Center for American Progress

A Threat to U.S. Democracy: Congress Must Investigate Allegations of Russian Hacks

A Threat to U.S. Democracy: Congress Must Investigate Allegations of Russian Hacks

Congress must act because of Trump’s refusal to even consider Russian involvement in hacks of the 2016 presidential election.

The American flag flies in front of the capitol dome is seen at sunset on Capitol Hill, November 2016. (AP/Alex Brandon)
The American flag flies in front of the capitol dome is seen at sunset on Capitol Hill, November 2016. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The U.S. government and independent cyber security firms determined earlier this year that Russia took unprecedented steps to manipulate the American public during the 2016 presidential election. Now, we learned that the CIA has concluded that the Russians’ intention was actually to influence the outcome in favor of one candidate, President-elect Donald Trump. This new and alarming development, coupled with Trump’s refusal to accept that Russia had any role in the hacks, requires a thorough, credible, and bipartisan investigation by an independent commission. Anything less and we are inviting Russia, as well as America’s other adversaries, to target future U.S. elections.

In October, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a joint statement on behalf of the 17 agencies of the intelligence community formally accusing Russia of hacking into the computer systems of Democratic political organizations. Multiple cyber security firms that examined the data of the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, hacks also reached that conclusion and identified the culprits as known Russian hacking units.

The purported hacker, Guccifer 2.0, also released more than 2,000 files from the DNC. This release prompted “an army of investigators—including old-school hackers, former spooks, security consultants, and journalists” to engage in “an unprecedented open-source counterintelligence operation.” What they found also linked back to Russia. One of the leaked files had been modified using Russian language settings by a user who went by the name of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the long-dead founder of the Soviet secret police. And one of the computers used in the hack was traced back to public data on a 2015 Russian hack of the German parliament.

If this was just the U.S. intelligence community issuing a statement accusing Russia of involvement in these hacks, it would be appropriate to be skeptical. But that is not the case here. The government’s conclusion is backed by independent cyber security companies and private individuals who examined the actual files that were hacked. The public information supports the U.S. government’s conclusion: Russia hacked the election.

That makes President-elect Trump’s recent statements even more troubling. Trump has repeatedly refused to entertain Russia’s involvement in the hack, telling Time magazine last week, “It could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” When confronted with the new CIA conclusion, Trump called it “ridiculous,” and said, “I don’t believe it.” Trump’s transition dismissed the CIA as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Even more alarming, one of Trump’s senior advisers has now accused the Obama administration of actually committing the hack in an attempt to discredit Russia. John Bolton, who is advising the transition and reportedly in line to be deputy secretary of state, said Sunday, “We don’t know whether it’s Russian inspired or a false flag.”  Bolton went on to say, “[T]he intelligence community has been politicized in the Obama administration to a very significant degree.”

At this point, no investigation of Russia’s actions during the 2016 election exists outside of the intelligence agencies. In less than six weeks, President-elect Trump and his team will take control of those agencies, leaving the American people without a mechanism to examine the allegations that Russia has attempted to manipulate the American electorate. We don’t know for sure, for example, whether Russia was successful in its reported efforts to penetrate any Republican political organizations and, if so, what information it obtained and may now be holding for future use.

It is an urgent priority for Congress to establish an independent, bipartisan commission to assess the size, scope, and effectiveness of Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election.

Every major security incident the United States has faced in recent years has been met with multiple investigations; the most significant recent occurrence being the joint congressional committee and independent commission that examined the 9/11 attacks. It is a hallmark of our system that, regardless of how painful the moments may be, we resolve as a nation to do our best to ensure these events never happen again. If we do not, we are potentially leaving ourselves extremely vulnerable to future actions by adversaries that may target U.S. elections at every level—not just the next presidential election.

Furthermore, this is not the first time Russia has taken such actions in the world. We have seen evidence of their efforts in Sweden, Germany, France, and throughout the Baltics—not to mention Ukraine and Georgia. In 2017, there will be critical elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and, possibly, Italy—countries in which far-right, pro-Russian populist parties are gaining ground. If Russia has helped swing a democratic election in the United States to their favored candidate, and we do not—at a minimum—provide a clear and authoritative public accounting of their role, we will potentially leave our democratic allies open to similar Russian efforts in their elections.

When faced with evidence of unprecedented foreign manipulation of our political system and the unfathomable rejection by the incoming administration that it even took place, we must have an independent, bipartisan commission to uncover the truth. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) both announced Monday that they support some kind of Congressional investigation, but they stopped short of joining the growing momentum in Congress supporting such an investigation. In addition, Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) have introduced legislation calling for such a commission, and Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced support for a similar plan. It is vital that any investigative body have the mandate and the resources to conduct a comprehensive study and deliver a detailed public report on what happened, with recommendations to prevent such attacks in the future.

This is not a partisan issue: It is a threat to the very foundation of our democracy. Americans must come together in our common defense—even if the president-elect won’t.

Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow with the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress

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Ken Gude

Senior Fellow

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