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Holding the Government Accountable

POGO’s Suggestions to Congress: Oversight to Counter Foreign Interference

(Photo: White House / Shealah Craighead)

After President Trump rejected the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were quick to condemn his remarks, which came during a joint press conference with President Putin in Helsinki on July 16. Despite issuing a one-word correction the next day, President Trump may have also told a reporter that he didn’t believe Russia was continuing to target U.S. elections—depending on whether you listen to the reporters in the room or White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Either way, Members of Congress have made clear that they see Russian interference in our elections as an ongoing threat.

In response, POGO presented to every Member of Congress a list of eight issues related to election security and foreign interference in our institutions that merit further Congressional oversight and investigations. We urge Members of Congress to undertake oversight measures ranging from examining what more can be done to protect federal agencies from cyberattacks, to determining whether our foreign-influence laws are strong enough to combat foreign-influence campaigns.

Any Congressional oversight of the issues detailed in our open letter should follow the four principles of Congressional investigations identified in POGO’s Necessary and Proper: Best Practices for Congressional Investigations:

  • True bipartisanship. When both parties work together, the likelihood of success greatly increases. This usually means formal power-sharing between the Majority and Minority members of the committee, including sharing investigative documents, co-authoring committee reports, and bipartisan decision-making about hearing witnesses.

  • Adequate tools and resources. Robust investigations need adequate numbers of staff with subpoena and deposition authority.

  • Clear focus. A well-defined mission and realistic time frame will focus the investigation.

  • Congressional leadership support. Strong investigations will usually ruffle feathers. Congressional leaders from both parties will have to back the investigations and seek common ground.

Below are the recommendations we sent to Congress.

The House Committee on Administration and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration should:

Examine the digital security of Congressional offices to determine whether changes are necessary to protect against hacking or other interference. Recent reports have highlighted that the Senate sergeant-at-arms, the body responsible for the Senate’s cybersecurity, does not protect staffers’ personal electronic devices. Further, staffers were the target of a phishing campaign led by the same Russian government hacking group responsible for hacks in 2016. Along the same lines, the Committees should consider reestablishing the Office of Technology Assessment to enhance Congressional understanding of critical cybersecurity and technology issues. It is clear that these digital threats will not stop on their own, and Congress must conduct oversight to examine the extent of these threats and what additional protections are necessary.

The Senate Committees on Rules and Administration, the Judiciary, and Appropriations, and the House Committees on the Judiciary, Appropriations, and House Administration should:

Examine whether additional funding is necessary for state efforts to protect election systems from attack. Congress appropriated $380 million to improve election infrastructure in March’s omnibus bill, thoughexperts assert it isn’t enough to adequately address the vulnerabilities highlighted by the 2016 election. The Committees should also continue holding oversight hearings on measures states are already enacting to protect elections as they may encourage greater enactment of best practices in other vulnerable states. Congress should also hold hearings to examine how robustly sanctions enacted in response to attacks on our elections are being implemented, and respond to any inadequacies of action.

The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should:

Examine the impact that vacancies in high level positions have on federal effectiveness. A joint project between The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service reports that 175 out of 679 positions requiring presidential nominations and Senate confirmations still don’t have a nominee.[2] These include key oversight positions such as Inspectors General at the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as positions such as the coordinator for threat reduction programs and the director and four associate directors of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The impact of these vacancies is hard to measure, but Congressional oversight may help highlight the importance of adequate staffing to ensure proper functioning of our government institutions.

The Committees should also conduct further oversight of federal agencies’ cybersecurity. As the federal government increasingly relies on complex computer systems and networks to increase efficacy and accessibility of government services, Congress should focus on ensuring that cybersecurity efforts keep up with the shift. Federal agencies reported 35,277 cyber incidents involving their systems in fiscal year 2017, an increase of 14 percent from the previous fiscal year—and those numbers only account for the instances agencies caught. In the same report, the White House stated “the government must take additional steps to help agencies identify the sources and vectors of these incidents.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Judiciary Committee should:

Examine loopholes within the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) that contribute to undue foreign influence. The Justice Department has relied on agents of foreign governments to voluntarily comply with the law, and regularly fails to enforce the law against those who mislead policymakers and the public on behalf of their foreign clients. The Committee should examine how the law falls short, how foreign governments and their lobbyists are exploiting the law’s exemptions, and assess the need to clarify what activities and relationships require registration.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee should:

Examine the ability of foreign influence laws to combat foreign influence campaigns. Current foreign influence laws neither address the role of social media nor adequately require disclosure for United States-based foreign media outlets. The House Energy and Commerce Committee should examine the current disclosure requirements for foreign-sourced and -distributed information and determine if they should be amended.

The Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Ways and Means should:

Examine the use of think tanks and tax-exempt organizations to influence U.S. policy. The Justice Department has failed to clarify if some think tanks should register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act if they receive significant grants from foreign governments while engaging in political activities like issuing reports, conducting policy meetings and briefings, and having their staff testify before Congress. The Committees should review the law’s requirements and determine if think tanks and similar entities should disclose these relationships.

The Senate and the House should:

Consider legislation to protect the Special Counsel as he continues to investigate and prosecute cyber attacks that occurred during the 2016 election, which was reported favorably out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan basis. Further, Congress should be looking at the indictments coming out of this investigation to determine what laws need to be strengthened to deter foreign interference in our elections and to hold foreign actors accountable for interference.