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Sen. James Lankford: Other countries will "test out" Russia's interference tactics

With its overt and covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Russia has provided other countries with a replicable set of tactics to employ in the U.S. and around the world, says Senator James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"I think what Russia has done and what other countries have done in the past – everybody's going to test out," Lankford said. "They're going to experiment to see what they can do."

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In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Lankford said China has, like Russia, attempted to use certain kinds of software to access online systems in an apparent effort to gain information – and, occasionally, a foothold in American public opinion.

"The Chinese certainly have the capability to be able to engage in this area. We haven't seen them engage on election issues before, but the Chinese also have a PR preference, as well," Lankford said. "[I]f there's a way they can get a Chinese message into the American public, they're going to work to be able to do that because they want to do business with the United States."

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security ordered all U.S. federal agencies to stop using anti-virus software created by Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, whose products DHS said, in a statement, the Russian government could "capitalize on" to "compromise federal information and information systems."  

In July, the Pentagon began circulating a "Do Not Buy" list of software of Russian or Chinese origin, warning the military and its contractors that certain foreign vendors may be targeting vulnerabilities in U.S. systems in an effort to spy on them.

"We have identified certain companies that do not operate in a way consistent with what we have for defense standards," Ellen Lord, the head of acquisitions at the Department of Defense, said at the time.

National security officials have raised similar concerns about Chinese telecommunications giants ZTE and Huawei, which Lankford, among others, has said operate hand-in-glove with the Chinese communist party. Both are currently restricted from selling telecoms components in the United States.

"What access do we want the Chinese government to be able to have, knowing that you don't have a business in China that is not also run partially by the Chinese communist government?" Lankford said.

Numerous Trump administration officials – including, most recently, Vice President Mike Pence, who gave a strongly-worded speech at the Hudson Institute last week – have issued new stark warnings about China's efforts to influence U.S. domestic politics. In September, President Trump publicly accused China of attempting to disrupt the upcoming midterm elections, though the administration has provided little evidence to suggest Beijing's influence operations are specifically related to 2018, let alone as purposeful as Russia's were designed to be in 2016.

Last year the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that Russia, at President Vladimir Putin's instruction, engaged in a coordinated influence campaign intended to damage Hillary Clinton's election prospects and boost then-candidate Trump's. Russian actors were found to have hacked the email systems of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign officials, surveilled election systems in more than 20 states, and disseminated divisive social media content that reached hundreds of thousands of voters.

Lankford, who has worked for months on bipartisan election security legislation that, for the moment, remains stalled in the Senate, said U.S. election systems on the whole are "more secure than what they were in 2016." He pointed to most states' efforts to fortify their own hardware and software as well as strengthen internal processes handled by secretaries of state and election boards. He did, however, express concern about five states whose systems remain entirely electronic, and therefore non-auditable.

"All the Russians have to do after the 2018 elections is say that they actually got into one of those systems, leave the hint out there that they got into it," Lankford said. "There's no way to be able to verify they did or they didn't."

He said Russia's efforts to sow discord in American public discourse on social media is continuing, albeit at lower levels than were seen in 2016.

"[T]hey are still out there. It's not that they've walked away," Lankford said. "They are very, very engaged, still, in the social media side."

Though others on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia, have called for some regulation of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google, all of which have been targeted by foreign influence campaigns, Lankford said he is disinclined to pursue legislative measures.

"I want to stay away from regulation as much as possible, especially on the social media platforms," he said. "Those are free speech platforms."

He told Morell the multiple hearings the committee has held with social media companies were intended to raise what have become thorny social, cultural and business considerations with the public. Facebook and others, he said, "are addressing" those considerations.

"And we'll see how far that they continue to be able to go," he said.

Lankford also told Morell the Intelligence Committee was unlikely to issue any significant findings from its ongoing investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference ahead of the midterms – although, he said, some members had hoped to conclude the probe "last December."

"That was our initial target," he said. "Now we're getting close to the election. We're not going to do anything. We're not going to release anything. We're not going to talk about it at all."

The committee's investigation comprises discrete "chapters," with separate inquiries focused on election security, the intelligence community's own assessment of Russia's activities, the Obama administration's response to Russia's incursions, the effect of influence campaigns on social media platforms, and the Trump campaign's alleged links to the Russian government.

Lankford said the committee decided on a bipartisan basis to withhold investigation findings until after the election.

"We don't want to try to affect it either way or anything on this point, because there's nothing earth-shattering that we're going to drop out that needs to be dropped right now," he said.

"And it's best for us to be able to finish our work quietly and to try to be able to get it out."


For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Senator Lankford, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.