A new report by Senate Democrats warns of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe and concludes that even as some Western democracies have responded with aggressive countermeasures, President Donald Trump has offered no strategic plan to bolster their efforts or safeguard the U.S. from again falling victim to Kremlin meddling.
The report commissioned by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is the first from Congress to comprehensively detail Russian efforts to undermine democracies since the 2016 presidential election. It wastes no time in calling out Trump personally for what it describes as a failure to respond to Russia's mounting destabilization activities in the U.S. and worldwide. The report was obtained by The Associated Press in advance of its public release Wednesday.
"Never before has a U.S. president so clearly ignored such a grave and growing threat to U.S. national security," the report released by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland warns.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the committee, didn't sign on to the report. But even without formal GOP backing, the recounting of Russian operations in 19 European nations foreshadows the still-unpublished findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan inquiry into Russia's role during the U.S. election.
Cardin said the roughly 200-page report is built on both Republican and Democratic ideas, and he commissioned it to show Americans the scope of efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine democracy.
"We knew after the 2016 elections that we were vulnerable, but the 2016 elections were just a small part of Russia's overall design, Mr. Putin's design to try to compromise democratic institutions," Cardin said at the report's public release at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think-tank focused on European and North American co-operation.
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.
In a statement, Corker spokesman Micah Johnson emphasized that the GOP-led committee had pushed for tougher sanctions on Russia last year in response to "brazen cyberattacks and interference in elections." He said Corker will review Cardin's report but no further full committee activity is planned at this time.
Some policy changes suggested by the report 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 utilize the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which it says is hobbled by "a lack of urgency and self-imposed constraints" under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The centre was created in 2016 to blunt terrorist propaganda. It duties have expanded to include countering Russian propaganda under legislation last year from Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Cardin's report sketches a bleak portrait of European nations besieged by Russian encroachment. It also cites years of cyberattacks, disinformation, clandestine social media operations, financing of fringe political groups, corruption and in the extreme, assassination attempts and military operations that destabilized 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.
Labeling Russia's activities an "asymmetric assault on democracy," the report notes that elections in countries such as Britain, France and Germany were reportedly targeted by Moscow-sponsored hacking, internet trolling and financing for extremist political groups. The report also credits those nations and smaller European countries, such as Finland and Estonia, for responding quickly and often with effect.
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 — foreshadowing the surge in Russian-sourced fake Twitter accounts that proliferated during the U.S. presidential election.
Senate Intelligence Committee officials have questioned efforts by Facebook and Twitter to accurately determine the extent of Russian political messaging during the 2016 U.S. election. Cardin's team also noted discrepancies between the extent of Russian troll activity found by independent researchers and far lower figures claimed by social media companies in European countries.
Cardin's report urges Trump to set up an interagency "fusion cell" on Russian interference modeled on the National Counterterrorism Center that was created after the 9-11 attacks. The report recommends that the president convene an annual global summit modeled after similar forums on combating the Islamic State group or homegrown extremists. Rapid response teams should be formed to defend ally countries after cyberattacks, with an international treaty governing the use of cybertools in peacetime.
The report also calls on the government to increase the amount of aid it provides to promote democracy in Europe and publicly to expose any organized crime and corruption links to Putin. It says social media companies should be required to publicize 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 of the Russian leader "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 skeptical of Russian behaviour. Defence Secretary James Mattis has said the U.S. is prepared to deter Russian aggression in Europe, and the U.S. agreed late last year to allow sales of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the CIA is working diligently to prevent Russia or any other U.S. adversary from interfering in future elections. "I continue to be concerned not only about the Russians but about others' efforts as well," he said.