WASHINGTON – The United States will get hit again by Russian cyberattacks if the country doesn’t pay closer attention and work more closely with European allies who are also victims, international elections experts warned on Wednesday.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, experts described extensive Russian interference in European elections and encouraged more awareness among U.S. citizens of how Russians are trying to undermine U.S. candidates and faith in government. One witness, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, criticized both former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump for not doing more to publicize the problem and combat it.
“I do think that it’s time for Congress and not the president to lead the response to Russia’s cyberattack on the United States,” said Nicholas Burns, who worked as NATO ambassador and undersecretary at the State Department under President George W. Bush.
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Burns criticized Obama for not doing more as it became apparent during last year’s election that Russia was trying to interfere. But he had harsher words for Trump, saying he hadn’t been skeptical enough of Russia’s role in the election.
“If he continues to refuse to act, it’s a dereliction of his most basic duty to protect the country,” Burns said.
Russian officials have denied any meddling in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that President Vladimir Putin was responsible.
Burns recommended that the United States work more closely with Europe to identify Russia’s cyber disinformation — fake news spread through social media, for example — and share information in real time. He also recommended that U.S. print, radio and television networks find ways to quickly discredit those Russian efforts as they happen.
Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said “society and its perceptions” are the main target of Russian influence operations, so popular awareness that they are happening is key.
“We have seen resilience levels raise instantly as society recognizes being targeted,” he said.
All four witnesses — Burns, Sarts, Ambassador Vesko Garcevic of Boston University and Dr. Constanze Stelzenmueller of The Brookings Institution — said they believe Putin is directly responsible for the efforts to influence the election.
Senators expressed concerns that there would be more efforts to undermine next year’s congressional elections, and committee Chairman Richard Burr, Republican from North Carolina, agreed the U.S. must “lean on our allies” as those elections approach.
“We must advance more quickly than our adversary and only together can we do so,” Burr said.
After the hearing, Burr said he’d like to finish the investigation into Russian meddling by the end of this year, but acknowledged “that’s aspirational right now.”
Burr said the panel has an aggressive schedule in July, and may go into the August recess having done as many as 80 interviews.
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He also said the Senate panel doesn’t have plans at this point to bring in longtime Trump confident Roger Stone for an interview. Stone is scheduled to appear before the House intelligence committee next month.
“We still have a very difficult time understanding whether he has anything to contribute to our investigation,” Burr said.
Stone has said he communicated with Guccifer 2.0, an unnamed hacker who has taken credit for breaking into the servers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). But Stone has denied that he worked with Russian officials to influence the presidential election.
In a statement Tuesday, Stone’s lawyer said the political operative has been “much maligned by innuendo and misinformation” regarding the investigations into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Lawyer Robert Buschel said Stone looks forward to providing the House panel “a timeline based only on the facts.”
MARY CLARE JALONICK