By Jeanne Shaheen
Last month, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and anti-democratic regime. Americans should be no less outraged by Putin’s efforts to corrupt and undermine our democracy. And let’s be clear, this outrage isn’t about party or partisanship. It is about patriotism and defending our country, which has been attacked by a hostile foreign power.
The audacity of Russia’s interference in our 2016 election is deeply alarming. A declassified report presenting the unanimous view of all 17 US intelligence agencies states: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.’”
These findings are not opinions or fake news; they are facts. Beyond Russia’s interference in our election, we need to counter Putin’s larger ambitions, which he is pursuing with ruthless determination. His aim is to restore Russia as a dominant power and to recreate a Soviet-style sphere of influence along its border. His strategy is to disrupt, divide, and weaken the West’s democracies and alliances.
Over the last decade, we have witnessed the full spectrum of Russian acts of aggression, including cyber-attacks, military invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea. At a recent hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, I asked General Curtis Scaparrotti, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe: What is the most important thing that Granite Staters need to know about Russia? He answered that, since World War II, Russia has been the only country in Europe to violate international law and attack another state; and if Russia will do this in Europe, it will do it against any country, including the United States.
We are learning that Russia’s ongoing influence campaign reaches tens of millions of unsuspecting Americans. Researchers have traced countless false news stories to a common source: the Kremlin’s $1.4 billion propaganda machine, which reaches some 600 million people across 130 countries and in 30 languages. The goal is to influence US and European public opinion, sow confusion, and shape election outcomes. The Associated Press identified a building in Moscow where an estimated 400 Internet trolls – fluent in English and well-versed in American politics – work 12-hour shifts creating false news stories. These stories are seeded on the Internet, get passed on by popular websites, and eventually end up on our TV and smart-phone screens here in New Hampshire.
We need to acknowledge that our country has been attacked by a hostile foreign power. And we need a more aggressive strategy for punishing and deterring Russia. I have joined with a bipartisan group of Senators, led by John McCain (R-AZ), to sponsor legislation to impose new, tougher, comprehensive sanctions on Russia. We also need an independent, non-partisan investigation. Following the 9/11 attacks, Congress created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, tasked with fully accounting for the attacks and making recommendations to prevent future attacks. We need this kind of independent commission to investigate Russia’s attack on our democracy.
We also must expose Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation in the US. Russia Today News, cleverly rebranded in the US as RT America, is a high-profile asset in Putin’s propaganda empire, available on cable TV across the US. Under federal law, US-based individuals and organizations that receive financing from a foreign government must disclose that relationship. It is galling that RT America has publicly boasted that it can dodge our laws by claiming to be financed by a nonprofit organization, not the Russian government. I have introduced legislation to end this charade by giving the Department of Justice new authority to investigate organizations like RT and expose their foreign funding sources.
America’s democracy faces a profound test. President Kennedy, speaking in a Cold War context, said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Today, it’s our turn. We must expose the full scope of Putin’s attack on our democracy. And we must ensure it doesn’t happen again.