‘In a digital, cyber era, you don’t need a bar and a hooker anymore…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) While partisan infighting was the status quo at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General William Barr, some committee members were taking seriously the threat posed by hostile foreign governments in next year’s election and beyond.
“One of the most important things that we take away from this … needs to be that we’re under attack again in 2020,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., “and it isn’t just gonna be Russia—who’s pretty dang clunky about this stuff, but it’s also likely gonna be China, who’s gonna be much more sophisticated about this stuff.”
Sasse, who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Chinese had actively been working to create databases of information on Americans that they could potentially use as leverage in the future.
“More than 20 million people are already in the spy recruitment database of the communist party of China,” he said.
A problem this poses is that the governments may seek to blur the lines between what is a clear campaign violation and what is not by having compromised people volunteering or working in crucial campaign roles.
“In a digital cyber era, you don’t need a bar and a hooker anymore—you can surround people digitally much easier,” Sasse said. “We know that we’re going to be having attacks in the future, and we need to up our game.”
Although Democrats accused some Trump officials, including campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Carter Page, with having been too cozy with the Russian government, the Mueller Report disproved those claims.
However, the government of Ukraine has since acknowledged that a Democratic National Committee operative, Alexandra Chalupa, actively reached out seeking dirt on the Trump campaign based on a prior collegial relationship she had.
Meanwhile, concerns have surfaced that Hunter Biden, the son of current 2020 front-runner Joe Biden, may have been involved in a major Ukrainian corruption investigation which his father—then vice president—pressured the government to abandon.
Hillary Clinton, too, has long been criticized for blurring the lines between her personal and professional ties, especially in matters concerning foreign governments.
Her connections with Ukraine had been compared previously with Trump’s Russia ties.
Moreover, the Clinton Foundation also received a hefty contribution from Russia after she, as secretary of State, approved the sale of considerable U.S. uranium supplies to Kremlin partners via the Canadian Uranium One company.
One of the Clintons’ biggest scandals, however, was the indirect exchange of nuclear secrets to China for campaign contributions during Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid.
All of these provide the backdrop for a culture of corruption that has been amplified exponentially by the influence of the Internet and social media, facilitating the collection of information and the spread of disinformation.
“I think most people are unaware of how pervasive it is and what the risk level is—and I think it actually should go far beyond even campaigns,” Sasse said. “More people involved in government have to be educated on this.”
Sasse noted that the Presidential Transitions Act of 1963 provided for counterintelligence briefings for major candidates to have a full understanding of current U.S. foreign policy (and perhaps covert operations), but that it may need to be expanded further.
He asked Barr for support in examining whether the major 2020 nominees should also be briefed on ways that foreign governments might be trying to influence their campaigns and administrations by targeting the people they would likely surround themselves with.
Beginning the Conversation
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, agreed with Sasse that we must not be so distracted by internal politics that we ignore the threat from outside the U.S.
Ernst said the Mueller Report marked the “end of the road” for investigating the Trump administration’s alleged collusion, “but it is the beginning of the conversation on how we counter foreign adversaries.”
She said Russia had never flinched in its efforts to undermine American democracy and would continue to do so, even as the tactics evolved.
“It doesn’t matter if the attack is coming from the end of a barrel of a gun or the click of a mouse,” she added. “We have to get to the bottom of it.”
Barr agreed wholeheartedly. He said the FBI had a very “robust” program, the Foreign Influence Task Force, that had been working to address the concerns, and he was open to the idea of further discussions between Congress and the Justice Department.
“What we have now is, with the technology and the democratization of information, the danger is far more insidious.”
He also said that private companies—notably, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter—have been scrambling to address it.
Inherently, though, one of the limitations to America’s democracy was that those who wanted to undermine it had the power to do so by turning our liberties against us.
“Because of our robust First Amendment system of freedoms, they’re able to come in, pretend they’re Americans and affect the dialogue and the social dynamics in the U.S. in a way they’ve never been able to before,” Barr said.