Credit to Author: Issie Lapowsky| Date: Mon, 16 Jul 2018 22:13:44 +0000
One of the most surprising things about the jaw-dropping joint press conference given by US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday is that it compelled a Democratic and a Republican member of Congress to admit, before a room full of press and international lawmakers, that they agree with each other.
Seated side by side at a summit held by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) both cast Trump's appearance in Helsinki as a major setback in the fight against Russian interference in elections around the world. Just hours before, Trump had stood beside Putin in Helsinki and expressed doubts about whether Russia interfered with the US election in 2016, despite the fact that the US Department of Justice issued an indictment against a dozen Russian intelligence agents last week.
"[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and others and said, I think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be," Trump said.
Warner said the president's remarks were "outrageous," while Rubio described them as flat-out wrong. "What the president said today is not accurate," Rubio said. "The intelligence community has assembled probably an unparalleled amount of evidence."
Responding to the president's remarks in a separate statement, Coats said, "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."
"Vladimir Putin is not interested in a better working relationship with the United States."
Senator Marco Rubio
In the indictment of 12 Russian operatives issued Friday afternoon, the DOJ exhibited a deep and detailed understanding of how exactly Russian actors hacked into the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the private emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and the election infrastructure of states across the country. The indictment describes the hackers' activities down to the screen names they used and the precise times of their actions. And yet, asked directly Monday whether he believes the US intelligence community or Putin, Trump seemed unwilling to take a side. In doing so, Warner said, he tacitly took Putin's.
"The president of the United States sided with Vladimir Putin over the unanimous assessment of the American intelligence community, over the bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Intelligence Committee, over the acknowledgement by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media platforms that Russia manipulated platforms," Warner said.
Trump's friendly overtures to Putin may have stemmed from a belief that he could broker a better relationship with the adversarial nation. But that's a miscalculation, Rubio said. "Vladimir Putin is not interested in a better working relationship with the United States," he said. "He believes the only way to make Russia stronger is to make America weaker."
Both senators underscored the fact that, regardless of who Putin wanted to win the 2016 election (he told reporters Monday he wanted Trump to win), he's achieved his goal of weakening the United States by dividing its people. "Almost two years since that election, we are still deeply divided and at each other's throats about whether it even happened," Rubio said. "If you're Vladimir Putin, you have to look at this and say, 'It cost me this little to get that much?' So in my mind, he's going to do it more."
The Atlantic Council conference was coincidentally timed. It was scheduled well before the latest indictments were issued, and before anyone knew what Trump would say at the Helsinki summit. The goal was to present a united front between Democrats, Republicans, and nations like the United Kingdom, Latvia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, against Putin's interference. But the US president's remarks earlier in the day cast this alliance in a doubtful light.
The senators stressed the need to focus on what tomorrow's risk might be, and more important, what the United States will do about it. It took a year and a half after the 2016 election for the US to issue sanctions against Russia and has taken nearly two years to indict the hackers who infiltrated the systems. Meanwhile, the country's voting systems remain outdated and vulnerable, as does the federal government's infrastructure. A recent study released by the Office of Management and Budget found that out of 96 federal agencies it assessed, 74 percent were either "at risk" or at "high risk" of a cyber attack.
Warner and Rubio called for some sort of doctrine that would signal to other countries the potential repercussions of cyberwarfare. "We know what will happen if you attack us militarily," Rubio said. "I don't think there’s a clear understanding of what will happen if you attack us this way."
Rubio has introduced the so-called DETER Act, with Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland). It would give the director of national intelligence the power to trigger forceful sanctions within 10 days of determining that a foreign actor has attempted to interfere with an election through hacking, tampering with election infrastructure, or using ads and social media to spread false or misleading information. Warner, for one, said the bill is "a good one."
The lawmakers also believe that Silicon Valley has an important role to play, and they urged companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter to be more transparent about the potential threats they're seeing. "We're still trying to grab our arms around what really is 2016 technology," Warner said.
For instance, there still aren't any good answers for how to prevent so-called deep-fake videos, which use artificial intelligence to convincingly manipulate videos, from being used to create chaos in an election. Nor are there easy fixes for the fact that Americans increasingly get their news from, as Rubio put it, "sources who tell you you’re right."
Even if the president won't stand up to Putin, Warner urged tech companies to cooperate with Congress and with academics on trying to solve these issues. "You've got to work with us. If you leave it to Congress on our own," he said, "we’re going to screw it up."