Sen. Angus King of Maine said he supports declassifying information on Russian attempts to intervene in November’s presidential election, not to revisit the outcome but to shed light on a “national security issue of the gravest consequence.”
“This is an arrow aimed at the heart of democracy by a foreign government and I think we need to take it very seriously,” King said Thursday in an interview.
On Wednesday, King was among seven senators – all of whom receive top-secret briefings as part of the Senate Intelligence Committee – who urged President Obama to authorize the public release of additional details on the alleged Russian involvement in the recent elections. The request comes amid growing evidence compiled by independent researchers and cybersecurity experts about the extent of Russia’s alleged use of hackers, social media and fake news stories in a bid to influence the race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The senators’ letter to Obama was as succinct as it was unusual.
“We believe there is additional information concerning the Russian government and the U.S. election that should be declassified and released to the public. We are conveying specifics through classified channels. Thank you for your attention to this important matter,” reads the text of the three-sentence letter.
The signers were all Democrats with the exception of King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked and declined to add her signature to the letter, her spokeswoman said.
A former chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Collins agreed with earlier Obama administration determinations that the Russian government was attempting to compromise “election security,” and she supported the decision to publicize that assessment on Oct. 7, one month before Americans went to the polls.
“She appreciates the extensive interagency discussions that took place within the Obama administration in determining how to release the most information to the public without compromising national security information prior to its public release,” Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a written statement. “Should these Obama administration officials wish to reassess their decision regarding how, when, and what other information to declassify, that is their decision to make.”
HOPING TO PREVENT A REPEAT
King said he could not elaborate on what “additional information” might be released because it remains classified. He also said this isn’t a partisan issue “in any shape or form” even though no Republicans signed onto the letter requesting declassification.
“I just feel very strongly that this is such an important issue and the public deserves to know about it,” said King, who backed Clinton for president. “This is not about revisiting the election. The election happened, Mr. Trump won and he is going to be inaugurated on Jan. 20. But it would be irresponsible of us not to be cognizant that this happened and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Trump was regarded as having an unusually friendly relationship, especially for a Republican, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and repeatedly raised doubts about whether Russia was behind email hacks against Democratic party committees. However, the heads of the nation’s intelligence agencies were definitive in their assessments about Russian involvement.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” reads the Oct. 7 joint statement from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the Department of Homeland Security. “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked emails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
King pointed toward the word “confident” in that statement, saying that is not something he hears often from intelligence leaders. But King also said events of the past few months mirror what he and other Senate Intelligence Committee members heard during an official visit to Poland and Ukraine last March.
“We were told by various officials in both countries about the Russian standard practice of interfering with elections: planting fake news stories and even putting money into these elections in Eastern Europe, all designed to undermine our influence and western influence” in the region, he said.
REPORTS OF HEAVY MEDDLING
No evidence has been presented that Russia or any other actors, whether foreign governments or political campaigns in this country, managed to hack into election voting machines or otherwise affect the voting process. In a Nov. 14 speech at a Bloomberg Government event in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said agencies “did not see anything that I would characterize as significant” on Election Day.
Yet since the Nov. 8 election, there have been several reports by independent groups about the lengths to which the Russian government or organizations went to meddle in the presidential contest, often at Clinton’s expense.
The Washington Post reported last week that two teams of independent researchers found that Russian propaganda campaigns used “thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social-media accounts” to spread fake or misleading articles about Clinton. While many of those stories were later proven false, oftentimes the reports by legitimate news organizations debunking the claims received far less web traffic than the original fake or misleading stories.