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He’s leading the bipartisan Senate investigation into election interference. This week on Firing Line.
WARNER: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election.
The senior senator from Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner, is working with Republicans to investigate Russian meddling.
WARNER: Chairman Burr and I trust each other
BURR: We’re all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary….
What the Russians did… how they did it… and why Americans are still vulnerable heading into 2020.
WARNER: What happened in 2016 will happen again in 2020.
As lawmakers draw battle lines over the impeachment inquiry,
SCHIFF: If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?
NUNES: The Russia hoax has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.
…what does Senator Mark Warner say now?
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by…
HOOVER: Welcome to Firing Line, Senator Mark Warner.
WARNER: Thank you for having me.
HOOVER: You’re the senior senator from Virginia, the former governor of Virginia, a former tech entrepreneur, and you are now the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is leading an ongoing investigation into Russian election interference in 2016. We have a lot to talk about this week and we’re going to get to everything. One of those things is impeachment. But first, I’d like to focus on election security and I’d like to, out of the gate, just ask you. Are you worried about the Russians or other foreign adversaries intervening in our elections in 2020?
WARNER: Absolutely. We know they will be back. And the reason we know this is if we look at what the Russians did in our elections in 2016, what they did in the Brexit vote in the UK, what they did in the French presidential elections, add that all up in terms of the cost, it’s less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane. So their ability to intervene in democracies is both cheap and extraordinarily effective.
HOOVER: Joe Maguire, who is the director of national intelligence, recently testified in front of Congress. When he was asked to describe what the country’s most imminent national security threat was, I want you to take a look at what he said.
JOSEPH MAGUIRE, SEPT. 26, 2019: I think that the greatest challenge that we face is not necessarily from a kinetic strike or with Russia or China or Iran or North Korea. I think the greatest challenge that we do have is to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our election system. I think that protecting the sanctity of our election within the United States — whether it be a national city, state or local — is perhaps the most important job that we have with the intelligence community.
HOOVER: Senator Warner, do you agree with Joe Maguire?
WARNER: I agree with Director Maguire. And let’s remember what the bad guys need to do is not necessarily change votes. They simply have to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of our systems.
HOOVER: There are two main issues. There is the integrity of the election infrastructure and then there’s the disinformation campaigns. In your view, which is more important?
WARNER: I think they’re equally important. And I think we have gotten better in both areas. 2018 we were much more successful both because of certain things we did, and also, to give the Trump administration some credit here, willingness for us to punch back in the cyber domain, which both under Obama and Bush we were reluctant to do. But one of the things that amazes me is that we’ve allowed election security to become a partisan issue.
HOOVER: You just said you want to give the Trump administration credit for being going on the offense in the cyber domain. There are reports that in 2018 the United States took an offensive posture in cyber, and actually was able to shut down Russian troll farms.
WARNER: I’m not going to comment on the specifics.
HOOVER: Are you aware of that operation?
WARNER: I can’t comment on things that fall into the intelligence realm in terms of specific actions. What I can comment on is that President Trump made it easier for the United States government to use some of our offensive capabilities
HOOVER: What does an effective offensive cyber operation look like?
WARNER: I think for decades, in our country, we were afraid of going on offense on cyber because we were always afraid of cyber escalation. You shut down Moscow for 24 hours, you had a problem. You shut down New York for 24 hours, you have a financial crisis that could permeate for months. Consequently, I feel like for many years, particularly our near peer adversaries like Russia and China, they were able to attack America in the cyber domain with very little fear of us punching back. I think we’ve taken off some of those restraints. I think that is good long term. We need to realize these challenges, particularly in the cyber domain, will be where the first shots of 21st century conflict will take place. I agree. Again, agree with Director Maguire. It will probably not be a kinetic strike.
WARNER: It will be the vulnerabilities in the cyber domain, which we have gotten better at. But still, we’ve got room for improvement, and why we need, around the issue of the integrity of our election system, to do some pretty simple things that I think we’ll get 80 votes on the floor of even this Senate.
HOOVER: Can we break it down? What legislation do you have that would help secure our election infrastructure in order to ensure that our voting machines are secure, That voter data is secure, and that chaos isn’t strewn into election day?
WARNER: Number one, make sure that every polling station in America has got a paper ballot backup. So if the machine was broken into, there is something you can fall back on. Number two, that there ought to be post-election audits so that we can determine, you know, best practices. Those best practices are then shared. Number three,there are three companies that control over 90 percent of the voter files in America. They’re not bad companies. They’re just data management companies. We have no ability to have any oversight into those data management that basically have the voter files. So the bad guys, they don’t need to change an election total. But if they took ten thousand or twenty thousand voter names in Miami Dade County and move people from one polling station to another and people showed up to vote in 2020 and their names weren’t on at the polling stations that were appropriate, you’d have chaos.
HOOVER: Can you play that out for me? Like, what happens? Could they do three counties in three different states and that would be enough to –
WARNER: Listen, when you when you think about elections, we always know Florida is gonna be close. We know Michigan’s gonna be close. We know Ohio is going to be close. If you take the major jurisdictions in those three states and had people lose faith that their votes either were going to be counted accurately, or if they showed up at polling stations and they ended up being sent to a different polling station, you could have chaos. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the government. It could be independent auditors. But making sure that these companies that dominate in a totally legitimate way, the vast 90 percent of all the voter files in this country, there ought to be some check on those files.
HOOVER: For sure. Your committee found, and this is a quote, “that in a small number of states, Russian affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure and in a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” Now, there’s no evidence based on your report that they actually did alter any voter registration data. If they have the ability to, why do you think they didn’t?
WARNER: I think in 2016, the Russians wanted to test our defenses. I think they were trying to lift the window, rather –
HOOVER: Check under the hood, see what was going on?
WARNER: And I think what they found, was the doors were open and the windows were open! And they got into some of these systems. And maybe it’s luck, maybe it was just, they didn’t know what they exactly had. But they didn’t pull the trigger. And consequently — and there are some that still say there may have been some interference — we did not find direct manipulation of votes. But just because it didn’t happen in 2016, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in 2020.
HOOVER: Do you think they had the ability to change votes in 2016?
WARNER: I think that’s an open question.
HOOVER: Do you believe that in the intervening years they’ve developed the ability to change votes or that they will try in 2020?
WARNER: I think, absolutely.
HOOVER: They now have the ability to change votes?
WARNER: There will be the ability that Russia has used. There’s been reports as recently as this past week in a front page, I think, New York Times story about Madagascar where Russia was trying to intervene. Clearly, the ability to hack into voting systems and manipulate data is a cyber technique that clearly the Russians and others have perfected. And one of the reasons why we need to get this out of being a partisan issue. We wouldn’t say protecting the power grid or our financial system integrity ought to be partisan. Why have we allowed Mr. Trump to turn protection of our voting system into a partisan issue? Particularly when you’ve got all of the senior officials that Mr. Trump has appointed in law enforcement, in intelligence, saying this is the most important national security threat we face.
HOOVER: So what you’re saying is you are deeply concerned that Russians will have the ability and certainly have the desire to change votes in our voting system in 2020?
WARNER: I am saying that we are getting better and we have to presume they are getting better.
HOOVER: Who’s winning? Are they winning or are we winning?
WARNER: I think we don’t know because we’ve not seen their latest techniques. It’s one of the reasons why something as simple as saying, let’s make sure you’ve got a paper ballot backup for every voting machine in America should be a total no brainer. I think 80, 90 percent of Americans would agree with that. Let’s make that the law.
HOOVER: You’re confident that the Russians not only interfered in our election in 2016, but will try again in 2020. And there is a theory, promulgated by President Trump, that it is actually the Ukrainians who interfered in 2016 and for who of whom we should be afraid in the future.
WARNER: There is, to my knowledge, absolutely no factual basis. That was a discredited theory actually put out by some of the Russian spy agencies. And no legitimate member of the U.S. intelligence service, law enforcement, or for that matter, that I’m aware of, State Department feels that theory has any credibility at all.
HOOVER: So what was the genesis of this conspiracy theory?
WARNER: Who wins when Ukraine is put in a bad light? Who wins if U.S. Ukraine are split apart? The winner in all these: Vladimir Putin and the Russians.
HOOVER: So the Russians started this conspiracy theory, is what you’re saying?
WARNER: I’m saying, who benefits?
HOOVER: So is the reason you’re not saying affirmatively because you have access to classified information that affirms that this is the case?
WARNER: I can’t comment on anything in terms of sources, methods and some of the things that we’ve been briefed on.
HOOVER: So I’m going to take it as a yes that this is a Russian conspiracy theory unless you tell me differently.
WARNER: Well, you can you can make any judgment you want. I’m just saying, my job is, I take very seriously the responsibility of what I hear in classified settings needs to stay classified. But I think it is very clear to me — and this has been testified to by every leader of law enforcement, intelligence community — that there’s been absolutely no validity to this crazy conspiracy theory that Ukraine was behind the 2016 intervention.
HOOVER: Ransomware attacks, attacks where a system is shut down and paralyzed until it is paid. We have seen this happen in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Baltimore, and a hospital system in Los Angeles.
WARNER: And you’ve mentioned those that have gotten high profile. What you’ve not mentioned are the literally dozens, if not hundreds, of mid-sized and smaller hospital systems and smaller communities that have quietly paid the ransomware without any public notice. This is an epidemic.
HOOVER: So are our elections going to be vulnerable to this kind of attack in 2020?
WARNER: I think there were a number of local election officials after 2016 that really questioned whether the Russians had intervened in their states. I think there are very few naysayers now. They’ve seen the evidence. I think DHS made a dreadful mistake in the immediate aftermath of 2016, that it took them almost a year to reveal how many states were actually attacked, because virtually every state was attacked. And I think, again, we’re better, but I can’t give you the assurance that we will be totally safe in 2020. That’s why we ought to pass this bipartisan legislation. That’s why the relatively small amount of additional federal money to go into protecting the integrity of our system should take place.
HOOVER: When you say relatively small amount of federal money, I mean 380 million dollars has been appropriated. Maybe more needs to be appropriated. But if that money were disbursed to the states today, would it be in place in order to start protecting elections that start in three months? Is that enough time?
WARNER: We won’t be ready if the money was disbursed today for all of the primaries, but some of the issues that we need, some of this will take more time. But we can make sure that there is a paper ballot backup in every state in the country if we put that requirement on the federal moneys that were to be disbursed.
HOOVER: Let’s talk about the disinformation campaigns that Russia and other foreign adversaries will likely participate in in 2020. And your committee has just released, in the last few weeks, a report on this social media disinformation campaigns. And just top lines from the report: As many as 126 million Americans may have been served up content from Russian operatives on Facebook between 2015 and 2017. And that’s 90 percent of the American electorate. Fake news stories far outperformed real news stories. Your report also quantified that Russian operatives from their desk in St. Petersburg organized pro Muslim and anti-Muslim protests in Houston. Are we still vulnerable to these kinds of operations and attacks by foreign adversaries today?
WARNER: Yes. And let’s step back. Before 2016 the US government was caught basically totally unaware about how social media firms could be manipulated. And, candidly, the social media firms were…
HOOVER: …were caught unaware.
WARNER: …completely caught off guard. I remember the infamous statement of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, saying, shortly after I raised this, that any politician that thought the Russians were messing with Facebook didn’t get it. Well, he didn’t get it. But what’s, again, stunning to me is when we first went into this investigation, we thought most of the Russian activity had been paid advertising. The paid advertising, in terms of the total campaign, was 2 to 3 percent. It was tiny. The vast majority of the Russian campaign was Russian trolls, Russian bots, where they tried to create fake personas, acting as if they’re Americans, oftentimes not starting a posting or an identity around politics — who wants to follow politics? — it would be around gardening, it would be around Texas football, a host of areas they would draw in followers. And then they would start, as they built these sites up, they would start to intersect with Russian propaganda. Give you another example that I believe our report hit on, the debate about NFL players kneeling before the national anthem. People wondered why did that get so much prominence? Well, partially, Mr. Trump tweeted about it. But the bigger issue was, when you look behind that, it was 10 to 1 foreign based bots driving that story more than Americans. So the reason that popped up on your phone as a trending story was not because Americans were saying, ah, this is an important thing I want to weigh in on. It was because Russian and other foreign bots pushed that story so it would appear — because it again, where the Russians particularly focused were on racial issues, and the NFL player debate about national anthem and kneeling too often broke down on racial lines.
HOOVER: To be clear, you said 10 to 1 bots to real people –
WARNER: Over actual Americans.
HOOVER: So what is the strategy there for Russians? The strategy, it seems to me, is to find wedge issues and divide us amongst ourselves. Is that correct?
WARNER: Absolutely. And it’s not stopped. We are three and a half years after the 2016 election and we still do not have a single law in place governing social media platforms. This is a tool that has a long history in Russia. It goes back to the tsarist time. The Tsars had secret police that manipulated information and disinformation. The Soviets did it in a masterful way. Now, with social media, you can touch people in ways that have no rules of the road. Do you really want to trust these platforms to simply self police and not have any responsibility to our government or for that matter the American public?
HOOVER: Isn’t that the case right now?
WARNER: It is absolutely the case. Bingo. You just got it. And that’s why –
HOOVER: And you think that’s a mistake?
WARNER: I think that is a huge mistake. I think they’ve tried to get better. But shouldn’t we have a right to know, for example, when we’re reading a Facebook post, whether it was generated by a human being or a bot? Shouldn’t we have a right to know the geographic origin? If it says, I’m Margaret from New York, but the post is originating from St. Petersburg, shouldn’t we have a right to know? Shouldn’t we have a right to know from a basic privacy standpoint what data is being collected about each of us and what it’s worth?
HOOVER: So –
WARNER: And the fact that America has not stepped up, we’re again ceding this leadership to the Europeans who’ve already passed privacy legislation, to the Brits and Australians who’ve seen such manipulation in their system that they now have content regulations, and individual states like California and others are moving ahead when we should be actually moving at the national level.
HOOVER: So one platform has stepped up, potentially. Twitter has said they’re not going to do any political advertising. Facebook has taken a different approach.
WARNER: I generally think Twitter moved in the right direction. But Twitter had a much smaller revenue base than what Facebook had. Where I think Facebook has made a mistake. Facebook has said if you are a political party or if you’re an issue group and you’re advertising and what you’re advertising is demonstrably false, they will take the ad down. Zuckerberg, on his own decision, though, said if you are a political candidate, you can lie with impunity and they will not take that ad down, even if it can be proven false.
HOOVER: How do you resolve that? Do you have Facebook self censor and hold themselves to a higher standard? Or does the government force Facebook to censor speech on its platform?
WARNER: I don’t think we ought to be censoring speech. I do think items that are demonstrably false — and rules of the road have been worked out on this in television, radio, cable news, newspapers. What should be so unique about social media?
HOOVER: What is the most important single piece of legislation that could impact the election security?
WARNER: I don’t think there’s a single shot.
HOOVER: There’s no silver bullet here.
WARNER: I think we have to do a series of incremental items. One, we have to make sure there is the same disclosure requirements for political ads on social media as there are on television.
HOOVER: Mm hmm
WARNER: Two, we ought to make sure that we know what data is being collected about us. We ought to be able to move our data if we’re tired of Facebook and they are not treating us with respect, you should easily be able to move all your data, including your cat videos, to a new site. The same way you can move from one telephone company to another. I think we all got caught up for a long time, and we became it was too much techno optimists, that social media was only going to bring about these great new communities. And both political parties kind of fell in love with Silicon Valley. Well, there’s great positive that has come out of these companies. They’re great innovators. But there is also a dark underbelly. And we just need to be realistic about it. I don’t want it to go away. I don’t want to cede this leadership to other countries around the world. I want these companies to maintain and be prosperous. But there’s got to be rules of the road.
HOOVER: After two and a half years of investigations, your committee has issued two reports. You have —
WARNER: And both of those reports have been totally bipartisan.
HOOVER: And there are pieces of legislation that would tackle the problems. Why haven’t any bills passed?
WARNER: Well, that’s a great question. And I’ve been very disappointed that the administration has fought these tooth and nail, and the majority leader of the Senate has not allowed us to bring these bills to the floor. I believe they’d get 80 votes.
HOOVER: If it were a secret ballot?
WARNER: I don’t think it needs to be a secret ballot. Just let us vote. Tell me what Senator isn’t going to vote for commonsense bipartisan ideas on how we protect the integrity of our elections and make sure that social media platforms aren’t being manipulated by foreign agents.
HOOVER: Why do you suspect that the president is ignoring the problem that Russia presents?
WARNER: That is, again, one of the questions of our time. I’ve got, you know, my sense on this. We’re going to continue our investigation. But we also, look, I’m not here to relitigate 2016. I’m not here to relitigate the Mueller report…
HOOVER: No, but we’re trying to protect the election in 2020.
WARNER: I am here to make sure, how do we go forward and in a commonsense way protect us in 2020.
HOOVER: Let’s talk about impeachment. So, as you know, this program originally was hosted by William F. Buckley, Jr. between 1966 and 1999. May 1973, Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey was a guest on Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. and they had a conversation about what happens when a president defies Congress. Let’s listen.
SEN HUMPHREY: If he refuses to abide by the terms of the Constitution, the ultimate question is whether or not this meets the requirements of an impeachment proceeding.
- BUCKLEY: Yes, and so conceivably some sort of an exemplary impeachment might be helpful.
SEN. HUMPHREY: Or a censureship.
- BUCKLEY: Censureship?
SEN. HUMPHREY : Or a resolution of censureship. But that’s only an expression of disdain and of –
- BUCKLEY: Has that ever happened to a president?
SEN. HUMPHREY: No, it has not.
- BUCKLEY: Yes. Is it something that you might consider an in-between step?
SEN. HUMPHREY: Yes, that could be an in-between step, Bill.
HOOVER: So at the time of that interview, impeachment was a distant prospect. But this idea of censure was mentioned and considered. Would that be a more bipartisan way of expressing dissatisfaction with the president rather than removing him from office and overturning an election?
WARNER: I’m not going to jump to any kind of judgments until we hear the testimony. We’ll have that conversation after we have that presentation.
HOOVER: As a prospective juror in a looming impeachment trial, do you have any faith or hope that some of the camaraderie and collegiality and, frankly, the respect you have for your Republican colleagues may carry over into an impeachment trial?
WARNER: Well first, I really wish the country wasn’t at this spot. This is not something that’s going to be to the political advantage, I think, of anyone. And at the end of the day, I hope that it does not break down on partisan lines because that would simply already further split a country that too often is divided.
HOOVER: Well, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said last week that, quote, “I will say I’m pretty sure how it is likely to end. If it were today, I don’t think there is any question that it would not lead to removal.” Do you agree with him?
WARNER: I agree with the fact that we need to go into this public phase and that all of us have a constitutional obligation to go in and judge the credibility of these witnesses. I’m not going to make some presumption that 100 United States senators, when we’ve only done this three times, aren’t going to be willing to step back and realize we’ve got a constitutional obligation to do this with an open mind and let us follow where the facts lead.
HOOVER: It’s just the majority leader of the Senate is starting not with an open mind. He’s saying he knows exactly how it’s going to end.
WARNER: Listen, I also know that there are some folks on my side that have reached conclusions as well. So let’s, again, take a deep breath. We’ve not done this many times in our country’s history. We’re at a point where there’s an awful lot of division. I think it’s time for the Senate to be adults in the room.
HOOVER: Senator Mark Warner, for your service and for your work on the Intelligence Committee and for securing our elections in 2020.
WARNER: or hope to.
HOOVER: Thank you for coming to Firing Line.
WARNER: Thank you Margaret.
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