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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, January 11, 2018 1:00 am

Democrats sound Russia alert

Senate report outlines Putin's undermining, says US lax

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – A new report by Senate Democrats warns of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe and concludes that even as some Western democracies have responded with aggressive countermeasures, President Donald Trump has offered no strategic plan to bolster their efforts or safeguard the U.S. from again falling victim to Kremlin meddling.

The report commissioned by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is the first from Congress to comprehensively detail Russian efforts to undermine democracies since the 2016 presidential election. It wastes no time in calling out Trump personally for what it describes as a failure to respond to Russia's mounting destabilization activities in the U.S. and worldwide.

“Never before has a U.S. president so clearly ignored such a grave and growing threat to U.S. national security,” the report released by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland warns.

Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the committee, didn't sign on to the report. But even without formal GOP backing, the recounting of Russian operations in 19 European nations foreshadows the still-unpublished findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan inquiry into Russia's role during the U.S. election.

Cardin said the roughly 200-page report is built on both Republican and Democratic ideas, and he commissioned it to show Americans the scope of efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine democracy.

“We knew after the 2016 elections that we were vulnerable, but the 2016 elections were just a small part of Russia's overall design, Mr. Putin's design to try to compromise democratic institutions,” Cardin said.

Cardin's inquiry lays blame directly on Putin for a “relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States.”

Concerned that Trump has failed to identify Russian aggression as a national rallying point, the report urges a “stronger congressional voice” in pro-democracy efforts and funding.

Cardin's report sketches a bleak portrait of European nations besieged by Russian encroachment. It also cites years of cyberattacks, disinformation, clandestine social media operations, financing of fringe political groups, corruption and in the extreme, assassination attempts and military operations that destabilized fledgling democratic governments in the Ukraine and Georgia. The report leans heavily on open-source information as well as staff interviews with European diplomats and government officials.

Labeling Russia's activities an “asymmetric assault on democracy,” the report notes that elections in countries such as Britain, France and Germany were reportedly targeted by Moscow-sponsored hacking, internet trolling and financing for extremist political groups.

The report also credits those nations and smaller European countries, such as Finland and Estonia, for responding quickly and often with effect.

Some policy changes suggested by the report have garnered GOP interest, including the aggressive use of financial sanctions aimed at Russia and pressuring social media companies to be more transparent about Russian political messaging.

The report also pushes for the administration to fully fund and utilize the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which it says is hobbled by “a lack of urgency and self-imposed constraints” under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The center was created in 2016 to blunt terrorist propaganda. Its duties have expanded to include countering Russian propaganda under legislation last year from Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.