A former top diplomat in Republican U.S. president George W. Bush’s administration criticized President Donald Trump for being “unwilling to act against Russia” in retaliation for the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election.
Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, told lawmakers, “I find it dismaying and objectionable that President Trump continues to deny the undeniable fact that Russia launched a major cyber attack against the United States, regardless of what party he launched it against.”
Burns’ remarks were made at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday on Russia’s meddling into European elections. He told lawmakers if Trump “continues to refuse to act, it’s a dereliction of the basic duty to defend the country.”
He said former president Barack Obama “should have acted earlier and more vigorously” against Russia, even though he “would have likely been accused in the heat of the campaign for intervening” in the presidential race between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Burns, who is also a former ambassador to NATO, recommended that the U.S. impose tougher sanctions on Russia, and called on Congress to lead the effort.
“With our long national two-century debate about the separation of powers in mind, I do think that Congress …and not the president, should lead the American response to Russia’s cyber attacks on the United States.”
Burns urged the House of Representatives to approve legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia that passed the Senate nearly unanimously last week.
“In my view, it would be a great mistake for President Trump to veto such a bill,” he said.
On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Trump's position has been consistent on the issue since January.
“He believes that Russia was probably involved, potentially,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia engaged in widespread interference in last year's presidential election aimed at helping Trump win the White House. Last week, former Homeland Security agency chief Jeh Johnson and other U.S. officials confirmed Russia’s meddling in testimony on Capitol Hill. But the officials said there was no evidence that Moscow was able to change the vote count.
In the recent French presidential election, Moscow’s candidate of choice lost to Emmanuel Macron, who was the target of cyber attacks and false news accounts from Kremlin-sponsored media outlets.
Constanze Stelzenmueller, a Brookings Institution expert on German and European affairs, told committee members the impact of Russia’s interference is “hit and miss, often miss.”
“In many ways its meddling in European elections over the past year has produced the exact opposite of what was intended,” she said. “It has produced stable, democratic, and non-populace governments that are pro-European Union and, indeed, pro-NATO, pro-American.”
Stelzenmueller added that NATO and the European Union “are experiencing a renaissance of purpose” and said the upcoming September elections in Germany are “now looking quite different” compared to the beginning of the year, with Chancellor Angela Merkel holding a lead in the polls.
But Stelzenmueller cautioned there is “general consensus” Russia will meddle in Germany’s elections and said preparations have been made by hardening computer infrastructure and continuing to use paper ballots.
The real threat, Stelzenmueller said, are Russian attempts to get inside “voters heads.”
“They’re trying to hack our political consciousness,” she said.
Although Russia is not new to information warfare, its cyber capabilities have become more sophisticated in recent years. The country’s Defense Ministry announced this year the establishment of a new cyber-warrior operation.
The director of NATO’s Strategic Communication Center of Excellence, Janis Sarts, recommended that European nations and the U.S. must first create “societal awareness” of cyber attacks and collaborate with media organizations to help them understand “how they might be manipulated.”
Sarts said nations must have “very good situational awareness” of their information environment in order to “respond effectively” to any cyber attacks.
Putin has rejected claims of Russian government involvement in cyber attacks on the U.S. He has said that "patriotic" hackers, however, might have carried out the attacks on the U.S. election.
“I can imagine that some do it deliberately, staging a chain of attacks in such a way as to cast Russia as the origin of such an attack,” the Russian leader said last month.