans and “bots.”
The Committee’s Democratic Vice Chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, and others made clear that Russia’s primary target in the 2016 elections was Hillary Clinton‘s campaign, and its primary beneficiary was Donald Trump’s campaign. Warner noted that there was “smoke” pointing to Trump campaign officials, including Roger Stone (whom Warner alluded to but did not mention by name) having contacts with Russian operatives who were involved in the election interference effort. Seemingly in response, some Republican Senators tried to focus on the U.S. failure to address the threat from Russia prior to the 2016 elections, i.e., during the Obama administration. Just a few hours later, however, reports emerged that Michael Flynn is seeking immunity in exchange for testimony as to his discussions with Russian officials while a Trump campaign advisor. Flynn resigned as Trump’s National Security Advisor in February after just a few weeks on the job, when evidence emerged that he had lied about discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. while Barack Obama was still the president.
The Senate hearing comes on the heels of a joint press conference by the Committee’s Republican Chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, and Vice Chairman Warner, where both Senators pledged to work together in a cooperative and bipartisan manner. This was a far cry from the train wreck on the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, whose Chairman, Devin Nunes, is under fire for hyper-partisan tactics. Most notably, Nunes made a suspicious midnight trip to the White House grounds to receive secret information pertinent to whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian election interference effort, and passed along such information to Trump (seemingly in an attempt to make it appear that Nunes had found the information himself rather than obtaining it via a White House leak), but not to the House Intelligence Committee members.
The widespread bipartisan agreement at the hearing about what a bad actor Russia is stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s consistent refusal to criticize Russia. Future hearings and investigations will presumably continue to look into the degree to which Trump’s presidential campaign either colluded with Russia to take over the 2016 election, or knowingly profited from Russia’s cyber warfare. Along those lines, one answer from one of the witnesses, Clinton Watts, a former FBI Special Agent focusing on terrorism, was particularly striking. Watts said that Donald Trump “has used [Russia’s] active measures at times against his opponents” and then cited numerous examples of this by Trump and his campaign from the 2016 election.
Photo by Tyler Merbler, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/s2k7ot