Russia-Financed Facebook Ads Are Said to Show Diverse Targets
(Bloomberg) —Russia-financed Facebook ads turned over to congressional panels show that Democratic strongholds like California, New York and Maryland were targeted along with the battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan, according to a Republican official on the House Intelligence Committee.
The broad range of issues addressed in the ads, including the Black Lives Matter movement, is prompting some members of the House and Senate intelligence panels to conclude that Russia was aiming more to sow distrust among Americans than to help a particular candidate.
“We have not come to any determination on any collusion or Russia’s preferences” in the outcome of the U.S. election, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. The theme, he added, was “to create chaos at every level.”
Burr and the panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, also made clear Wednesday that their investigation has a long way to go, with the senators still trying to figure out whether there is any evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The inquiry has expanded since January, Burr said. “We have more work to do.”
Trump has repeatedly called the idea of collusion a “hoax,” but Burr warned that Russia’s involvement was real, continues in other countries around the world, and that Moscow is likely to continue interfering in midterm elections next year.
Burr said the panel won’t release the ads turned over by Facebook Inc. or by others in the expanded probe, which has already conducted more than 100 interviews and generated 100,000 pages of documents. He said the companies are free to do so.
Warner said that it’s “important that the public sees” the approximately 3,000 ads that Facebook handed over on Monday.
One outstanding question is whether specific kinds of voters were targeted with these ads or other efforts to manipulate social media platforms.
Michael Morell, who spent his career at the CIA including a stint as acting director of the agency, said in an interview that Russia either needed someone to help give it information on microtargeting or stole the necessary information, such as through hacking.
“They do not have the analytic capability to do that themselves,” Morell said.
The Senate Intelligence panel has called executives from Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to testify at a Nov. 1 public hearing about Russia’s use of social media to influence the U.S. election. Facebook has committed to appear at the hearing, according to a person familiar with the company.
Warner said there is a “large consensus that they hacked into political files, released those files in an effort to influence the election” and that Russia used social media platforms “to drive chaos and division in our country.”
Social-media companies didn’t initially take the threat of Russian interference seriously enough, but “they are recognizing that threat now,” Warner said. Twitter has said it shared a roundup of advertisements by RT, a TV network funded by the Russian government that was formerly known as Russia Today.
Americans need to be able to tell if an ad or trending news story on social media is being driven by foreign interests, said Warner, who is drafting legislation to force public disclosure of ad buyers.
Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Martin Heinrich of New Mexico are working on their own legislation intended to upgrade election security to address the potential threat of tampering.
Other congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are also looking into Russian election-meddling and possible collusion between the Russia’s government and Trump’s campaign.
Among those under scrutiny are former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who arranged a meeting on June 9, 2016, with Russians who were promising damaging material on Hillary Clinton.
Manafort has given a staff interview to the Senate Intelligence panel behind closed doors, but the panel wants to speak with him again, a person familiar with the investigation has said previously. The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering whether to subpoena him. And Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was interviewed privately by the Senate and House Intelligence committees on July 24 and 25.
Burr said the committee will have a public hearing on Oct. 25 with Michael Cohen, a longtime Trump lawyer. The panel has already booked 25 interviews for October, the chairman said.
‘Hit a Wall’
The panel “has hit a wall” in its investigation of an unverified “dossier” purporting to have compromising information on Trump’s ties to and activities in Russia. Former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled the report, hasn’t agreed to be interviewed, Burr said, adding that the committee can’t assess the dossier’s credibility without knowing who paid for it and who the sources of information were.
To potential witnesses who haven’t agreed to testify yet, Burr issued a warning.
“I strongly suggest that you come in and speak with us,” Burr said. “If you don’t voluntarily do it, you will be compelled to do it. I can compel you to come but I can’t compel you to talk.”
Burr said he wouldn’t set any artificial timetable for a final report, but he hasn’t given up on closing the probe by the end of the year. He said it would be important to have a result before next year’s election primaries ahead of the congressional midterm elections.
“Let me assure you, we are going to get the best view of what happened that anybody could possibly get,” Burr said.
Power, Cohen Interviews
Separately, the House Intelligence Committee is gearing up to interview several key figures as part of its Russia probe, including Cohen and former U.S. diplomat Samantha Power.
Power, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, is set to be interviewed privately by the panel on Oct. 13, according to two people familiar with the matter. The panel is also planning to interview Cohen and Ben Rhodes, a former Obama foreign policy adviser, in the next two weeks as part of its probe into Russian meddling in the election.
Some Republicans have said they want to talk to Power about the practice of “unmasking” the names of associates of Trump that appeared in classified surveillance reports on foreigners by U.S. spy agencies.
But one of the people familiar with committee’s plans to interview her said that in her role as a member of the National Security Council, she may hold other information relative to the panel’s Russia probe.