I Blew the Whistle on Russian Election Interference. Now I'm Running for Congress.
This article was originally published by Tom Malinowski in Politico Magazine on 1/11/2018.
A year ago, in the final days of the Obama presidency, my colleagues and I in his administration were racing against time. The intelligence community had already concluded that Russia interfered in our 2016 election. We were determined to use our remaining time to discover how Russia had done so—since we had no idea then whether Congress or the FBI would mount a proper inquiry—and to ensure that our still limited knowledge would survive any attempts by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to bury what had already been discovered.
One day last January, I hand-carried to key U.S. Senate offices a set of unclassified serial numbers of intelligence reports on Russian interference, hoping senators would request the full reports and be inspired to investigate further.
Fortunately, real investigations did follow. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry has already led to two guilty pleas, plus indictments against two key Trump advisers, with more likely to follow. So long as we protect Mueller and the FBI from President Trump’s shameless attacks, their investigation will ultimately get to the bottom of what happened, so that, as a country, we can determine whether the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians, and if so, hold the perpetrators responsible for any crimes they may have committed.
But we should not wait to act on what we already do know. Astoundingly, neither the administration nor Congress has taken a single step to close the vulnerabilities that the Russians exploited, and that other adversaries will surely exploit in the future. It is time to safeguard our democracy.
I’m now running for Congress, and the Russia investigation is rarely the first thing people here in New Jersey talk to me about. But the hopes they do raise—for good jobs, affordable health care, fair taxes, a clean environment—are all at risk if a hostile foreign power can manipulate our democratic process and even hijack our election outcomes.
There are a lot of good, common-sense, bipartisan ideas out there on how to prevent that, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress should act immediately to enact a single, comprehensive bill that combines the best of them. Here are the most important objectives and provisions for such a package:
First, secure our elections. In 2016, Russia launched cyberattacks against at least 21 state election systems, and tried to compromise a U.S. voting software company. Yet many Americans, including in my state of New Jersey, still vote on outmoded, hack-able machines that produce no paper backup of results in case tampering is suspected. A bipartisan group of senators has called for federal authorities to share threat information with states, to develop national election security guidelines, and to provide grants to states to upgrade their voting machinery. These ideas should be included in any comprehensive bill.
Second, keep foreign money out of our politics. We already ban foreign donations to political candidates, and we should strengthen that ban with closer scrutiny of credit card donations. But we need to go further, and make sure foreign individuals and companies can’t use shell corporations to keep their identity and nationality secret while funneling millions into our country. Amazingly, we hardly have any laws to stop that. This is hardly a hypothetical threat. According to a Reuters investigation into Russian investment in President Trump’s properties in south Florida, around one-third of his condo units there are held by shell companies that hide their true owners. Thus, anonymous donors—American and foreign—can channel cash directly to businesses owned by the president of the United States; they can contribute to super PACs, too.
When I was in government, I urged Congress to require that information about the actual owners of companies registered in the U.S. be disclosed to the Treasury Department, and made available on request to law enforcement. Others have proposed a public registry of such information. It is past time to get this done
Third, combat online propaganda. This is the most important challenge we face, and the hardest to meet responsibly. At the State Department, where I oversaw our human rights diplomacy, I often confronted dictatorships like China about their censorship of the internet, which they justified by claiming they were merely filtering out lies. Our government cannot and should not take that path. Our Constitution enshrines Americans’ right to freedom of speech.
But we can encourage social media companies like Facebook to take action on their own, which they are starting to do, including by providing more information about the reliability and origin of news sources. And when it comes to political advertising, Congress can impose rules on social media sites, just as it does on TV and radio. There should be a public repository of such ads, so that everyone, not just the select groups the ads “micro-target,” can see them and respond to false charges, as a bipartisan group of senators recently proposed. As a candidate, I’ve pledged to make all my social media ads public. I’d like Facebook to do the same with my opponent’s ads, and those from any outside group trying to influence voters in my district, whether they’re doing it with dollars or rubles.
Also—I’m a champion of free speech for humans, but not for robots. It’s crazy that around one in five election-related posts on Twitter last year came from automated “bots,” many traceable to Russia, which boost the apparent popularity and credibility of crackpot conspiracy theories. This problem threatens to get worse, as advances in “artificial empathy” make online bots increasingly hard to distinguish from people. We can’t and shouldn’t ban all bots, but Congress could require that bot accounts clearly identify themselves as such. Social media companies would then have to make every reasonable effort to rid their platforms of bots that don’t comply with the rule.
Protecting our democracy shouldn’t be a partisan issue. By joining ranks around such common-sense steps, Democrats and Republicans in Congress can not only protect our elections, but also combat the increasingly poisonous and polarized politics that the Russians were trying to exploit. Congress should get this done now.