Speeches and Statements

Rep. Murphy Speech at FEC Symposium on Digital Disinformation and the Threat to Democracy

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Washington, September 17, 2019 | comments
Good morning. Thank you Suzanne and thank you to the hosts of this event. I’m honored to be here and to offer my perspective from Capitol Hill.

There are roughly 40 election security bills pending in Congress. During the panel conversation, I’ll mention a few of these measures and their prospects for success, and what I say may surprise the more pessimistic among you. I’d like to use this time to discuss some broader themes.

Let me start with the three reasons why I’ve tried to take a leading role when it comes to protecting our democratic process from foreign interference.

First, I have a national security background, and this is a national security problem. I worked at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, and the main threat our country faced from other nations was their potential use of traditional weapons of war. But as technology has evolved, the nature of conflict has evolved as well. Today, our adversaries are more likely to use malware than missiles to advance their interests and undermine ours.

The security challenges we confront will only become more complex. For example, soon our foes will be able to spread disinformation though hyper-realistic but forged video and audio known as deepfakes.

We’re here today because one favored tactic of autocratic governments is use cyber-tools to chisel away at the foundation of a democracy, the free and fair election. They seek to help their preferred candidate, to undermine voters’ confidence in the legitimacy of the election process and the winner it produces, or to cast doubt on the claim that democracy is the best form of government.

We now know that, in the run-up to our 2016 election, the Russians conducted a social media campaign to sow confusion and sway votes. They hacked candidates and campaigns and published stolen documents, again with the goal of influencing votes. They probed—and, in some cases, pierced—computer networks of state and local election officials. This could enable them to alter voter registration databases or perhaps vote tabulation systems.

That leads to the second reason I’ve become involved in this issue, which is that I represent the swing part of the largest swing state in America. Florida was a focus of Russia’s effort to interfere in 2016, and the state will likely be central to any foreign effort to intervene in 2020. Our country has a target on its back, and Florida election officials and voters are the bullseye. So for me, this is an issue that literally hits home.

Finally, politics is the art of the possible. As a pragmatic Democrat from a moderate district with national security credentials, I think I’m well-positioned to work with Republicans toward a legislative response to this threat. Our goal should be to enact into law the best of the bipartisan election security bills pending in Congress.

Some steps we should take are self-evident. Congress must provide federal, state, and local agencies with the resources to harden election infrastructure, and agencies should hire tech-fluent individuals to defend against this threat.

In addition, Congress must ensure that federal agencies share—rather than silo—intelligence about specific threats. The assault on our democracy in 2016, not unlike the 9/11 attacks, exposed gaps in our defenses that our adversary exploited.

Congress also needs to reduce barriers that make it harder for information to flow between the federal government and state and local officials responsible for election infrastructure. One challenge is these officials often lack the requisite security clearance. So we need to streamline that process.

Robust resources, proper personnel, and better information sharing among government agencies are necessary, but they are not sufficient, to produce a comprehensive American strategy. We need a whole-of-society approach in which the private sector and regular citizens, not just public officials, comprehend the threat and commit to do their part to combat it.

For tech companies, their platforms have become battlefields in this bloodless conflict. I spent years in the private sector and believe corporate social responsibility should include a sense of corporate patriotism. These firms can do more to mitigate the problem without congressional mandates and without compromising American values. If this means a modest hit to their bottom line, it’s a small sacrifice for a larger purpose.

Ultimately, we need to recognize that, when it comes to information warfare, it is the 250 million eligible voters in this country that are on the front lines of this fight. It’s their vote that foreign powers are seeking to influence through false online content and stolen data dumps. It’s their ability to vote, or to have their vote accurately counted, that’s at risk if foreign actors penetrate state and local computer networks.

Therefore, a key component of our strategy should be to arm voters with knowledge about the nature and severity of the threat they face. The best defense against disinformation is accurate information. When our enemies seek to sow confusion, we should speak to our citizens with clarity and candor, so they know what they’re up against and how best to fight back.

There are two reasons why this civic education hasn’t occurred to the extent it should, and both are within our power to fix. The first is our national security establishment’s penchant for secrecy, its culture of classification, and its default position not to share detailed threat information with the American people. In the context of other national security challenges, this approach makes sense.

But in the case of information warfare, the tendency of our government to keep things hush-hush is self-defeating. How can we expect our citizens to take the Russia threat as seriously as they should going into 2020 when we didn’t release detailed information about what Russia did in 2016 until three years after the fact—and then only in heavily-redacted reports published, not by our federal agencies, but by the Special Counsel (which was a one-off event) and a Senate committee?

Simply put, while taking caution not to jeopardize intelligence sources or methods, our government should err on the side of telling citizens more, not less, when foreign powers interfere with our democracy. Our citizens can then counter the threat by scrutinizing the information they view online, checking their voter registration data to confirm it wasn’t tampered with, and holding accountable state and local officials who fail to protect election infrastructure.

That leads me to the second reason why civic education has fallen short, and it’s also a factor explaining why Congress hasn’t passed more election security bills. And this will be my final point.

The problem is that the topic of election security has been poisoned by politics. Those of us in this room may agree there is ironclad proof Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and that this is a bad thing. But a significant percentage of Republican voters don’t believe Russia intervened. Of those who do, some don’t seem particularly upset about it. As other commentators have pointed out, the U.S. “will never muster a whole-of-society response if the whole of society doesn’t first acknowledge the problem.”

To close this partisan divide, Republicans and Democrats in Congress must work to reframe election security as a non-partisan issue.

For Republican leaders, this means publicly endorsing our intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow meddled in 2016 and will likely do so again in 2020. It means clearly stating that U.S. elections should be contests between candidates’ ideas and values, decided by our citizens in accordance with our laws. It means pointing out that American patriots of every political stripe should view attempts by a foreign power to manipulate our democratic process as an attack on our security and sovereignty. Period.

As for Democratic leaders, we have to stop relitigating the result of the 2016 election and publicly accept that Donald Trump won. This will hopefully give Republicans the political space they need to accept that Russia interfered in the election, without fear such acceptance will be gleefully pounced upon by partisans determined to question the President’s legitimacy.

If leaders of the two parties fulfill these respective responsibilities, it will facilitate the passage of bipartisan election security legislation—and that has to be the overriding goal.

Working together, we can safeguard the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

Thank you.
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