Rep. Cook Issues Statement on Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Russia’s Efforts to Undermine Democratic States
Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Russian disinformation efforts and their attempts at undermining democratic institutions across Europe. The Committee heard from an expert panel of witnesses including the former President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Rep. Cook said, “For a long time, Vladimir Putin’s goal has been to test the strength and cohesion of NATO. He believes that a western-led democratic order is a huge problem that must be discredited and stopped. Due to the weak state of the Russian economy, they’ve been forced to find different ways to exert their influence on other states around the world. The Russian government led by Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States, and we need to swiftly and aggressively address this threat of disinformation. I was pleased to see such a strong bipartisan agreement on this issue, and thank Chairman Royce for hosting such an informative and timely hearing.”
The witnesses outlined both the strategic and tactical issues involved with countering Russia’s disinformation campaigns against our NATO allies. The Russians have perfected the use of unofficial state entities such as Wikileaks and their state-sponsored news agencies Sputnik and RT to spread their propaganda. These new methods are increasingly difficult to counter and require new thinking from NATO leaders. Most members of the Committee, including Rep. Cook, agreed that the U.S. should use all tools at its disposal to prioritize and counter this threat from Russia.
The Committee discussed several specific examples of Russian disinformation efforts and covert action. President Ilves of Estonia described the “Bronze Soldier” incident where the Estonian government was attempting to relocate a Soviet-era statue in their capital of Tallin. Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik exaggerated this reasonable action by claiming the Estonian government was desecrating the graves of Soviet soldiers. This claim sparked protests by thousands of ethnic Russians living in Estonia. These protests were paired with coordinated and aggressive cyberattacks, crashing the websites of the country’s most important government, media, and banking institutions.
Fake or grossly exaggerated news stories have become a hallmark of Russian disinformation efforts. RT and Sputnik can reach hundreds of millions of people between their television broadcasts and online news stories. They have promoted fake stories about the content of Wikileaks dumps, grossly exaggerated the size and scope of NATO training exercises, and clearly lied about sexual violence against civilians by NATO soldiers. These fake news stories are viewed and shared on social media millions of times, serving to reinforce a sentiment of disdain and distrust of NATO and other European institutions.
The Russians have also targeted the U.S. All 17 U.S. intelligence entities reached the unanimous conclusion that Russia is responsible for the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and American campaign officials’ personal email accounts in 2016. They also made multiple attempts at accessing the RNC and other Republican campaigns. These cyberattacks revealed just how vulnerable our systems are, and how much more we need to do to protect our critical infrastructure from future attacks.
Just as the Russians sought to influence the U.S., they are currently working to subvert upcoming elections in Europe. In France, Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and his campaign have been the target of thousands of cyberattacks and fake news stories alleging extramarital affairs and financial corruption. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fierce defender of NATO and the EU, has been the recipient of thousands of fake news stories about her personal life. The Bundestag, the German Parliament, was hacked in 2015, resulting in a Wikileaks dump of over 2,000 documents. These same propaganda outlets have promoted false stories questioning the results of referendums across Europe, including the Brexit and Scottish Independence referendums.
Rep. Cook continued, “These Russian efforts include using blackmail and propaganda campaigns to influence free elections, conducting cyberattacks against both governments and private individuals, and using targeted military support to fracture Western alliances. Over the past several years, they have annexed the Crimean Peninsula violating international law, bombed civilians in Syria, supported Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East, and have spent millions of dollars on a massive coordinated disinformation campaign against Western democracies. We need to coordinate our response with our NATO partners to strengthen our alliance and restore faith in our most important institutions and democratic processes.”
A member of the House Armed Services, Natural Resources, and Foreign Affairs Committees, Cook served as an infantry officer and retired after 26 years as a Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his time in combat, he was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.