Russian efforts to interfere in last year’s presidential election amount to “an act of war,” Sen. Ben Cardin said Wednesday, and to question otherwise plays right into Russia’s hands.
“You’re falling into Russia’s trap. Russia is spending money in this country to convince us that this is nothing more than what’s been done since the beginning of time,” the Maryland Democrat said Wednesday at an event hosted by the National Democratic Institute. “It’s a conscientious effort to say ‘we all do this, so why is America getting upset?’ And we’re falling trap to it because we’re giving legitimacy to this.”
“Cyber is an attack against our country. When you use cyber in an affirmative way to compromise our democratic, free election system, that’s an attack against America,” he continued. “It’s an act of war. It is an act of war.”
That Russia sought to interfere in last year’s presidential election, an allegation it denies, has been the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community dating back to last year. The FBI, CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence all concluded that the Kremlin’s efforts were aimed at the candidacy of President Donald Trump, who held warmer positions toward Russia during the campaign, and harming that of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Russia’s efforts to interfere in last year’s presidential election matched a pattern of behavior from Moscow that has stretched from Germany to Montenegro to the United Kingdom’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. He said that while Russia’s typical targets for such efforts are the nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, influencing elections in the U.S. is a “great prize” for the Kremlin.
“I think Russia was caught off guard as to why we thought it was so surprising. I mean, they’ve been involved in this for — this is not the first election they’ve been involved with,” Cardin said. “Nothing is too small and their objectives are very large for Russia and other international players to use disinformation. But their principle objective, and they did this in our elections, is to say ‘everybody does it.’”
But while Russia’s interest in election meddling came with historical precedent, Cardin said Moscow’s ability to use social media to manipulate information has come as a surprise to those in the U.S. who have investigated the matter post-election. Key to combating those efforts, Cardin said, is the investigative journalism of a free press and a better informed public capable of sniffing out Russia’s efforts.
“What is real news and what is fake news? The public’s starting to wonder whether anything is real, and therefore they take fake news and they take real news and they evaluate it the same. That’s frightening,” Cardin said. “It won’t work if the public is better informed … I would never diminish the intelligence of the people of this country and the world. They get it. They need to understand the tactics that are being deployed. They can sort through it. Once that happens democracy will prevail and these tactics won’t work.”