Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Blasts Putin
Updated: 5:13 p.m.
The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday of ordering a "deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine" last year's presidential election.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., made the charge as the Senate panel held a rare public hearing about Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., avoided any mention of last year's presidential campaign, but said efforts by Russia to "discredit the United States and weaken the West are not new."
But the biggest revelation in Thursday's hearing was the disclosure of two new high-profile targets of Russian cyber efforts: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio said that his presidential campaign was targeted last July, and he said, within the last 24 hours a second attempt was made against former members of his campaign staff. Rubio said both attacks were traced to a Russian IP address, and that neither attack was successful.
The attack against Ryan was revealed by Clint Watts, a cyber expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security. Watts testified social media campaigns targeted Ryan "hoping to foment further unrest amongst U.S. democratic institutions." Watts told reporters that other GOP presidential campaigns had also been targeted.
He also said that Russian "gray outlets" or fake accounts tweet at President Trump "at high volumes when they know he is online, pushing conspiracy theories," in hopes he will repeat them.
Watts also said that Russian "active measures" to sow disinformation in the 2016 campaign worked because Trump sowed his own disinformation during the presidential race about opponents, alleged voter fraud and persistent concerns that the election was being rigged. "Part of the reason active measures work," Watt said, mentioning Trump's recent unsubstantiated claim that Trump Tower had been wiretapped at the direction of President Obama, "is that they parrot the same lines."
Another witness, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, a former head of the National Security Agency and of the U.S. Cyber Command, said the Trump administration needs to "cool this down," referring to the Russian cyber attacks aimed at the U.S. and its allies.
He said the U.S. needs to let Russia know "what things they can't do and why they cannot do those," and called on the committee to address the issue in a bipartisan approach, "for the good of the nation."
Putin on Thursday again dismissed charges that he sought to disrupt the U.S. election as "endless and groundless."
At a news conference Wednesday, Burr and Warner pledged "to go wherever the intelligence leads us," in Burr's words, in their investigation. Their posture stands in stark contrast to the House Intelligence Committee probe, which has stalled after Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., reported he viewed intelligence documents on the White House grounds which he then briefed President Trump about, but refused to share with other committee members.
Democrats have called on Nunes, who also served on the Trump transition team, to recuse himself, but Nunes has said he sees no reason to do so.
The New York Times reported the identities Thursday of two White House staffers the newspaper said had helped give Nunes the intelligence reports the California lawmaker then used to brief Trump. NPR has not confirmed that report and at Thursday's press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would not confirm the newspaper's report.
Spicer did, however, say Thursday that the White House has invited the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to review documents it says are related to "whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled or leaked." Spicer wouldn't say exactly what the information was but said it was found by national security staff "in the ordinary course of business." He also said the information was relevant to a letter earlier this month from Nunes asking the intelligence community for any such information.
The FBI is also conducting an investigation.
Warner said the Senate panel will look into reports that "there were upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls" in Russia that might have sent fake news stories targeted in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
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