A hand holds a smartphone with Wikileaks webpage logo

US elections require a 'well-educated electorate about Russian tactics,' says Sen. Warner

Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, discusses the latest intelligence report and its clear warnings for 2020 US elections.

The World

The logo of the Wikileaks website is pictured on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Tokyo, Nov. 29, 2010. 

Toru Hanai/File Photo/Reuters

Four years on, litigation of the 2016 presidential election continues. Not doing so is a tacit acceptance of other countries' ability to skew results of the United States' elections.

This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the fifth and final volume of its report on Russian interference. It's nearly 1,000-pages and mostly takes a look back. But it's filled with clear warnings for this election. 

Related: Trump campaign's Russia contacts 'grave' threat, report

Sen. Mark Warner is a Democrat from Virginia and the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He joins The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the report and its lessons for 2020. 

Related: Russia rejects accusations of spreading virus disinformation

Marco Werman: One of the most stunning conclusions of this report is that Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was in fact, a career spy for the Russians. And that conclusion goes a lot further than the Mueller report, and yet it doesn't seem to have caused much of a stir. Do you think that's an astounding revelation? 

Mark Warner: Well, I think every American should read of the absolutely stunning number of contacts between Russians, Russian agents and members of the Trump campaign. And in reference to Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Manafort, we know Manafort passed over insider campaign information, polling information, as reported in the report. What the Russians did with that, how they used it, we may never know. 

Related: How relying on electronic voting machines puts us at risk

Do you believe Manafort joined the Trump campaign for the express purpose of selling information from inside to the Russians? 

Again, I would ask every American to read it and draw their own conclusions. I mean, clearly, there were more contacts, connections than had been previously reported. I think we've got a pretty comprehensive picture. And what worries me the most is that we're now 70-plus days away from another election. And unfortunately, our country and the White House, in particular, have not done enough to prevent Russia or other nations from intervening in the next presidential election as well. 

Related: This ex-MP wants US politicians to 'stop playing the Ukrainian card' 

Americans should read this 1,000-page report, but it is heavily redacted. It's really hard to tell what is incriminating at times. And it falls in the midst of this distracting pandemic. Are you worried that this is just going to be a headline this week and then will disappear? 

I am worried about that. And I think people are a bit exhausted with the pandemic, with a president that makes no even pretense of trying to slow down people's right to vote using the mail. So, there is a little bit of an exhaustion here. I would remind listeners that 10 days ago, the American intelligence community said Russia will be back. Other nations like China and Iran are also trying to interfere in our elections. One of the things that bother me is while social media companies have gotten better — even the Department of Homeland Security has gotten better in terms of protecting our election security — the US Congress, because we've not had the ability in the Senate to vote on legislation, has not passed a single law to prevent foreign interference. A Russian entity could still advertise on Facebook and not disclose who is really behind it. If a political campaign was offered dirt at a presidential level on another candidate, there would not be an affirmative obligation to tell the FBI. And I think that is a grave error that we've not put better rules of the road in place to prevent Russians or others from interfering in our elections. 

The report does delve into what's going on now. Can you give us a couple of examples from the report that you found most concerning when we're talking about the 2020 general election? 

There are Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting Vice President Biden. My job now is to keep the pressure on the intelligence community to become even more forthcoming with more information, more names about what we've learned so that we don't repeat the mistake of 2016, where, I think, if the intelligence community had been more forthcoming about the Russian interference, more Americans would have been on guard. We see in other nations like Sweden, like the Baltic nations, where the Russians also try to intervene, the best defense oftentimes is a well-educated electorate about Russian tactics. 

Again, given the heavily redacted parts of this report, isn't that a big loss for state and local officials who are trying to prepare for electronic hacking and foreign interference? 

I do think the intelligence community is always reluctant to give up information. That's a constant struggle. I was hoping this report would have actually been out at the beginning of summer, but it was a laborious process to negotiate with the intelligence community about what needed to be redacted. 

Let's say there is a new administration in 2021. Should the information in this report be followed up on? Should criminal prosecutions be pursued? 

Well, I'll leave that to the Justice Department. But I do think in the era of social media, in a world that is so electronically connected, the ability of foreign powers to hack into different systems, the ability to use techniques like deepfakes or your face or mine or a politician's face could appear online and not be that person, frankly, is a much more effective and much more cheap way of doing conflict with the United States than trying to conduct them simply as military exercises. I think this is the world that we live in, and I think it would be very important that a future Biden administration would take this threat more seriously. 

Suppose it's a future Trump administration, too. Would you leave the decision on the prosecution to the current Justice Department headed by Attorney General William Barr? 

I have no confidence in Attorney General Barr that he's anything other than Mr. Trump's some kind of personal confidant. 

You're privy to a lot of intelligence, Sen. Warner. Are you getting a good night's sleep as we approach November? 

I toss and turn a lot, but as we've seen from other nations, the best defense against foreign nation meddling is a well-educated electorate. And I'm not sure, particularly when we've got a White House that continues to deny that Russian intervention took place in 2016, or continues to take place in 2020, we're not getting that well-educated electorate. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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