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Russia has meddled in European elections – and will do so again, Democrat report claims

Report claims Trump has ignored the threat by Russia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 5:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 4:09am

Russian President Vladimir Putin has systematically attacked democratic institutions across Europe and in his own country for two decades in efforts to undermine elections and other governments, a report by US Senate Democrats has announced.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a 206-page report that said President Donald Trump’s failure to recognise the danger or to challenge Putin means Russia is likely to interfere in the next US presidential race in a repeat of the 2016 campaign.

“Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a US president,” said the report, released by Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the committee.

“President Trump must be clear-eyed about the Russian threat,” Cardin said, and “take action to strengthen our government’s response and our institutions.”

The House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee are all investigating aspects of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, conducting hearings and interviews. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not conduct a similar inquiry.

The report details Putin’s use of what it called his “asymmetric arsenal” to thwart fragile democratic processes in neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet Republics, as well as efforts to undermine elections in long-established democracies in Britain, Germany and France.

Putin has used disinformation, cyberattacks and financial support for fringe political parties and groups, the report says.

He honed the strategy at home by repressing civil society, journalists and independent opposition groups while co-opting or manipulating religious and cultural institutions, media, organised crime and others, the report adds.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that a Russian intelligence operation, approved at the highest levels of the Kremlin, used hacked Democratic Party emails, phoney social media accounts, disinformation and other tactics to try to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.

The agencies did not look at whether the Russian effort affected any votes.

Russia has denied interfering in the campaign, and Trump has repeatedly denounced the allegations as a partisan hoax meant to delegitimize his election.

In addition to the congressional investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a criminal investigation to determine whether anyone in Trump’s orbit assisted the Russian intelligence operation or otherwise broke the law.

Mueller has charged four individuals so far, including Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and Manafort has pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering.

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No Republicans on the committee signed on to the 200-plus page report, but even without Republican 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.

Cardin said in a statement that he commissioned the report so Americans can see the “true scope and scale” of Putin’s efforts to undermine democracy.

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

Concerned that 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.

The report calls for committee hearings and other bipartisan efforts to aid European nations in countering Russian aggression.

Some policy changes suggested by the report have garnered Republican 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 hobbled by “a lack of urgency and self-imposed constraints” under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

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The centre was created in 2016 to blunt terrorist propaganda. Its duties have expanded to include countering Russian propaganda.

Facebook officials told 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 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.

They foreshadowed the surge in Russian-sourced fake Twitter accounts that proliferated during the US presidential election.

Cardin’s report urges Trump to set up an inter-agency “fusion cell” on Russian interference modelled on the National Counterterrorism Centre that was created after the September 11 attacks.

The report recommends that the president convene an annual global summit modelled after similar forums on combating Islamic State or home-grown extremists.

Rapid response teams should be formed to defend ally countries after cyberattacks, with an international treaty governing the use of cyber tools in peace time.

It calls on the government to increase the amount of aid it provides to promote democracy in Europe and to publicly expose any organised crime and corruption links to Putin.

It says 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 personally has shown little interest in addressing Russia’s activities. During a November trip to Asia, where he met with Putin, 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 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,” Pompeo said.