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Senators question whether the United States is prepared to combat foreign interference in the 2024 elections

Lawmakers warned Wednesday of a growing threat of foreign interference in the 2024 election and questioned whether U.S. agencies — and technology companies — were adequately prepared to respond to that danger.

“We need to do a better job of making sure that Americans of all political stripes understand what’s in store for them most likely over the next…less than six months,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner , during a hearing with Senator Mark Warner. US intelligence chief and other senior officials.

The Virginia Democrat warned that attempts by Russia and other adversaries to influence the 2024 election through propaganda and disinformation could be “more sophisticated and more aggressive in scale and scope” than in years previous ones.

Senator Mark Warner and Senator Marco Rubio on the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2023.Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Warner said the threat has increased due to a combination of more advanced and available technologies, aggressive foreign actors, growing American distrust of the government, litigation that has made U.S. agencies reluctant to share threat information with social media companies and a failure of technology companies. to decisively tackle the problem.

“Unfortunately, since 2022, we have also seen considerable disinvestment – ​​and in some cases, complete disinterest – in platform integrity efforts from major social media companies,” Warner said. The senator was referring to social media companies cutting staff and efforts to moderate content considered misinformation or hate speech.

The Intelligence Committee’s top Republican senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, said it was unclear which federal agency or official had the responsibility to respond if a foreign government spread lies or published a “deep fake” generated by AI during the election campaign.

“When this happens, if it happens, who is responsible for responding to it? Have we thought about the process and what we do when one of these scenarios occurs? » Rubio asked. “Because I don’t think I have a clear idea of ​​who is in charge and how we would respond. Who would take the lead?

The senator said there needs to be a coordinated plan to determine how to respond instead of what he called an “ad hoc” approach that has been used in the past.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told senators that protecting the democratic process “from foreign influence or interference is a top priority for the intelligence community” and that the U.S. government “has never been better prepared to take on this challenge.”

Haines said her office may have a role in issuing a warning about a foreign actor spreading disinformation during an election, but she said there could be cases where local or state election officials could be better placed to warn the public.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies at the Capitol on May 2.Mark Schiefelbein / AP file

“The hesitation you hear from me is based on the fact that there may be certain circumstances in which, for example, a state or local official or other fundamentally public authorities are in a better position to make a public statement first and for the rest. for us to come back behind,” she said.

But Haines said she was prepared to quickly denounce false information spread by foreign states, citing an example of what she said was a Russia-linked group releasing a video with false claims about a Russia plot. CIA aiming to undermine Donald Trump’s white power candidacy. Home. The baseless video claimed to depict an internet troll farm in Ukraine used by the CIA. The New York Times was the first to report Russian disinformation.

“And I am here to say categorically that this claim is demonstrably false and that no such thing exists. This is misinformation, and it’s the kind of approach we will continue to take across the board,” Haines said.

The intelligence director said the video was likely the work of a Russian-affiliated group known as Storm-1516.

A CIA spokesperson said the video was “patently false.”

“The CIA is a foreign-oriented organization that takes very seriously our obligation to remain uninvolved in American politics and elections,” said spokesman Walter Trosin.

The picture of foreign interference threats is now more complex, Haines told lawmakers, because there are a growing number of governments or groups seeking to influence the outcome of elections and a growing number of commercial companies willing to help them with sophisticated tools capable of hiding the initial instigator.

“Russia remains the most active foreign threat to our elections,” Haines said.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Wednesday he is concerned that cybersecurity officials are taking too cautious an approach in combating foreign interference and disinformation to avoid being accused of trying to help Joe Biden’s re-election.Patrick Semansky/Pool via Getty Images

The Russian government’s goal is to use information warfare to undermine trust in American democratic institutions, exacerbate divisions in the United States and weaken Western support for Ukraine, she said.

Although China seeks to promote support for Beijing’s policy positions, it did not try to influence the outcome of the last presidential election and would likely maintain this approach as it wishes to avoid the consequences of attempting to interfere in the American elections, according to Haines.

Iran, however, “is becoming increasingly aggressive in its efforts to stoke discord and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions, as we have seen it do in previous election cycles,” he said. she declared.

Sen. Angus King of Maine said it was crucial that intelligence agencies act quickly to alert the public whenever they identify false information, and to avoid slow bureaucratic procedures that could play into the hands of those who spread information. misinformation.

King said that “if you have evidence that this came from a foreign source, let the public know so they can evaluate that.”

The Maine independent expressed concern that cybersecurity officials may be taking an overly cautious approach to avoid being accused of trying to interfere in the election to help President Joe Biden be re-elected.

“I’m concerned that you’re too concerned about appearing partisan and that it’s preventing you from taking the necessary action,” King said, before adding: “Please speed up. We have about six months left and (…) we know that these adversaries are going to come after us.”

Officials and lawmakers have been keen to distinguish between attempts by foreign actors to tamper with voting or vote counts through cyberattacks and separate efforts to influence attitudes and spread false information.

Despite revelations that Russia broke into U.S. voter rolls in 2016, there is no indication that Moscow changed registration records or other voting systems.

Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said during the hearing that federal and state election agencies have strengthened the security of election systems over the past eight years.

“There is no evidence that malicious actors changed, deleted or altered votes or had a material impact on the outcome of any of these elections,” she said. But Easterly added: “We cannot be complacent. »

Russia, China and Iran have repeatedly denied trying to interfere in U.S. elections through propaganda, disinformation or cyberattacks.