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Mark Warner on securing elections, combating disinformation: "We're not there yet"

Concerns over U.S. election systems hacking
Concerns grow over cyberthreats during elections 04:23

Despite the Trump administration's recently publicized efforts to shore up the country's election infrastructure and information ecosystem against foreign interference, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said the executive branch is still not up to the task of protecting the country from information operations.

"In a normal world, with a normal White House, when we have this level of national security threat," Warner said, "there would be a leader in the White House that would assign somebody in the White House to be that convening force," he said.

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"Instead, the Trump White House got rid of the top person in the position of cybersecurity -- has no one in charge in election security."

  • Read the full transcript of Mark Warner's interview with Michael Morell here

In what was said to be an effort to streamline decision-making, the White House, at the direction of national security adviser John Bolton, eliminated two top cybersecurity policy jobs this past spring. National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis told CBS News, "Streamlining management improves efficiency, reduces bureaucracy, and increases accountability. The action continues efforts to empower National Security Council Senior Directors."

Marquis also disputed Warner's characterization of the White House's efforts to secure U.S. elections, saying in a statement, "The President has made it clear that his Administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation state or other malicious actors. National Security Council staff leads the regular and continuous coordination of the whole-of-government approach to addressing foreign malign influence and ensuring election security."

"Many of the individuals that Mr. Trump has appointed at the line level at DHS or CIA or NSA are all good folks, and they're trying to do the right thing, but because the lines are still a little blurry, nobody's drawing that together," Warner said.

Attention to and scrutiny of the country's preparedness for safeguarding the 2018 midterm elections have intensified in recent weeks. In a uniquely orchestrated show of force during a press briefing in early August, top U.S. national security officials said the administration was prioritizing election security amid continued Russian efforts to sow discord and disinformation – and warned that other countries might be considering their own influence activities.

During the briefing, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said his office was leading an interagency working group that involved the Department of Justice, FBI, DHS, CIA and NSA and that had been, for an indeterminate amount of time, meeting "weekly."

"The ODNI has instituted a broad spectrum of actions covering collection, analysis, reporting, education, and partnerships all designed to provide the best threat assessments to federal, state, and local officials, as well as to the public and private sector when necessary," Coats said at the time.

But in an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Warner said vulnerabilities nonetheless remained stark on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others.

"[W]e've made improvements around social media, but I hear from a lot of the [intelligence community] that there's lot of working groups being stood up," he said. "Whether those working groups are actually interacting and interfacing with the social media companies and the platform companies at the appropriate level, I got a really open question," Warner told Morell.

"I think we're getting better – but we will need offense capability, both in misinformation, disinformation and in the cyber domain. And we're not there yet," he said. "On social media, the government, frankly, has been pretty crummy."

Major tech companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google have in recent weeks publicly disclosed and removed content and accounts related to coordinated influence campaigns led by countries like Russia and Iran. Representatives from all three companies are expected to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a public hearing next month – though Warner said Google had thus far declined to send an executive of "an appropriate level."  

"We want the leaders. We don't want the lawyers," he insisted, "Because they have an obligation."

"I'm really concerned about Google, who've tried to keep their head low and stay out of the line of discussion," Warner said. "Google obviously owns YouTube. We've also seen some of their algorithms be manipulated on their search engine. None of these companies are going to be able to get a pass here."

Over concerns apparently unrelated to foreign influence operations, on Tuesday President Trump lambasted Google for what he said were "rigged" search results that prioritized negative coverage of his administration.

"Google search results for 'Trump News' shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out," the president tweeted.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow later said the administration was "taking a look" at whether Google should be subject to government regulation.

Google, in a statement, said its search function is "not used to set a political agenda" and that the company never ranks search results "to manipulate political sentiment."

Warner, who was a successful tech investor before he sought public office, said he was uninterested in measures that would stifle innovation or give foreign counterparts like China a competitive edge, but saw reason to press tech company leaders for solutions to unanswered policy questions about privacy, transparency and security.

"The wild, wild West cannot continue," he said.

The committee's September hearing on social media will be the latest in the Senate Intelligence Committee's ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The committee is focusing on and issuing reports about five subject areas, the last of which will address the issue of collusion between Russian intermediaries and the Trump campaign.

"We still have a number of witnesses we need to see," Warner told Morell. "The challenge with this investigation has been everybody leads to somebody else, and, if anything, the universe grows rather than has been subtracted."

He also said the investigation had opened up a "whole realm of policy choices" around social media and election security in particular.

"Whether it's cyber or whether it's misinformation, disinformation over social media, the optimistic part of me says there's nothing about these issues that fall neatly into a Democrat-Republican, left-versus-right camp. This is a future-versus-past kind of issue," he explained.

"Are we going to lean into this future and get it right? Because this is not going away as a problem," Warner said.

"Or," he asked, mostly rhetorically, "Are we not going to take appropriate action?"

For much more from Michael Morell's wide-ranging conversation with Senator Mark Warner, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here

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