Americans need to know about Russia’s interference

Chris Murphy is a Democratic US senator from Connecticut, and sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.

(CNN)Last month, both Twitter and Facebook announced they were removing a network of accounts that promoted a fake news outlet staffed by computer-generated anchors. The artificial intelligence generated content was mostly directed at left-leaning voters in the United States, with the apparent goal of dissuading them from supporting the Biden-Harris ticket.

Predictably, the accounts were traced back to Internet Research Agency, the most infamous of the Russian government-sponsored troll farms which prominently played in the 2016 election.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have reviewed a lot of both unclassified and classified information detailing Russia’s plan to disrupt the 2020 election. This fake news channel is just one of a myriad of examples of how Russia has supersized and improved its ability to disrupt American politics since the 2016 election, when its influence reached an estimated 126 million people on Facebook alone.
These new methods include setting up credible-looking websites like those taken down by Facebook and Twitter, hiring unknowing Americans to provide content for Russia-aligned news sites, and using high-ranking Republican senators and Trump associates like Rudy Giuliani to push Kremlin-created storylines.
While it is still very possible that Russia will attempt to infiltrate and sabotage American voting infrastructure and outcomes, the influence Moscow has already had on the 2020 political debate through its dizzying array of political interference operations is hard to overhype.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee willfully cooperated with Russian-aligned political fixer Andrii Telizhenko, and issued a partisan report echoing most of the Kremlin-fed anti-Biden stories that he had been shopping. Last month, the State Department quietly revoked Telizhenko’s visa, and the Treasury Department announced that Telizhenko’s frequent collaborator, Andriy Derkach, was a Russian secret agent.
Russia has had equal success manipulating the broader public debate outside Washington. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who analyzed more than 200 million tweets about the Covid-19 pandemic — many of which spread wild conspiracy theories — found that nearly half of the Twitter accounts behind these posts were likely bots.
Russia, of course, is the likely source of any massive Twitter-bot operation. This is nothing new. During the 2018 government shutdown, the hashtag #SchumerShutdown was trending on Twitter, thanks to 600 Russian bots pushing the blame for the government closure on the Democratic Party. The deep political polarization in our own society has made the Kremlin’s job easier, and they often simply magnify divisive statements from the president.
Russia’s misinformation campaign is massive — much bigger than 2016 and there is no doubt that it intends to help reelect Donald Trump and defeat Joe Biden. This is the official finding of the FBI and the wider US intelligence community.
But the White House, often with the help of political appointees at the intelligence agencies, is trying its best to cover up Russia’s octopus-like disruption operation. Over and over, public statements from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence try to conflate Russian election interference with Iranian and Chinese efforts and suggest that while Russia may prefer Trump, Iran and China back Biden.
We saw this false equivalency unfold just last week, when Director of National Intelligence Ratcliffe hastily called a press conference, taking no questions, to disclose an Iranian effort to contact and intimidate registered Democrats. Despite the fact that the emails told voters to support Trump, DNI Ratcliffe tried to make the case that the intent was to hurt Trump.
It was just another effort by the administration to try to clumsily lump Russian and Iranian and Chinese efforts all together.
But there is no comparison. Russia is the only country with the capability and intent to meaningfully disrupt our election — no matter what Ratcliffe and Trump’s other loyalists want the American public to believe.
Even more menacing is the Trump administration’s attempts to simply bury information that would give voters warnings about Russian interference. This summer, I asked Secretary of State Michael Pompeo if voters should trust Andrii Derkach, and he refused to answer the question, though he certainly knew the answer.
It was only weeks later that the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach for being a Russian agent. In September, the highest level counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security disclosed in a whistleblower complaint that the White House had pressured him to stop providing intelligence reports on Russian interference operation.
With Biden’s lead in the national polls expanding, and Trump’s behavior becoming even more erratic, the President is clearly in need of a Hail Mary to make up a widening gap in the polls. There are few places that he can turn other than Russia, and we know Russia is poised to interfere on Trump’s behalf again.
The strange tale of a purported Biden family laptop’s data ending up in the hands of Rudy Giuliani is a likely sign that Russia’s campaign to plant fictional, anti-Biden propaganda into the US political debate may just be ramping up. Though DNI Ratcliffe claims there isn’t intelligence to support Russian interference, a recent letter from 50 former intelligence officials disagreed, arguing that the operation had all the hallmarks of a Russian operation.
But the good news is this — the more Americans know about Russia’s intent and capability, the less likely Russia’s desperate, last-minute attempts at interference and disruption will be. Those who care about the future of democracy will press the Administration to reveal what they know, before it’s too late.

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Opinion by Chris Murphy