Harrowing House Testimony Focuses on Russian Threat

Lea Gabrielle of the State Department speaks to the House Committee on Appropriations on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — At a House hearing where federal officials called for more money to combat the scourge of Russian influence, lawmakers grappled Wednesday with equally harrowing testimony about failures in the U.S. strategy.

“We are still operating as if we are in the twentieth century, and everyone is watching the nightly news at 6 PM,” said Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institute.

Describing Russian disinformation as a “slow drip,” Polyakova said focusing on independent media outlets and fair elections fails to take into account the comprehensive nature of how the Kremlin sculpts public opinion on a range of national interests.

Both Polyakova and Nina Jankowicz of the Kennan Institute drove home that the Russian state-sponsored television network RT, formerly known as Russia Today, have a budget of $277 million for 2020. 

Rather than matching Russian spending, however, the scholars said the U.S. should focus on digital-first strategies with funding from programs that failed to prove effective.

Polyakova said her personal story underscores the importance of U.S. methods to shed light on Russian falsehoods during the Cold War. Her family immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in the 1980s because they “understood what the truth was about our country, that our own authorities were not providing at the time,” she said.

Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institute testifies Wednesday before the House.

Today, by contrast, Polyakova said there is a failure at the highest levels of government to educate U.S. citizens on the Russian threat and to learn from the countries that have been fending off anti-democracy attacks for decades. 

“If we want to understand the kinds of threats we will face in the future here in this country,” Polyakova said, “we must look to those frontline states like Ukraine, who have been undergoing these kinds of attacks for decades.”

Polyakova was one of several experts to testify this morning at a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Congresswoman Nita Lowey.

“Russia’s goal is to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,”  said John Lansing, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Joined by Lea Gabrielle and Jim Kulikowski with the State Department, Lansing called on Congress to commit more funds. They argued Russia has spared no expense disrupting democratic processes, most recently in the Ukrainian presidential election. 

“From their perspective, in a world where nothing is empirically truthful, any lie will do,” Lansing added.

Pushed by Congresswoman Lois Frankel to give specific examples, Lansing pointed to a claim by the Kremlin in 2014 that the U.S. had loaded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with dead bodies and shot it down to pin the international crime on Russia.

John Lansing, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, testifies Wednesday before the House.

A Democrat from Florida, Frankel asked about the extent to which Moscow would use President Donald Trump’s statement that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was a hoax.

“They take the news as we receive it or as we broadcast it and they distort it and change it,” Lansing said. The State Department’s Gabrielle added Russia will exploit any “string of division” including the president’s words.

While Russia continues to control media outlets within its borders and in former soviet states — strategies Ranking Member Hal Rogers described as Soviet-era tradecraft — the committee’s primary concern was how to fend off disinformation propagated on social media.

But officials primarily shared how independent media programming, funded to the tune of $103 million in 2017, and fact-checker websites help build resilience against Russia’s malign influence.

Voice of America has staffed up bureaus in countries teetering on the edge of democracy including Bulgaria and Romania, Lansing said, with the Hungary bureau soon to expand.

Federal officials acknowledge Russia is increasingly ramping up use of artificial intelligence and fake media accounts to disseminate information that undermines foreign governments but offered few strategies to counter it moving forward. One example from the State Department did explain how money sent to a virtual newsroom in Moldova exposed more than 700 Facebook accounts spreading false information ahead of the parliamentary elections.

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