US fails to stand up for democracy in face of Russian online assault

News by Teri Robinson

The US Trump administration has failed to take an aggressive stance against Russian interference in democratic processes that have grave implications for the safety and security of the US, and thus democracy globally.

The US Trump administration has failed to take an aggressive stance against Russian interference in democratic processes that have grave implications for the safety and security of the US, according to a report released by US Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Never before has a US president so clearly ignored such a grave and growing threat to US national security," according to the report, which did not carry a single Republican signature and comes out ahead of a bipartisan report expected from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

For the second time in two days, Congressional Democrats have run counter to the wishes of, or openly defied, their Republican colleagues by releasing information pertinent to Russia's cyber-espionage activities and interference in democratic processes. On Tuesday, apparently fed up by what she considered obstructive machinations by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by Kevin Simpson, founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that hired former British spy Christopher Steele, author of the controversial Trump dossier, to conduct oppositional research on the then presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton's campaign. 

The report published Wednesday by Cardin did not carry a single Republican signature and comes out ahead of a bipartisan report expected from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russia's attempts to upend democratic processes in 19 countries.

It casts light on what it calls Russian President Vladmir Putin's "relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States" and chastises Trump for his administration's inaction.

"While President Trump stands practically idle, Mr Putin continues to refine his asymmetric arsenal and look for future opportunities to disrupt governance and erode support for the democratic and international institutions that the United States and Europe have built over the last 70 years," Cardin said in a statement. 

Besieged by allegations that members of his transition team and administration had inappropriate dealings with Russian operatives and might have colluded to influence the US presidential election in Trump's favor, the president has repeatedly downplayed Russia's alleged activities that included hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) systems, leaking pilfered emails to WikiLeaks and leveraging social media platforms to carry out an influence campaign reminiscent of the Soviet era. And he has defended Putin, noting that he did “really believe” Putin's denials that he interfered in the US election.

The Cardin report paints Putin as a power-multiplying leader of a waning super power who has tapped internal security services and outside forces to conduct “malign influence campaigns” within the country and throughout the West.

Leveraging social media, employing trolls and organised crime, Russia has aimed disinformation campaigns at discrediting politicians, elections, media and religious organisations, repeating “the Kremlin's narrative of the day and disrupt social cohesion.”

They often start at the local level, the report said, noting that “the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy found that the Russian government has used cyber-attacks, disinformation, and financial influence campaigns to meddle in the internal affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004.”

The report also cites a former employee of a Russian troll farm as saying that “staff on the ‘foreign desk' were responsible for meddling in other countries' elections.”

In the months before the 2016 US presidential election foreign desk staff, for example, “were reportedly trained on ‘the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more… their job was to incite [Americans] further and try to ‘rock the boat,'” the report said. “The employee noted that ‘our goal wasn't to turn the Americans toward Russia. Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent.'”

Individual countries, too, have taken steps to counter what they see as Russia's intrusion and attempted influence within their borders. But the report slapped the US for “a lack of urgency and self-imposed constraints by the current State Department leadership” that has left the Global Engagement Center, whose mandate in December 2016 was expanded to include “'foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts' that target the US and its interests,” a low priority, understaffed and without real leadership.

“The Administration's lackadaisical approach to staffing these positions and providing leadership to US efforts to fight Kremlin disinformation stands in sharp contrast to the accelerating nature of the threat,” the report said. “As one GEC official put it, ‘'every week we spend on process is a week the Russians are spending on operations.'''

In a moment of self-reflective candor, the White House seemed to recognise at the end of last year that the US “has done too little to deter Putin's assaults,” the report said, citing a December 2017 National Security Strategy that admitted, ‘‘'US efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and fragmented. US efforts have lacked a sustained focus and have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.'''

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