Sens. Rubio, Van Hollen Take Aim at Foreign Meddling in US Elections

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference to discuss hurricane relief efforts for Puerto Rico on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Confronting a failure by the Justice Department to hold Russia accountable for its interference in the U.S. elections, Sens. Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen introduced a legislative solution Tuesday.

If enacted, the bipartisan bill would freeze the assets of every major Russian oligarch or political figure identified under requirements of a law passed last year that codified and expanded sanctions against Russia for its election meddling.

In addition to blacklisting those individuals and barring them from entering the U.S., the bill would slap Russia with additional sanctions that target major sectors of its economy, including defense, finance, energy and mining.

Rubio and Van Hollen touted their bill Tuesday in an opinion piece  for the Washington Post, saying that the legislation sends a clear message to Moscow: “We will not tolerate an attack on our democracy.”

If the Director of National Intelligence perceives renewed meddling by Russia, Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill would require the White House to impose additional sanctions within 10 days of that determination.

Determinations of any meddling by foreign governments are due within one month of a federal election.

“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said of the legislation in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”

Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill is the first piece of legislation that tackles foreign threats to the integrity of U.S. elections since the Director of National Intelligence released its Jan. 6, 2017, assessment concluding that high-level Kremlin officials ordered an influence campaign intended to sway the 2016 election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump.

Under the new legislation, foreign governments could trigger U.S. retaliation by, among other things, buying advertisements to influence an election, or using traditional and social media to spread fake information.

Hacking, leaking or modifying election infrastructure, like campaign emails and voter-registration databases, would also elicit retaliation, along with any foreign efforts to block access to that infrastructure, for example websites containing information about polling locations.

Part of Russia’s effort in the 2016 election included hacking into Democratic Party emails, which were released by WikiLeaks during key moments of the campaign season.

Van Hollen said partisanship has no place in the discussion about his DETER Act, short for Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines.

“Protecting the integrity of our elections is an issue that knows no party. And with the midterm elections less than a year away, we have no time to waste,” said Van Hollen, a Democrat who has been representing Maryland in the Senate since 2016. “The DETER ACT sends an unequivocal message to Russia and any other foreign actor who may follow its example: if you attack us, the consequences will be severe.”

Since the Director of National Intelligence released its 2017 assessment, a bevy of experts and lawmakers from both parties have warned that Russia would be emboldened to disrupt future U.S. elections in the absence of a tough U.S. response.

But federal efforts to prevent future election disruptions have largely faltered under the Trump administration.

In October, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Department of Justice had “probably not” taken adequate steps to stop foreign election interference.

Sessions then told Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., at a Nov. 14 House Judiciary hearing that he had not yet ordered a review of laws that need to be updated to secure U.S. elections.

Despite a promise from Sessions to Schneider that he would arrange a briefing for House Judiciary members on the matter, Schneider’s office said Tuesday that the Department of Justice has not committed to a follow-up with Sessions. Democrats on the committee sent a Dec. 1 letter asking Sessions to brief them before the end of the year.

The Department of Homeland Security meanwhile says it is actively supporting state efforts to secure their elections.

“We continue to work with state and local election officials to improve the security of their election infrastructure through ongoing dialogue, increased information sharing, and making the department’s cybersecurity services and expertise available upon request,” a spokesman for the agency said in an email. “States have taken a number of steps to secure elections, and DHS has made it a priority to support these efforts.”

In October, Homeland Security convened an election infrastructure coordinating council in conjunction with state and local election officials, the Election Assistance Commission and the National Association of Secretaries of States.

And last month, the agency met with representatives from the election industry and the Election Assistance Commission to launch an industry-led coordinating council that will allow council partners and the federal government to share threat information. Homeland Security has also been working directly with chief state election officials to improve information-sharing efforts.

Rubio and Van Hollen’s Jan. 16 bill identifies China, Iran and North Korea as the other potential cybersecurity threats that could try to disrupt future U.S. elections.

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