June 26, 2020

Ranking Member Klobuchar and Colleagues Urge Intelligence Agencies to Take Further Action to Combat Disinformation Campaigns Aimed at Disenfranchising Voters

As our country grapples with systemic racism and inequality, we cannot allow foreign adversaries to further divide our country and undermine our democracy

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member on the Senate Rules Committee with oversight over federal elections, led a letter with her colleagues to the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and U.S. Cyber Command urging them to take additional measures to combat influence campaigns aimed at disenfranchising voters, especially voters of color, ahead of the 2020 election. Sophisticated influence campaigns like the one the Russian Internet Research Agency conducted in 2016 were specifically designed to divide Americans and spread disinformation designed to disenfranchise minority groups.

Klobuchar was joined on the letter by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

“Intelligence officials have confirmed that our elections were attacked by Russia in 2016, and that our elections continue to remain a target of foreign adversaries. In last year’s World Wide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence warned that ahead of the upcoming elections foreign adversaries, "will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the United States,” the senators wrote.

“As our country grapples with systemic racism and inequality, we cannot allow foreign adversaries to further divide our country and undermine our democracy. On June 9, the Department of Homeland Security warned that it is seeing disinformation campaigns taking advantage of the situation and using it to further sow discord among the American people. With fewer than six months remaining until the general election, it is vital that your agencies act to combat disinformation from foreign adversaries, especially information designed to disenfranchise voters.”

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below:

Dear Secretary Esper, Director Ratcliffe, Director Wray, General Nakasone, and Acting Secretary Wolf:

As leaders of the agencies primarily charged with combatting foreign disinformation, we urge you to take additional measures to fight influence campaigns aimed at disenfranchising voters, especially voters of color, ahead of the 2020 election. 

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, intelligence officials have warned against disinformation campaigns from Russia, China, and Iran that seek to undermine the United States and our allies.  As many states change voting procedures to protect voters from the coronavirus, experts have warned that disinformation is an increased threat. As the general election approaches, it is vital that the federal government does everything in its power to ensure our elections are free and fair.

Intelligence officials have confirmed that our elections were attacked by Russia in 2016, and that our elections continue to remain a target of foreign adversaries. In last year’s World Wide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence warned that ahead of the upcoming elections foreign adversaries, "will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the United States."  

The disinformation campaigns conducted against the 2016 election were specifically designed to divide Americans and mislead voters and those efforts continue to this day. Between 2013 and 2018, Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) conducted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns that reached tens of millions of users in the United States. Those accounts spread divisive content meant to pit Americans against each other, and they transmitted misleading information designed to disenfranchise minority groups. Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA's Facebook and Instagram posts.  

In the Senate Intelligence Committee’s second volume on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Committee found that:

“No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016. Evidence of the IRA's overwhelming operational emphasis on race is evident in the IRA's Facebook advertisement content (over 66 percent contained a term related to race) and targeting (locational targeting was principally aimed at African Americans in key metropolitan areas...” 

In October 2018, the Eastern District of Virginia’s indictment of the IRA’s accountant indicated that one of the goals of the influence campaigns ahead of the 2018 midterm elections was to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.”  

As our country grapples with systemic racism and inequality, we cannot allow foreign adversaries to further divide our country and undermine our democracy. On June 9, 2020 the Department of Homeland Security warned that it is seeing disinformation campaigns taking advantage of the situation and using it to further sow discord among the American people.  

With fewer than six months remaining until the general election, it is vital that your agencies act to combat disinformation from foreign adversaries, especially information designed to disenfranchise voters. We urge that that additional measures taken include ensuring: 

  • The American people and political candidates are promptly informed about the targeting of our political processes by foreign malign actors, and that the public is provided regular periodic updates about such efforts leading up to the general election. 
  • Members of Congress and congressional staff are appropriately and adequately briefed on continued findings and analysis involving election related foreign disinformation campaigns and the work of each agency and department to combat these campaigns. 
  • Findings and analysis involving election related foreign disinformation campaigns are shared with civil society organizations and independent researchers to the maximum extent which is appropriate and permissible.
  • Secretary Esper and Director Ratcliffe implement a social media information sharing and analysis center (ISAC) to detect and counter information warfare campaigns across social media platforms as authorized by section 5323 of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
  • Director Ratcliffe implement the Foreign Malign Influence Response Center to coordinate a whole of government approach to combatting foreign malign influence campaigns as authorized by section 5322 of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. 

Sincerely, 

###