Congress Starting to Push Back against Russian Interference

After a public back-and-forth between the CIA and President-elect Donald Trump over the role of Russian hackers in the U.S. election, a bipartisan group of senators is calling for an investigation into suspected election interference. This comes after the Portman-Murphy Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week as Section 1259C. Also last week, the bipartisan Ukraine Caucus called for President-elect Trump to maintain support for Ukraine.

These moves are welcome signs that Congress is rightfully stepping into its oversight role and recognizing the need to take seriously issues of Russian interference in foreign countries, which aims to harm human rights protections and undermine democratic values. The Portman-Murphy Act also gives the U.S. government important tools to fight this growing threat.

Russian interference and disinformation is not a problem limited to the U.S. election. It’s a problem that has been wreaking havoc in Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine in late 2013 and began a media campaign of false information surrounding the incursion. And it goes far beyond hacking and media messaging.

Russia has threatened human rights in the European Union by backing far-right and other disruptive parties in Europe; developing faux NGOs, foundations, think tanks, and other organizations attempting to legitimize false facts and xenophobia; disseminating false news, particularly false stories about refugees and Muslims in Europe; exporting homophobia under the guise of “traditional values” as counter to the “liberal values” of countries like the United States; and undermining multilateral institutions that promote human rights and rule of law.

Last week, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned that Russia could use tactics similar to those used around the U.S. election—disinformation and cyberattacks—to destabilize the German election. German intelligence has already concluded that last year’s attack on the German Parliament’s computer network was most likely perpetrated by Russia.

The Portman-Murphy Act increases the mandate of the Global Engagement Center, an interagency entity housed at the State Department charged with coordinating U.S. counterterrorism messaging, to also include activities countering foreign disinformation and propaganda coming from state actors, such as Russia. This much-needed coordination will strengthen U.S. responses to the foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns intended to destabilize Western democracies. The Portman-Murphy Act also establishes an information access fund to support civil society, media, academic, and other efforts to study and develop strategies to counter phenomena such as fake news and disinformation.

The Portman-Murphy Act isn’t the only sign that Congress is taking the issue of Russian and other foreign influence seriously. Additional funding for efforts to counter Russian influence was included in the continuing resolution passed by the House this week.

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Published on December 12, 2016

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