Sen. Angus King on Russia’s election meddling: ‘A thorough attack on our democratic principles’
CAMDEN — “The speech I wish he [President Donald Trump] would make is this: ‘My campaign had nothing to do with the Russians and there was no collusion. If there was, anyone who did so was going to be punished to the full extent of the law. However, the Russians did an unprecedented attack on our democracy and they’re going to try to do it again. And we need to do everything we can to stop it.’”
That was Angus King rounding out an evening at the Camden Opera House, July 6, laying emphasis on ‘everything we can do to stop it.’
King was in Camden following a day on the Midcoast, first in Searsmont, at the Georges River Energy Combined Heat and Power project at Robbins Lumber, and then at the farmer’s market in Belfast.
By dusk, he was on to the Camden Opera House, which began filling with citizens soon after 5:45 p.m.
The topic, which he and moderator Tom DeMarco covered in a succinct 85 minutes, was, “Experience on the Senate Intelligence Committee and its Investigation of Russian Meddling.” But the evening included comments on the Senate hearings, personal and political aspects of the U.S. Senate, and how simple logistics, such as when and how often politicians fly home for the weekend, can affect policymaking.
He also entertained questions from citizens.
By 6:30 p.m., the 500 Opera House seats in the auditorium and balcony were occupied. Others were turned away at the door, and individuals who had attempted to sneak in through the back doors were escorted back outside.
Those who found seats for the free talk ranged in age from their late teens to mid-90s, and they listened raptly to the former two-term Maine governor (1995-2003) and now U.S. senator (Olympia Snowe’s successor after she retired) as he delivered an update on U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigations into any connection between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government, and Russia’s infiltration of state election systems.
On July 3, the committee released the Committee’s unclassified summary of its initial findings on Russian activities in the 2016 U.S. elections. Russian cyber operations were more extensive than the hack of the Democratic National Committee and continued well through the 2016 election, the Committee said in its July 3 news release.
“The Committee has spent the last 16 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work underpinning the Intelligence Community Assessment and sees no reason to dispute the conclusions,” said Richard Burr, R-North Carolina. “The Committee continues its investigation and I am hopeful that this installment of the Committee’s work will soon be followed by additional summaries providing the American people with clarity around Russia’s activities regarding U.S. elections.”
The vice chairman of that committee, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said: “Our investigation thoroughly reviewed all aspects of the January 2017 ICA, which assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign to target our presidential election and to destabilize our democratic institutions. As numerous intelligence and national security officials in the Trump administration have since unanimously re-affirmed, the ICA findings were accurate and on point. The Russian effort was extensive and sophisticated, and its goals were to undermine public faith in the democratic process, to hurt Secretary Clinton and to help Donald Trump. While our investigation remains ongoing, we have to learn from 2016 and do more to protect ourselves from attacks in 2018 and beyond.” (Read the unclassified summary here.)
With those conclusions fresh in his mind, King had arrived back in Maine for the week and reported to Midcoast residents that the U.S. public needed to know that this happened, and that it will happen again, if the U.S. doesn’t safeguard itself.
One fundamental suggestion from King, which earned applause from the entire Opera House: “No election in this country should ever be carried forward without a paper ballot backup.”
King distinguished the Senate inquiry from the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation, saying: “Our investigation is different. His investigation is a criminal investigation. It’s a counter-espionage investigation. Were crimes committed. Our investigation is more, what happened? What are the facts, and particularly, how do we prevent it from happening again. It’s a real challenge. I consider this a geo-political jujitsu.... They’re using our strength against us.”
The Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations, a group of residents who regularly meet and host speakers on international affairs, had hosted the King event.
The forum was organized in 1983, and its purpose is to: “consider all aspects of foreign affairs as they impinge on our national life. Different and controversial views will not be avoided, but Forum analysis will be conducted in a spirit of open, free inquiry, with tolerance for differing views in the best tradition of our democratic heritage. The Forum hopes to contribute to increased knowledge of its members and to a vigorous consideration of foreign policy options facing our nation.”
King makes no bones about assertions that the Russians attacked the U.S. democracy.
“Serving on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is some of the most important work I’ve ever done, and it’s incredibly important to the safety and security of Maine people,” he said, July 6. “The Russian government’s efforts during the 2016 elections were a sophisticated, thorough attack on our democratic principles at the most fundamental level, and they’re just getting started. Our Committee has been working on a bipartisan basis to uncover the full extent of Russian interference, and while our investigation is still ongoing, one thing is certainly clear: the best defense against future foreign involvement in our elections is an educated and informed citizenry, who can identify misinformation attempts. Today’s conversation is just one step we can take together to protect ourselves against future interference.”
But in King fashion — an easygoing charm familiar to many Mainers — his sober assessments and warnings intertwined Friday night fluidly in a friendly conversation first with DeMarco and then later with citizens who asked specific questions.
Besides focusing on Russian infiltration of the 2016 elections, including the voting systems in 21 states, King also spoke about the perils of political influencing through social media.
He spoke of concerns about the U.S. and Iran relationship, and the abrogation of the nuclear agreement. He delivered anecdotes about D.C. political life, and noted it is hard to build bipartisan relationships when the current trend has most senators flying home to the respective states every weekend.
With questions from the audience, King touched on the rise of China, the deleterious effect of trade wars on Maine’s lobster economy, the arms business with Saudi Arabia, the role of media, reading books and being critical thinkers.
What follows are excerpts from King’s commentary on various aspects of the 2016 elections, the Russian infiltration, and where the U.S. stands today.
To hear the entire evening, listen to the audio here.
Start off with Russia
My concern about the reporting and the attention to the Russia issue is that the piece of it that involves whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians has swallowed the larger story. That’s where all the attention is, that’s where all the excitement is. That’s the sex appeal of the story.
But the real story is what happened to our country in 2016 and what is likely to happen again.
What the Russians did in 2016 is not new. They’ve been messing around with other countries’ politics since the 1930s. The old Comintern.
What’s new is the sophistication and the direction in which they did it. Make no mistake: It was a deliberate, conscious, sophisticated attack on our democracy approved at the highest level of Russian government. That means Vladamir Putin. I don’t think it was intended at the beginning to elect Donald Trump.
I think the initial intent was to sow discord and undermine our system.
The secondary intention was to undermine Hillary Clinton, whom Putin didn’t like. And then finally sometime in mid-summer of 2016 it became a deliberate effort to elect Donald Trump.
The problem I have with the president’s reaction to this is that he seems unwilling or unable to separate whether his campaign was involved, and what happened.
In the Spring of 2016 I went to Eastern Europe with members of the Intelligence Committee to Poland. The Ukraine. A lot of the discussion was, ‘watch out for the Russians, they are going to mess with your elections.’
Of course, we said, you know, OK, put that down, item number 17 on a list of concerns.
And then, in the Fall of 2016, the armed services committee had an informal roundtable with a group of leaders from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They were again warning us about this happening. How do you defend yourself. You can’t shut down the internet, you can’t turn off the television. Their answer was fascinating. Their answer was, ‘the best defense is for the people to know that it is happening.’
They say, ‘oh hell, it’s just the Russians, again.’
The people were aware of it and they took it all with a grain of salt.
And that’s my problem with the president’s failure to acknowledge this because it has taken that defense away from a large portion of the American people.
21 State election systems
We found out they were in 21 state election systems. All the intelligence is that they didn’t change any votes, they didn’t affect the outcome of the election, but they weren’t there for fun.
They weren’t trying to get into Illinois’ voter database just for entertainment. There was some purpose there and that, to me, is one of the most sinister parts of this....
A key part of this is intervention in key state elections. We’ve had hearings with secretaries of states, and you know what they all say? ‘We’re all set. We’re safe. no problem.’
I’m not fully confident with that.
No election in this country should ever be carried forward without a paper ballot backup.
And no voting machine should ever connected to the internet. Although that’s not fully protected because they can get into the companies that make the voting machines.
They don’t necessarily have to change the results. All they’ve got to do is call the results into question, and we’ve got a crisis in this country.
Later in the evening, the discussion returned to the state election system infiltration, and King said:
..... States weren’t told for months and months that they were told they were targets. I could never understand why they couldn’t make that public because we do need to know to prepare for the next time.
Spread real fake news. There’s a term. Is that like a true fact?
This is absolutely part of their history.
They weren’t necessarily trying to take sides at first. They were just trying to disrupt. There was a group called the Heart of Texas. Their message was essentially get Muslims out of Texas. And then there was another site called Muslims for America. They were were ostensibly promoting Islam.
And they both promoted a Muslim demonstration on March 13. They were trying to foment a conflict.... They were equal opportunity troublemakers.
In our committee, the member who gets this most viscerally is Marco Rubio. He’s the one who keeps saying, ‘look, this could be us next time.’
Putin is not a Republican. He’s an opportunist.
Here’s what makes people like me nervous. There’s a term, and it comes from Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and it’s called Deep Fake. Technology whereby they can take a tape of me speaking, my voice, and change the words so it is still my voice, but I’m saying something completely different.
If you create a completely fake reality, and combine with the way social media works, it’s doubly dangerous because you can never catch it.....
This is disturbing, because democracy is based on information. If we have misinformation we are in real trouble.
Where the investigation is now
We have completed a section on state election systems. We just issued a report this week that basically said the intelligent community’s assessment of January 2017 was accurate.
Sophisticated program. The Russians were behind it. Putin approved it and it was intended to try to elect Donald Trump.
Bipartisan. No disagreement on that conclusion, which I think is important especially when you compare our work with that of the House of Representatives, which has become basically partisan. We’ve really worked hard to keep our committee bipartisan. And by the way, it’s not a homogenous committee....
Final piece, collusion piece
The final piece will be the collusion piece and I can’t and won’t say anything on that now. All I can say is that the committee has interviewed 150 witnesses by now....
When you do something like this, threads keep pulling and it keeps going. We’re following them wherever they lead. Hoping to have that done within the next few months.
And I can’t really predict with the outcome will be.
The relationship with Mr. Mueller: Our investigation is really different. His investigation is a criminal investigation. It’s a counter-espionage investigation. Were crimes committed.
Our investigation is more, what happened. What are the facts, and particularly, how do we prevent it from happening again. It’s a real challenge. I consider this a geo-political jujitsu.... They’re using our strength against us.
Our strength is an open society; First Amendment, free press, access to information.
If we could cut off bad website, we could do that, but we don’t want to do that. It’s not who we are.
That’s what makes it hard. We are asymmetrically vulnerable, because we are the most digitally connected society on earth.
I believe that in end, the best defense is for us to know that it’s happened and to be able to separate fact from fiction.
Lack of a coherent response
Nobody is in charge. If you watch the news, periodically a new phrase, a ‘whole of government.’ We are going to have a ‘whole of government response.’ Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
What that really means is, none of government. It means nobody is in charge and there’s no accountability.
One of our problems in this area, in terms of cyber security, is a lack — sort of a pre-911 silo problem, when the intelligent agencies were talking to each other. Now we have something like nine agencies involved but there is no one in charge to coordinate all the information.
One of John Bolton’s first acts as national security director, abolished the position of cyber coordinator. It’s gone. I have an old friend who used to say, Structure is policy. The structure that you have will determine largely the way the policy comes out. And right now, we have no coherent cyber policy because there is no coherent structure of anyone who is in charge. And often agencies don’t talk with each other. This is a serious problem.
Manipulation of social media, manipulation of voting machine
I think the social media part is most important. It is impossible to measure. Nobody can what effect it had on the election, on the outcome. But I think it is most important in affecting peoples’ attitudes.
It hasn’t stopped. It’s not done. They are still fomenting division in our country, whether it’s over immigration or any contentious issue.
This is a strategy going back to the Soviet Union. Clearly, Putin’s strategy is, divide the West. Divide NATO. Divide the EU. Divide the Western Alliance.
This is his goal. He has said the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He is a very smart guy who is preparing the way strategically and part of that is dividing us, and it wouldn’t be so easy except we’re so susceptible to this kind of information warfare.
No doctrine of deterrence
Strategy on cyber is entirely defensive but if all you can do is defend, all you can do is lose. No price to be paid on a serious attack on our country.
In 2016, this was an attack on our country. There is no price to paid for a serious attack on our country.
What happened in 2016 was.... effectively an act of war. No response. Some sanctions.
We need to have a cyber doctrine that people know. That’s not secret.
We need to have an offensive capability that people know that we have and will use it if we are struck.
We all should be talking about the electric grid, gas pipelines, the financial system, all of which are heavily digital....We are the most wired society on earth, therefore the most likely to be struck.
Somebody contemplating an act like that on us could do so without fear of retribution. In no other form of human events does that sort of situation occur.
We need to define what an act of war is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cyber response. It can be sanctions. It can be a blockade.
We asked the head of NSA, ‘do we have a response which will be sufficient to deter future attacks?’
The answer is embedded in my brain: ‘We have nothing that we can do that will change our adversary’s calculus.’
That’s pretty scary and our biggest foreign relations failure right now. Goes back to the Obama Administration. This is not a partisan comment. It is a very difficult question and one we have to address.
Questions from the audience:
Will your committee make recommendations on how to move forward?
King: Yes, That’s the heart of why we are doing this is. We did make a series of recommendations on the state election systems.
Some of them will be more specific than others.
If there is a way to identify the geographical source of information.
When you read a newspaper, it says San Antonio, July 4. If it says St. Petersburg, July 8, there’s a tip-off.
Have you thought about where you will have the coffees for us in the White House?
King: There’s a saying in the Good Book, Steve. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. That means I have enough trouble as is.
Concerning Iran and Syria
King: I’m very worried about Iran. We abrogated the agreement without any reason. It had a too-short an end date but eight years is better than now. If trade sanctions isolates Iran and they go back to their nuclear program, then what do we do.
Military force is an undesirable outcome.
Israel and Palestinians is a difficult issue.
The Israeli actions in the West Bank and settlements are making the creation of another state almost impossible. With the Palestinians, do they have a leadership structure that can deliver on a deal?
Moving the embassy was a mistake.
Syria is one of the most complex situations. All the countries involved in Syria and opposition, made up 1,200 groups. We’ve left it to Iran and the Russians and the momentum is the Assad regime.
The intelligence community and its marginalization.
King: Keep focused on the professionalization. The intelligence community should be totally oriented to delivering facts, data. Not policy.
The problem is that it’s human nature that people want to tell policy makers information that they want to hear. If you read H.R. McMaster’s book, The Dereliction of Duty, about Vietnam, that lot of it was bending the facts to meet the goals of policymakers.
Because of this Russia thing, they sort of got off on the wrong foot with the president.
“The speech I wish he [President Donal Trump] would make is this: ‘My campaign had nothing to do with the Russians and there was no collusion and if there was, anyone who did so was going to be punished to the full extent of the law. However, the Russians did an unprecedented attack on our democracy and they’re going to try to do it again. And we need to do everything we can to stop it.’”
That’s the speech to separate the two issues. So far, that speech has not been made. He views the intelligence community with suspicion because of their having reported with I consider the facts. Which our committee just said this week that, yes, those are the facts, a bipartisan basis.
If the president doesn’t listen to the intelligence community, that’s a real concern.
Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at email@example.com; 207-706-6657.