Slotkin group tackles foreign election interference

Tami Abdollah
Associated Press
Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin greets constituents  at a town hall event at Oakland University, in Rochester, MI on March 21, 2019.

Washington — For the past eight weeks, seven freshman members of Congress have quietly met each Monday in a spare House conference room to tackle a problem they feel their more senior colleagues haven’t done enough to address: election security.

The six Democrats and one Republican call themselves Task Force Sentry, a title meant to signal their focus on crafting legislation to keep foreign adversaries from interfering with the U.S. political system. They bring a variety of backgrounds to the table, including some with experience in the CIA, military and the technology field.

“We’re drawing a line in the sand,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer. “We’re standing watch, we’ve been attacked, and a sentry stands watch to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed how Russian operatives used information warfare to attack the 2016 U.S. election process. But those details have been largely overshadowed by the highly partisan debate over the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia and whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct the investigation. That prompted the freshman lawmakers — traditionally the lowest people in the congressional power structure — to take on the issue themselves.

“There was a national security aspect of (election security) that I don’t think any of us thought was really being addressed,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey at a group sit-down with The Associated Press on Thursday. “Part of that comes from our backgrounds watching, for example, the Russians attempt to influence democratic elections across the globe and then to see those same tactics being used here.”

The group includes Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, and an energized group of Democrats who won upset races against Republicans to win their seats: Spanberger, Sherrill, Elissa Slotkin of Holly, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.

They bring with them some deep national security experience: In addition to Spanberger’s CIA experience, Slotkin is a former CIA analyst and acting assistant secretary of defense; Sherrill served as a former U.S. Navy pilot, Russian policy officer and federal prosecutor; and Houlahan is an Air Force veteran and engineer.

Underwood and Torres Small sit on key committees, while Gonzalez, known for previously being a pro football player, worked at a San Francisco-based educational technology development company.

‘Scary’ moments

Gonzalez recalled driving into work recently and hearing an “incendiary” story about a hate crime in the South playing on a District of Columbia radio station.

When they cut to commercial, he realized it was Sputnik radio, which is funded by the Russian government.

Houlahan remembers a different “scary” moment at a Best Western hotel in Indiana a couple years ago when she saw the Russian state-funded TV channel “RT” playing while “everybody is just eating their breakfast, you know, thinking they’re getting news.”

Both RT and Sputnik have been singled out by U.S. intelligence for their involvement in the Kremlin’s “influence campaign” to increase support for Trump in the lead up to the 2016 election. They have denied it.

The freshman members have moved to address this gap between what U.S. intelligence and records may show and what the public knows. Among the areas they’re targeting for proposed legislation is requiring individuals or entities receiving foreign funds to disclose where those funds come from. So for RT, “there should be a big fat disclosure at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Paid for by the Russian government,’ ” Slotkin said.

‘Protecting country’

Their legislative ideas are still being drafted, but could be included in other bills as soon as next month. These include focusing on preventing foreign financial support for campaigns; defining social media company roles and responsibilities if their platforms are being used by foreign government entities to interfere in U.S. political processes; and establishing ways to identify threats and tools to prevent foreign interference.

“The goal of this group has always been to enact legislation in a bipartisan way and almost a nonpartisan way” by objectively examining the issues and focusing on what Americans need to have confidence in the election system, Gonzalez said.

The lawmakers say leadership is aware and supportive of their efforts and they are cautiously hopeful that their new ideas paired with a lack of ego and baggage will help ensure their efforts aren’t for naught.

“I don’t think anybody in this room cares if we have our names on this thing or own it, we care about protecting the country,” Slotkin said. “That was the mission, and many of us have worked in environments like that our entire lives.”

As freshman lawmakers “we don’t have years and years of history built up to make it more difficult than it needs to be.”