Russian tactics to undermine democracies around the world were in the spotlight at a Congressional hearing on Wednesday.
“What I’m trying to explain to the American people is the Russian government, in Putin’s hands, has been up to no good in a lot of places for a long time when it comes to breaking the back of democracy,” Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham said.
The hearing, which kick-starts the public efforts of the subcommittee to examine the Kremlin’s attempts to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election, as well as its methods and means to undermine democratic governments, detailed various tactics the Russians employ, such as corrupt business deals, hacking, and media manipulation.
As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) noted, the Russians have “adapted old methods to new technologies – making use of social media, malware, and complex financial transactions – but the tactics themselves are timeless.”
“Propaganda. Espionage. Blackmail. Subversion. The 21st century versions of these are ‘fake news,’ hacking, kompromat, and ‘political capture,’” he said.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, told the committee that Western democracies and the institutions that bind them — the European Union and NATO — are “under attack.”
“This attack is at once asymmetrical yet ideologically promiscuous. By the latter, I mean that an authoritarian regime supports both extreme left and extreme right parties that are on both sides anti-EU, anti-NATO, and anti-U.S. and it does what it can to undermine centrist parties and centrist politicians,” he said, noting that it is asymmetrical because democratic institutions “do not allow us to respond in kind.”
“These tactics – disruption of the Internet, hacking into parliaments, political parties and candidates, and more importantly doxxing or publishing hacked private correspondence, and ultimately spreading false stories or fake news – represent a new form of aggression,” he added.
Ilves served as Estonia’s president when the country was hit by a series of massive cyberattacks in 2007 during a disagreement with the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the House Intelligence Committee will hold the first public hearing of its investigation into Russian active measures targeting the 2016 election, featuring FBI Director James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, who heads both the National Security Agency (NSA) and Cyber Command.
A likely focus will be on Trump’s claims that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, wiretapped him while he was a candidate, although both chairman Devin Nunes and ranking member Adam Schiff said on Wednesday there has been no evidence to back up those allegations. At a joint press conference, Nunes said that the “evidence still remains the same, that we don’t have any evidence that that took place.”
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Graham said that he is awaiting an answer from the FBI on whether there was a warrant issued by any court in the U.S. allowing the surveillance of President Donald Trump’s campaign, Trump Tower, or any Trump operative in the 2016 campaign, or if one was requested and denied.
CSIS’ Heather Conley pointed out that Russian influence works through a variety of economic and political channels, adapting “to specific national situations, including biased news outlets, intelligence networks, Russian financed non-governmental organizations, business linkages and friendly politicians.”
The Kremlin does not engineer the entire framework to employ its tactics, but instead takes advantage of “pre-existing institutional, political and governance weaknesses and exploits them,” Conley said.
“So in fact, we must look to ourselves, and our rules and our laws, to help defeat Russian influence,” she added, noting that Western countries could do more regarding financial transparency laws or attempting to stop Russian money flowing to international political parties and NGOs to help counter Russian interference and corrupt practices.
Conley told the senators that “until they are pushed back in this effort,” Russia will continue its interference campaigns and exploit vulnerabilities in the West.
The witnesses frequently noted that the topic of the hearing is of particular importance in 2017, given the upcoming elections in several European countries such as France and Germany.
“My goal is to make a case that we’re not demonizing Russia, we’re exposing what they do and their efforts to break apart democracies all over the world, that we make a case that they should be punished for what happened in 2016 to deter other foreign powers that may want to interfere in future elections,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said.
Ilves told the senators that “liberal democracies really do need to hang together.”
Kenneth Wainstein, former Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security, told the senators that the U.S. has a number of national security investigative and criminal tools to counter Russian tactics, from sanctions to the enforcement of campaign finance laws. And the U.S. could pursue criminal prosecution related to the Foreign Agent Registration Act or for hacking, he noted.
“Criminal prosecutions can have a meaningful deterrent effect,” Wainstein said, as he also encouraged the U.S. to strengthen those tools at its disposal.
Graham closed the hearing by saying, “if you forgive and forget Russia, you’ll regret it, because they’re only going to get worse.” The U.S. must punish Russia for interfering in the election, he said, particularly before the French head to the polls next month.
“Russia is out to get us all,” he said. “They want to divide us in a fashion so their influence grows at our expense.”
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.