As a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday unveiled a bill to impose more sanctions on Russia, leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community gathered again on Capitol Hill to testify on the Kremlin’s interference in the election.
The flurry of activity related to Russia also comes amidst a week of confirmation hearings for Trump Cabinet picks as they face questions on President-elect Donald Trump’s favorable comments on and potential policies related to Moscow.
The proposed legislation, which aims to step up retaliatory measures in response to Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election, marks a significant challenge to President-elect Donald Trump on the issue. The bipartisan bill would also write into law sanctions related to Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria.
The bill shows that many in Congress — and, notably, some key Republican senators — are “basically going straight into battle on Russia with the incoming president,” Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and senior fellow for the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said.
The bill looks to convert into law many of the sanctions levied by the Obama administration, making them more difficult for Trump to roll back. It would also hit companies that do business in Russia, mandating sanctions against those that work with Russian defense or intelligence sectors and on investments of $20 million or more in Russian oil and gas development, and impose visa bans and asset freezes on “those who undermine the cybersecurity of public or private infrastructure and democratic institutions.”
“We have been attacked by Russia. That is no longer subject to any debate,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the bill’s sponsors, said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Polyakova noted that these proposed sanctions could “really hit the Russian government where it hurts.”
“This would be a much broader sanctions program that would affect key Russian sectors in a more profound way, particularly in defense and hydrocarbon production,” she said.
As the Hudson Institute’s Hannah Thoburn pointed out, the act proposed Tuesday mirrors last year’s “STAND for Ukraine Act,” which sought to codify in U.S. law for five years the Obama administration’s measures to punish Russia over annexing Crimea. And the oil and gas related sanctions could “really hobble the Russian economy because it is so dependent on sales of hydrocarbons,” she said.
“They’re combining some of the pieces they wish had gotten through the last session, as well as throwing in new things, because now there is a little bit more expediency to push these things through,” she noted.
Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Tillerson, who would come to the table without government experience, has raised questions stemming from his years atop one of the world’s most powerful corporations, notably his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his business dealings with autocratic leaders.
Putting these sanctions into U.S. law, rather than just as an executive branch order which is easy for Trump to overturn, also speaks to the fears some in Congress have because of Tillerson’s nomination.
Polyakova noted that Tillerson’s answers on sanctions “will be very important for understanding how he interprets Russian foreign policy over the last three years — whether he see that as a real break with international law, or takes the Russian view that the Kremlin was forced to take these kinds of steps [on Ukraine and Crimea, for instance] as national security concerns, which I think is a false view.”
And “there is some concern that Mr. Tillerson will have a hard time switching from wearing his business hat to his U.S. diplomat hat,” Thoburn said, noting the sanctions forced Exxon Mobil to step back from business deals and selling drilling equipment to Russian state-owned oil companies.
Beyond sanctions, the bill also provides for an additional $100 million for the State Department and other agencies to support programs to counter so-called “fake news” and boost democratization and anti-corruption projects in Europe. As part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill called the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act” was passed to establish an interagency center to boost efforts in this area.
“This initiative would be an additional tranche of funding on top of that, which is also very welcome,” Polyakova said. “It’s unclear what that really means, but certainly the U.S. is far behind Russia in the way we think about information security, and we’ve definitely seen how detrimental things like fake news can be.”
“This is a much stronger stance than we’ve seen from Congress before,” she added.
Meanwhile, at a Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, each of the intelligence chiefs — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, and CIA Director John Brennan — said they had never seen this level of Russian interference in the U.S. political process in their respective careers.
Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee there was evidence that Russia hacked Republican state-level organizations and campaigns, as well as old Republican National Committee email domains — and did not release the information that had been harvested. Comey, who was appearing before Congress for the first time since the presidential election, also said that the FBI “did not develop any evidence that the Trump campaign or the current RNC was successfully hacked.”
The hearing came four days after the IC released a declassified report to the public that found Russian President Putin ordered a multifaceted cyber and influence campaign aimed at interfering in the election and boosting President-elect Donald Trump’s chances.
Clapper again reiterated that intelligence agencies “did not assess the impact on the electorate” in their review.
“We just can’t say whether the release of the hacked information changed any voter’s opinion,” he told senators.
Clapper also addressed why he said much of the report had to remain classified. The assessment on Russian interference in the election was based on a mix of human intelligence, technical data, and open-source information, he said, and many details were not disclosed due to the protection of sources and methods.
The IC has “spent billions of dollars gaining these accesses, which we would jeopardize,” Clapper said, adding that giving that up could potentially put assets at risk.
Knowing that, Putin has always “felt that he had deniability,” Clapper said.
“And we’re somewhat restricted because of our sources and methods concerns about showing our hand, showing our deck here so to speak, and what led us to those conclusions that we feel so strongly about,” Clapper said. “He knows that, he’s a professional intelligence officer and he probably understands our approach to the protection of sources and methods, and so he can just deny it and get away with it.”
Also on the Hill on Tuesday, Trump’s pick for Department of Homeland Security John Kelly said during his confirmation hearing that he accepts the IC’s conclusions on Russia “with high confidence.”
Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the intelligence community’s findings on Russia’s meddling in the election, received a full intelligence briefing on the hacking last week. He released a statement after the briefing, saying “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” and did not acknowledge IC’s assessment that Russia attempted to interfere in the election with the aim of trying to tip the election in his favor.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.
Verdi Tzou contributed to this report.