Portman Delivers Remarks at Atlantic Council on Threat of Russian Disinformation

June 29, 2017 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks at the Atlantic Council on the threat of Russian influence in Europe, the next frontier in digital disinformation, and how to strike back. The event is part of #DisinfoWeek, a week long set of strategic dialogues on how to collectively address the global challenge of disinformation.

Portman has been a leader on the need for greater U.S. efforts counter foreign disinformation and propaganda. In 2016, Portman introduced the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), which was later incorporated into the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The Atlantic Council hosted the public launch of the bill.  Now law, the bill is designed to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations. Earlier this year, Portman delivered remarks at an Atlantic Council conference on “Ukraine: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities” where he highlighted the steps the United States should take to better support Ukraine against Russian aggression, including its extensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Portman’s priorities to codify Russia sanctions into law also passed the Senate earlier this month as part of the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act.

Transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

Thanks very much… First of all, Senator Murphy, as you know he’s been a leader in this issue for some time. And I agree with him, we’re at a point in our nation’s history where we need to rethink how we approach not just the Russia issue, but it’s broader than that. And it’s about cyber, largely, but it’s about the type of information and as some have called it the hybrid warfare out there, or asymmetric threats. So to Fred and the Atlantic Council, thank you for giving us a forum once again to talk about that and for providing a week of information about disinformation.  And I’m told today I should thank the Eurasia Center because you guys did all the work today so thank you for that. And to the other folks who are involved here I saw the McCain’s Institute’s involved once again; NDI, Stanford, Oxford, Jigsaw and other partners.

“Eighteen months ago I was here with Senator Murphy and we came, as you recall Chris, to launch this new effort to fight disinformation and we told you at the time that, you know, we had hoped to be able to get some of our colleagues on board, and I will tell you in the past eighteen months some significant things have happened. First of all, our idea which we’ve presented to you as the official launch of our efforts has become law. Now, in Washington D.C. these days that’s a big deal, you should applaud that. I mean it’s like, something happened. It’s bipartisan. But what happened was, you know, we were able to convince our colleagues on both sides of the aisle that this is a serious issue and needs to be addressed so we got it included in the National Defense Authorization Bill. The legislation was largely intact. I think one difference is frankly it set up an even more robust Global Engagement Center. And as Chris indicated, this is a center that was already starting to work on ISIS counter-narrative, and on the Homeland Security Committee I had been very supportive of that. But now it takes on a much bigger role, which is this broader disinformation propaganda response, and again cyber’s a huge part of it.

“So, it’s really about two things as I see it. Primarily, one is better coordination, because this is not just a State Department issue.  This is an issue across government and that has not been well coordinated. More funding of course and more expertise, but also specifically, modernizing the US response. So the radio broadcast approach was incredibly important in World War II and the post-World War II era, and today we have a whole different medium. And different fora that we have to use, so turning to cyber is incredibly important as well. 

“I think the thing that’s changed probably over the last 18 months that’s even more important than the legislation having been passed is there has been a new awareness of this problem. So for many of you who’ve worked on this issue for years and who helped us with our legislation, you probably can recall times when people would look at you rather strangely when you talked about disinformation like, ‘what are you talking about?’ And I think just in the last year and a half, sadly because of the reality, a lot more Americans, and frankly others around the world are beginning to understand what you’ve been talking about. The scale of the problem, the scope of the problem has grown, and I’m going to talk a little bit about maybe where we need to go in the future.

“On the positive side, as I noted, more awareness, our legislation, I would also say that very recently we passed in the Senate, with Chris Murphy’s leadership on the Foreign Relations Committee, legislation that provides sanctions.  This was part of the Iran’s sanctions legislation that provides initial sanctions on Russia as well. And as part of that, we were able to see more robust counter propaganda provisions that Senator Murphy and I had authored.  It passed the Senate two weeks ago with a vote of 98-2.  Again, that’s not typical for those of you who aren’t from this city.  And so I would say that some things are happening, we now have a strong, I think fair to say bipartisan group of senators who are focused on this issue.  And it’s not about Russia, it’s broader. It’s about Iran; it’s about other countries in our hemisphere; it’s about ISIS; it’s about ensuring that we’re working closely with think tanks like this one, media organizations, outside experts, in focusing on these issues. And I will say that this conference, when I look around at who’s here and look at your list, includes a really broad range of civic organizations, of non-profits, NGO’s, academics, the private sector is here, and again thanks to the Atlantic Council for forming this coalition on the outside.

“I will say for all the progress we’ve made in the last 18 months there is a lot of work that remains to be done. And I know at the conference today you’re going to hear from some real experts on that, and I know you’ll learn a lot, and some of you have already been engaged in this conversation again for years.  For some of our friends and allies from Europe who are here, when you come to see me, you aren’t surprised by anything I tell you about what’s going on in this country because you have been experiencing it.  And if anything, what I hear from particularly our Eastern European allies and friends is, you know, it’s about time that you’ve figured out what’s been going on for years. And so, you know, this new awareness couldn’t come soon enough for you.

“When I have been in Poland or the Baltics or Ukraine, I hear warnings from government officials, activists, the military, others about this aggressive use of propaganda … this hybrid warfare we talked about. Our European allies saw first-hand Russia’s improved ability to leverage modern information, technology recently in some elections.  And it basically is taking information, creating disinformation, and using it to undermine some of the very foundations of our alliances, of our institutions, and of our values.   So, although Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. election was shocking to many Americans, it was not shocking to so many of our European partners.

“I think for many Americans, the sudden spike in media and public attention to this issue since the presidential election, frankly, has raised more questions than answers. And part of what I hope happens during this week is that we talk about answers. So I agree with Senator Murphy, we need to understand better what happened, go back to that first episode of Homeland. But also talk about ‘what do we do about it.’ … I think that’s a great purpose for this week is to talk about what do we do from here? I think we have to translate awareness into developing and implementing real policies tailored to what is a very complex threat. It’s not enough to just say it’s a problem, we have to work with policymakers and officials to be able to come up with solutions, and I think the Global Engagement Center is part of that, but just the first part.

“I also think, unfortunately, the public debate over Russia’s role in our election has too often devolved quickly into partisanship, and sometimes even hysteria. I think that is not particularly helpful to the broader effort. To be clear, I fully support the investigations that are ongoing into Russia’s involvement and we need to get to the bottom of it, no question about it. And we need to do so because we want to uphold the integrity of our elections here in this country. Just as in the case of France, or the U.K., or Germany, we need to be concerned as well. However, these investigations illustrate a threat that is much broader than just one president, or one state, or one party, and Senator Murphy has alluded to that. From Donetsk, to Paris, to Washington, this Russian influence operation has both fueled and been fueled by the discord, division, and disillusionment that’s out there in our body politic today. I think only a sustained bipartisan commitment to addressing the problem can lead to the type of durable and more effective policies to address it. Over the course of this conference you’re going to hear again from a lot of experts on the complexities of modern information and disinformation push back and how best to respond to the destabilizing propaganda and disinformation campaigns that are out there. I won’t talk more about that.

“What I want to do though is to, very simply, point out a couple of key principles. Three key principles I think we ought to be focused on. One, the challenge of Russia disinformation is not about Donald Trump, it’s much broader than that. It was a serious problem before him, and it’s going to continue to be a problem long after his term in office. Second, greater awareness of the problem does not automatically translate into effective policy responses as we talked about this morning. The Atlantic Council and all the experts here today have a critically important role to be able to translate that increased awareness into a better conceptual understanding of the threats we face. Russia and any other information campaigns are effective in part because they integrate a broad range of capabilities within a common strategic and operational framework. These tools and these operations, including the cyber-attacks, the troll farms which were talked about earlier, social media, funding of useful think tanks and political organizations, funding of media—state-owned media, is broad and it’s complex. And third, if the conversation about understanding foreign disinformation efforts and improving America’s counter-propaganda capabilities does become partisan it will not succeed and I want to stress that. And I appreciate Senator Murphy’s comments on that this morning. We need to keep this, I would say not just bipartisan, but nonpartisan.

“This is about our democracy, it’s about our shared values with democracies around the world, and it’s about our values. So, despite the challenges that remain, I do think we’ve made some significant progress just in the last eighteen months since we were last before you talking about this issue, and I think we’ve also been able to work better with countries around the world.

“It is going to take time, but I think we will develop effective policies that leverage the inherent advantages we have in our shared values and our institutions. To do that, we need more gatherings like this one, we need better information, we need to ensure that policy makers and experts can engage one another and develop effective solutions. So, I’m honored to have been included today in this conference. I wish you Godspeed in your important work this week and I appreciate your taking the time to hear my thoughts on these issues. Thank you.”