Portman Urges More Coordinated Effort between the United States & European Union to Counter Russian Disinformation
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned His Excellency David O’Sullivan, Head of Delegation of the European Union Delegation to the United States, today at a hearing titled “The European Union as a Partner Against Russian Aggression” on the steps being taken to improve the United States’ coordinated effort with the EU to combat Russian propaganda. Portman and O’Sullivan discussed the challenges posed by Russia’s hybrid war and the use of disinformation and the need to work together and share information and resources in order to counter Russia’s extensive disinformation and propaganda campaign. Also discussed was the need to implement Portman’s bipartisan bill, now law, which will do just that.
Transcript of the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.
Senator Portman: “We’ve had a good discussion today about Russian disinformation and propaganda and I often think when I hear our discussion that if we had only listened to our allies in central Europe and eastern Europe that we would be a little ahead of the game because they’ve been warning us for a long time about what’s happening to them. I’m looking at Disinformation Review this week and here’s the top of many stories that they are exposing. A Czech Republic disinformation outlet wrote that the Council of Europe is enforcing a rule that Czech children are stolen from their mothers in order to privilege the LGBT community and help the Islamization of the nation, thus playing into two very common anti-western narratives in one. And obviously very false narratives as you will tell us this morning.
“This is happening constantly among your member states like the Czech Republic but also in western Europe. We are now seeing this happening in France and in Germany with the elections. We certainly are experiencing it here. I think the Chairman is right, people are aware that there was meddling. I think that they are not aware of the extent to which it happens all the time and not just here in this country but also in other democracies, many of which are fledgling democracies. And it is this combination of cyber-attacks, hacking, troll farms on social media—what we just read here is an example of some of the disinformation—think tanks that are useful to them, political organizations, state sponsored media including here in this country.
“We have recently authored legislation that passed at the end of last year. Senator Murphy is here this morning. We authored this to try to get the United States to be more aggressive in responding by coordinating better and having more effective messaging. It’s called the Countering Foreign Disinformation and Propaganda Act. It will set up a global engagement center at the State Department. My question to you today is to dig a little deeper into what you already talked about, you mentioned the EU External Services STRATCOM Taskforce, and it seems to me they are doing very important work. The question is very specifically, how could we coordinate better with your own new organization, STRATCOM, to better provide information back and forth about disinformation and how to counter it. And I hope you’re taking that from this hearing, that you will be reporting back, and saying we would like to encourage that and increase that. Our State Department effort is just standing up. My first question is, what else are you providing to your member states? I know you also have under Europol, as Chairman Corker references, the EU Intelligence and Information Center, other collection efforts which offer real opportunity for information sharing and mutual support. Is that also going on between you and your member states?”
His Excellency David O’Sullivan: “Yes, Senator. And we also have the Counter Cyber Center in EUROPOL as well, so there are a wide range of efforts being undertaken to combat these different threats that you mention which are, as you rightly say, something of enormous concern on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Portman: “Can STRATCOM actually tap into those intelligence resources?”
O’Sullivan: “I would not like to say for certain they can in that way. We certainly work very closely across all the institutions in EUROPOL and the External Actions Service and the Commission. So, I think there is a very strong degree of coordination at the European level.”
Portman: “My sense is that here in this county, and my sense is this is true in the EU as well, that there is not the kind of coordination that would be useful always with regard to countering the disinformation, and so I know sometimes there are legal barriers to it. Sometimes there are different levels of classification that make it difficult. But I think this is again something that is in our interest and your interest both to coordinate across the Atlantic, but also to have better coordination in our intelligence services and the efforts we are making to try to counter [disinformation]. You get 28 member states in NATO, as you said earlier, and, you know, they’ve come up with this new approach to combat what they call hybrid threats. So, kinetic and non-kinetic, and certainly disinformation is a big part of that. This joint framework on countering hybrid threats has now been established. Can you talk a little about that? Again, can we collaborate better? Obviously the EU and the United States are the major players here, and is there information sharing between NATO and these specific organizations like STRATCOM?”
O’Sullivan: “Well, firstly of course the Hybrid Center of Excellence, as you mentioned, is being set up in Finland as a NATO exercise. And yes, there is a very good exchange of information and best practice across the different players. This is not to say that one cannot always do better, as I think Senator Shaheen pointed out, it’s not just a question of the disinformation. It’s not just about intelligence. It’s also about dealing with things which are not secret but which are actually sort of very public and how you deal with that, and how you respond to it, how you make it better known that this is misinformation and disinformation. But, we would be certainly happy to discuss further how we could work even more closely together on those issues.”
Portman: “Well I think the example I used at the outset is one along those lines. It’s not a matter of intelligence sharing on that. It’s a matter of ensuring people know that these are false narratives and communicating clearly, and we certainly have a shared interest in that. And so, we thank you for your personal commitment to that cooperation between the United States and the EU and look forward to working you more closely on this.”
O’Sullivan: “Thank you, sir.”