Opinion by Richard Blumenthal
Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Connecticut.
The warning lights are flashing red. America’s elections are under attack.
This week, I reviewed classified materials in the Senate’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility and received a similarly classified briefing on malign foreign threats to U.S. elections. I was shocked by what I learned — and appalled that, by swearing Congress to secrecy, the Trump administration is keeping the truth about a grave, looming threat to democracy hidden from the American people. On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that only hints at the threats.
The facts are chilling. I believe the American public needs and deserves to know them. The information should be declassified immediately.
The publicly available facts are terrifying enough. A report released on Wednesday by the State Department outlined in detail attempts by Russian front groups, fake individual online identities and state-funded media to sow disinformation and dissension about U.S. allies around the world. Russian intelligence operations have perfected the art of laundering distorted and fabricated narratives through media networks, covert hacking, international proxies and others to undermine democracies, attack the United States’ global image and silence criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Though the report was focused on Russia’s global influence campaign, there is no reason to think the United States is immune from its destructive and destabilizing efforts. The sophisticated tactics and techniques described in the report make Moscow’s past interference and nefarious actions look like child’s play.
Public sources such as the State Department’s report, other intelligence assessments and excellent investigative journalism, as well as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s fact-finding, have shed some public light on the shadowy world of foreign spying and sabotage threatening U.S. elections from countries including not just Russia but possibly China and Iran. But there is much more — much of it even more chilling.
I understand the utility of a classification system that shields intelligence sources and methods. Responsibly limiting access to sensitive information is a critical tool to safeguard Americans and U.S. allies who collect the intelligence that informs critical national security decisions. Used appropriately, classifying certain information is essential to protecting the country.
But overly broad restrictions do the exact opposite. Unnecessary classification politicizes the national security apparatus and, in this case, keeps the American people in the dark about efforts by foreign adversaries to destroy the bedrock of the nation’s democracy: free and fair elections.
The Trump administration’s refusal to share with the American public any information about the Russian threat to the November election is simply unacceptable. Making parts of intelligence reports public is hardly unprecedented. In fact, classified reports frequently include declassified summaries in recognition of the fundamental role transparency plays in a functioning democracy.
My Republican colleagues clearly know this, since they have recently requested the declassification of numerous documents related to the FBI investigation of possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016. The Trump administration has happily accommodated those requests. The White House has no problem with declassification when it protects the president’s interests. Why not support declassification to help protect America’s democracy?
Instead, by keeping the facts cloaked in secrecy, the Trump administration and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill invite disinformation and give deception a toehold in the American electorate. And it now appears that such disinformation and deception are gaining a toehold in Congress as well:
On Wednesday, The Post reported that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is moving ahead with an investigation into presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s family using documents provided to the senator by the son of a former KGB officer. Johnson’s actions are of such concern to the CIA, according to news reports, that the agency has refused to brief him. Think of it: Congress may become a forum for debunked conspiracy theories peddled by Kremlin proxies.
There is no excuse for perpetuating Russian disinformation in the U.S. Senate, just as there is there is no excuse for barring the American public from learning more about the genuine foreign threats to the November election. The Trump administration appears to be failing to take the danger seriously, failing to prepare adequately.
Protecting the nation’s democratic values should be a bipartisan imperative. Those of us in Washington should not risk looking back and saying, if only we’d known, we could have done something. We do know. We can do something. It starts with sharing the truth.