By Nicholas F. Benton and Matt Delaney
Virginia’s U.S. Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russia’s role interfering in U.S. elections, confirmed at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday that the Russians’ efforts remain active and could impact the Virginia gubernatorial and other state races on the ballot next month.
Warner, and Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Richard Burr, criticized the Department of Homeland Security for delaying until just last week the release of its findings that the Russians attempted to penetrate the electoral processes in 21 U.S. states, including Virginia.
Warner praised the Virginia Department of Elections for acting proactively to decertify voting machines that failed to have “paper trails” in jurisdictions throughout the state, including in the City of Falls Church. The decertification order came just in time to allow for the substitution of new voting machines with such “paper trails” in advance of the beginning of absentee balloting last month.
Insofar as Warner and Burr emphasized their committee’s objective to have a comprehensive report made public prior to the commencement of primary elections in 2018, yesterday’s press conference might have been motivated by a desire to address the November 2017 elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
Warner and Burr stressed that the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation concurred with the intelligence community assessment that the Russians engaged in widespread active measures to meddle with the November 2016 U.S. presidential election to the end of seeking the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. No initial conclusions about collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign have yet been established, however, they said.
But the issue is broader than U.S. presidential and other elections, they stressed. “It is important to stress that Russian active measures are ongoing,” Warner said. “They did not end on election day in November 2016 and are not in the U.S. only.” Evidence of heavy involvement in elections since November in France, the Netherlands and Germany has been established, he said.
While Burr said the Senate committee would not release the content of the massive ad campaign that the Russians deployed on Facebook, Twitter and Google in the November election, he said that those social media platforms will be encouraged to do so. Warner said it is important for U.S. voters to know the source of such ads and whether or not “trending stories” on social media platforms are legitimate, or the result of Soviet “bots,” noting that 30,000 to 50,000 such fake accounts were rooted out by Facebook in France, alone.
The fundamental intent of the ads, according to Burr, “appears to be to create chaos in every group.” Warner added that “more forensic studies” on the content of the ads will be forthcoming from the social network organizations, themselves.
Warner said that “a whole government approach is needed” on the role of enemy elements in hacking and manipulating the Internet, citing the hearing on the Hill about the massive Equifax security breach.
Warner said at a forum in Falls Church Monday that the lack of attention paid to online threats to U.S. national security is “shocking.”
Warner appeared with Virginia U.S. Senate colleague Tim Kaine at the forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Both senators tackled the cybersecurity issue. Warner’s advocacy for a greater emphasis on cybersecurity measures was most impassioned. He found the lack of attention paid to online threats shocking, especially when compared to how much U.S. spending is directed toward bolstering the military. Warner said bringing cybersecurity up to par would cost half as much as a single F-35 fighter jet.
He and Kaine both pointed to how Russia’s political ad campaigns run through Facebook and Twitter, as has come to light in the last week were used throughout last year’s presidential election, aimed at supporting one candidate (Trump) while disparaging the other (Clinton).
Kaine also mentioned that the wave of “fake news” allegations during the election cycle challenged the American intellect and their faith in all sources of information. According to Warner, those tactics allowed Russia to “rattle the door” of electoral institutions.
“Cyber [security] is our single greatest vulnerability,” Warner stated. “It needs to be much higher on the defense agenda. What Russia did in 2016 was a direct attack on our institutions, and for the amount of money they spent, they did a good job.”
Kaine and Warner also weighed in on the Trump administration, saying they’re tired of Trump’s preference to bark more than bite on nearly every issue. Warner admitted that he believes Trump is attempting to put “points on the board” in the U.S.’s favor, but fails to involve himself in the nitty-gritty work to push legislative items forward.
Kaine agreed, though adding that Trump’s overt reactions to criticism – on both sides of the aisle – has made not only scorned Republicans more open to doing deals with Democrats, but made Trump himself open to dealing with opposition party as well.
Both also stated that Trump’s election was a reminder to keep rural Americans in mind, which includes 18 percent of Virginia’s population.
“In the case of trade globalization, people in metropolitan areas are the primary beneficiaries,” Warner said. Kaine added, “If you’re in a place and you feel abandoned, you’re willing to roll the dice on something different.”
On North Korea, Kaine gave kudos to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for how they’ve worked diplomatic angles to mitigate the issue, mainly through contact with China.
On the other hand, they said, Trump’s rash handling of North Korea is a major shortcoming, especially to Kaine, noting that Trump’s threats to withdraw from the U.S.-South Korea trade deal would constitute as poor governing and also illogical considering he has yet to install an ambassador to the nation. Warner noted that North Korea has been a problem for multiple administrations.
On the economy, the senators felt that the entire political establishment needed to do a better job at making modern capitalism work for Americans. Warner said that a third of the country’s workforce is not in permanent employment, and by 2025, it’s projected that half the country will fall in that category. That’s too much of the population without social insurance for Warner.
According to Kaine, advancing Virginia’s “human capital growth” along with the economy was what helped push the state (especially Northern Virginia) forward and will continue to do so in the tech-based economy. National education rankings jumped from 36th to 12th in Virginia – the biggest jump in the union – throughout the late 20th/early 21st century, and that correlated with a jump in foreign-born population from 1-in-100 to 1-in-9 during that same period.
The two also addressed healthcare. After poking the GOP for vehemently opposing the Affordable Care Act for eight years only to have repeal efforts shot down twice now that they control the White House, both agreed they’d be open to working with Republicans if they sought to reform less drastic aspects of the law while keeping the positive ones.
Warner was more pointed in the reforms he feels are necessary, believing the sickest five percent of Americans (who account for 50 percent of healthcare spending) should receive dedicated government funding while granting greater flexibility in determining insurance providers for the remainder of the population.
He also thought that the U.S. should stop footing the bill for research and development costs toward globally used drugs, allowing the country to leverage its purchasing power in order to benefit its health industry and overall economy.