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Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate

Polls show Democrats have a good chance of capturing the Senate majority in November, but a growing number of Democratic senators are concerned Russian interference could lead to a different outcome on Election Day.

Senate Democrats say Russian operatives are already waging a disinformation campaign aimed at disrupting the 2020 election, and at least one senator says bots with suspected ties are waging Twitter attacks on their campaign.

The lawmaker, who is in a competitive race, has asked social media companies to help quash the effort.

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Democratic senators also say that Russian disinformation is also being used to fuel a Senate GOP investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter — a charge vigorously denied by the GOP senator leading the probe.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care: Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions: 'Neanderthal thinking' | Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra |Over 200K sign up for ACA plans during Biden special enrollment period Raimondo has won confirmation, but the fight to restrict export technology to China continues Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra MORE (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russian interference is in full swing.

“This is going on right now, according to the nation’s intelligence leadership,” he said. “You’ve got the intelligence leadership saying the Russians are working very hard to do in 2020 what they tried to do in 2016. That’s the biggest tell out there.”

Wyden declined to provide details, citing the classified nature of the subject matter.

“I’m constrained by a fair measure because I’m on the committee,” he said, referring to his access to classified information as a member of the Intelligence Committee. 

William Evanina, the director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued a statement last month saying Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President BidenJoe BidenThe West needs a more collaborative approach to Taiwan Abbott's medical advisers were not all consulted before he lifted Texas mask mandate House approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act MORE and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”

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Democrats are now sounding the alarm in hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2016. 

Four years ago, former President Obama and senior members of his administration were aware in the fall of 2016 of attempts by Russian intelligence agents to influence the results of that year’s presidential election but declined to go public, worried that their  warnings would be seen as attempts to politicize intelligence or interfere in the election.

One of the few Democrats to speak out four years ago was then-Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWho is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? Trumpists' assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster MORE (D-Nev.), who asked now-former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyWray says FBI not systemically racist John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Trump DOJ officials sought to block search of Giuliani records: report MORE to investigate evidence that Moscow was trying to alter the outcome of the election. 

Reid warned that the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the election were “more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.”

Obama told Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDo Biden's 'tough new sanctions' give Putin Nord Stream 2? Russia vows retaliation for new US sanctions: 'We do not intend to put up with this' Wray hints at federal response to SolarWinds hack MORE directly at a Group of 20 meeting in China in September 2016 “to cut it out” and warned “there were going to be serious consequences if he did not.” The warning had no effect.

But Obama decided not to speak out publicly on the threat posed by the Kremlin during the height of the 2016 campaign after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks DOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE (R-Ky.) declined to sign a bipartisan statement condemning Russia.

Wyden says Democrats didn’t act forcefully enough or quickly enough back then.

“I think more should have been done early,” he said.

Wyden said senior U.S. intelligence officials need to do more before Election Day to warn the public about ongoing Russian interference.

“I want them to put out more information, more specifics and not do what they did in 2016 which is be kind of cautious,” he said. 

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenBiden convenes bipartisan meeting on cancer research Lobbying world Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (D-Md.), who served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2018 election cycle, said he’s “very concerned” about Russian interference in both the presidential and Senate races.

“The intelligence community has said that interference is ongoing,” he said.

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He said Senate Democrats plan to force another Senate vote on the DETER Act, which would require the director of national intelligence (DNI) to issue to Congress a finding within 60 days of the election whether any foreign government has interfered with that election.

If the DNI concludes that Moscow again interfered with the election, sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy and defense, would be required within 30 days.

Van Hollen said Russia is trying to interfere by using many of the same tactics employed during the 2016 election, such as hacking into Democratic computers in order to leak sensitive information and posting disinformation on social media through agents or bots posing as Americans.

“This time the good news is the social media companies, while not perfect, are taking much stronger action,” he said. “Four years ago, we did not have our defenses up.”

Twitter and Facebook announced earlier this month that they had closed a network of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency after working with the FBI’s foreign influence task force. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday told members of the House Homeland Security Committee that U.S. intelligence officials “have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020.”

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He cited Russian activity through “social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals.”

The Democratic senator who described coming under attack by bots suspected of Russian links, told The Hill: “We have seen evidence of bots that are operating to respond to tweets that don’t represent real people.”

“They’re going after me,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive campaign subject. “So we’ve been working with a number of entities to try to shut that down to the extent that we can.”

Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersAlarming threat prompts early exit, underscoring security fears Five takeaways from dramatic Capitol security hearing Troops defending Capitol sickened by undercooked meat: report MORE (D-Mich.), who is also in the midst of a competitive race, said “we have to be very vigilant” about Russian interference in Senate races.

He said he didn’t have “direct knowledge” of Russian attempts to influence his reelection bid but cautioned “sometimes it’s difficult to discern.”

Democrats say social media and hacking aren’t the only ways to interfere in an election.

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Senate Democrats have accused Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenate coronavirus bill delayed until Thursday Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Senate GOP will force clerks to read bill to delay COVID-19 relief vote MORE (R-Wis.) of using Russian-spread disinformation in his panel’s investigation of whether Joe Biden used his influence as vice president to help his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine — a discredited theory promulgated by President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE’s personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani again suspended from YouTube over false election claims Sacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Biden administration buys 100,000 doses of Lilly antibody drug MORE.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate panel splits along party lines on Becerra House Democrats' ambitious agenda set to run into Senate blockade A Biden stumble on China? MORE (N.Y.), Wyden and Peters introduced a resolution Wednesday calling for a cessation of any Senate investigation or activity that allows Congress to act as a conduit for Russian information, a move directed squarely at Johnson.

Wyden noted on the floor Wednesday that Andriy Derkach, who has been identified as an active agent for Russian intelligence, met with Giuliani.

Evanina, the director of the counterintelligence and security center, in his August statement singled out Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian, as spreading claims about corruption “to undermine Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

Wyden said on the floor that Derkach’s “disinformation became the basis of much of the work” of Johnson’s inquiry, prompting an angry denial from the Wisconsin Republican.

“We did not solicit; we did not accept; we did not receive any information from Mr. Derkach whatsoever. Yet Democrats persist in pushing this false allegation,” Johnson insisted during an angry floor colloquy with Wyden.