WASHINGTON (CN) – At a hearing on Russian efforts to undermine democracy in Europe and splinter NATO, House Democrats steered the conversation Thursday to the need for an independent investigation of the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Daniel Baer, former U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, opened the door for Democrats by saying that Russia has perceived its intervention in the U.S. election as the most successful operation since the end of the Cold War.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., proclaimed that there are two key issues. One, “did the Trump campaign collude with Russian hackers in the cyberburglary of the Democratic National Committee and related entities?”
"And a related question is whether Trump's gratitude is preventing an appropriate response to Russia's interference with democracy, or whether his fear of what they might have on him is preventing that appropriate response," Sherman added.
After calling for a special prosecutor and a 9/11-style commission to investigate Russia's election meddling, the California lawmaker then dredged up the 35-page dossier compiled by British spy Christopher Steel.
Since its publication by Buzzfeed in January, Sherman noted, none of it has been disproven.
With minimal theatrics, Sherman displayed a blown-up tweet from Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer.
Cohen posted a picture of the front of his passport on Jan. 10 to deny allegations contained in the dossier that he had secretly met with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign. "I have never been to Prague in my life," Cohen tweeted, calling the allegation "#fake news."
Sherman noted that Cohen did not include any pictures of the pages in his passport, however, to reveal whether he had gone to Prague. Even if he had, the lawmaker added, the absence of such a stamp is not remarkable because the Schengen Agreement allows free travel through part of the EU.
"Does the absence of a Czech stamp mean an American hasn't been to Prague in their life?" Sherman asked Baer.
"No,” Baer answered. “The absence of a Czech stamp doesn't mean that an American hasn't been to Prague. I've been to Prague and I do not have a Czech stamp, I believe, in my passport.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, condemned his colleagues on both side of the aisle for speaking harshly of Russia.
"We just keep hearing sinister words after sinister words - especially this last thing - oh how sinister it is that he just showed the top of his passport," Rohrabacher said. "Give me a break, come on.”
Rohrabacher chided Democrats for obsessing over meetings Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak conducted with members of the Trump campaign.
"This has reached the absurd level of attacks," Rohrabacher said, adding that he thinks "that kind of nonsense" is destabilizing the U.S. political system.
Taking issue with what he called an imbalanced panel, as well, Rohrabacher told Committee chairman Ed Royce that the addition of someone like conservative radio talk show host Matt Lock could have rounded things out.
"Instead what we have is - again - an unrelenting hostility toward Russia that's going to lead us to war if we don't watch out," he said.
Rohrabacher's words had little effect, however, on the heat of the hearing.
"This committee should have no doubt - Russia is a rival to the United States," Peter Doran with the Center for European Policy Analysis said in written testimony.
"The strategic aims of the Russian government are fundamentally at odds with American interests in Europe,” Doran added. “Russia's leaders view the American-led security order as outdated and unfair. Russian leaders want this to change.
"In its place, they seek to establish a sphere of privileged influence in Europe. To do so, they must weaken America's links to allies, divide NATO, and if necessary use force.”
Baer meanwhile gave the committee insight into Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy. "It's driven by the domestic political imperatives that drive Putin - preservation of his personal position and, necessarily, preservation of the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian system by which he and so many of his cronies have enriched themselves and maintained an iron grip on the state," his written testimony says.
Arguing that Putin has created a myth of NATO as bogeyman, Baer noted the myth provides the foundation supporting Putin's regime, even though NATO is primarily a defensive alliance.
"Russia's desire to undermine the EU is not about neutralizing a threat but about destroying a political arrangement that is founded on the universal values at the heart of liberal democracy," he said.
Doran explained how Russia uses disinformation to achieve its aims. Along with outright lies, he said, more often Russia just seeks to muddy the waters of debate. The more ideas and theories thrown into the mix, the better. "This assists Russia in confusing audiences, distracting from the main issue and ultimately befuddling us into pointing fingers at each other and not keeping the shield faced toward Moscow," Doran said.
Meanwhile the U.S. is lagging behind in its efforts to identify and counter Russian disinformation.
Doran said the U.S. needs to view Russian propaganda like a virus. First it must be detected and analyzed, then it must be debunked.
But ensuring that Western counter-messaging makes a dent is a whole other can of worms.
"Regional audiences tend to consume Kremlin propaganda because it is glossier and more entertaining than fact-based alternatives," Doran’s written testimony states.
Doran called for the U.S. to hit back through broadcast, online and social media, while beefing up its fact-checking efforts in affected countries.
He also advocated for greater media literacy and increased funding for public awareness campaigns to teach people how to easily spot disinformation.
Saying that facts need to be made cool again, Doran noted that lies can't be disproven if audiences don't care. He suggested funding Russian-language media that features "satire, humor, news and even entertainment content."
"Ideally, this content would be calibrated for specific counter-messaging on Russian propaganda, inoculating audiences against the digital virus of disinformation," Doran said.
Rep. Royce, the California Republican who called Thursday’s hearing, warned that the stakes are high.
“If Kremlin-backed politicians take power in France, it could potentially spell the end of the European Union," he added.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, noted Germany’s conclusion that the same groups that hacked the Democratic National Committee have successfully breached its political parties, politicians and even the parliament.
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