Russia's meddling requires bipartisan investigation

Recent news that a Kremlin-linked firm paid $100,000 for Facebook ads to influence the 2016 U.S. election is another reminder that we still don't know the extent of Russia's meddling in our politics. The questions are: Are we seriously trying to find out what happened, and what are we going to do about it?

Russia is engaged in a kind of media and propaganda war against the United States. We do not understand the importance and gravity of the Russians' meddling in our democracy, and we are slow in responding to an urgent threat to our national security.

The Russian effort has been broad and complex. They have gone beyond breaking into email accounts, stealing data and trying to hack electronic voting systems. Operating through a loose network of government agencies and friendly media organizations, they have deployed an army of operators spreading misinformation.

They have used fake news stories and disseminated rumors via social media to undermine trust in our democratic institutions and to sow suspicion of media and the government. Their strategy aims at weakening the political center and bolstering the extremes.

Russia has mounted an attack on the integrity of our elections, which is at the core of our democracy. They are waging a new kind of Cold War, using propaganda, conspiracy theories, falsehoods and cyberattacks, not just in the United States but in European democracies.

Russian leaders have been open about what they're doing, referring to their efforts as a war. President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to "break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon global information streams."

Our intelligence agencies have made it very clear that they believe the Russians tried to help Donald Trump win the presidency. We can't conclusively judge whether they were successful, because so many other factors came into play. But such an effort should alarm us and call us to action.

Trump and his team have denigrated the intelligence community's conclusions and belittled intelligence officials from 16 agencies, with the president saying it is ridiculous to think the Russians helped him. Trump has shown a mysterious reluctance to criticize Russia for their intervention.

Even the Congress has given only casual scrutiny to the election meddling. Congressional committees' overlapping, slow-moving and largely uncoordinated investigations of Russian actions have been unimpressive. So far they have shed little light on what happened.

Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team are, by all accounts, pursuing an aggressive investigation focused on whether members of Trump's team violated the law in their contacts with Russia. What they find will be crucially important, and we will hear from them soon. But lawbreaking is just part of the picture. We need to understand what Russia did, how much damage it caused and what we can do to prevent it in the future.

This investigation should be taken out of politics. There is a genuine need for the public to know what happened. An appropriate response must begin with a full public investigation and disclosure of all information about Russian activities. That should be followed by vigorous enforcement and prevention, including tougher sanctions and even expulsions of those individuals responsible.

Instead of three or four congressional investigations going their separate ways, there should be a bipartisan House-Senate leadership inquiry. Such a complex investigation will take resolute leadership and guidance, a highly competent staff and a serious commitment of resources. But it should be done.

Much of what the Russians have done is not illegal but takes advantage of America's tradition of free speech and freedom of the press. But their attempts to manipulate public opinion are deeply concerning. Our leaders need to forget about which side will lose politically and move forcefully and effectively forward with the investigation and the development of a counterstrategy to protect the integrity of our democratic system.

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