Senior State Dept. official: “I have seen no credible evidence” to support the Russian-backed narrative on Ukraine election interference."
Sen. Chris Coons of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today questioned David Hale, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the State Department, about the false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in our 2016 elections. The exchange took place during a committee hearing on the future of U.S. policy towards Russia.
Coons asked, “Two weeks ago, Dr. Fiona Hill of the National Security Council testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the Russian intelligence services have in fact been promoting a false narrative that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 election and you previously told Senator Menendez in response to his questioning that you’re not aware of any credible evidence that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 elections.
“Would you agree, as you said in your own opening, that understanding the Russian threat requires our also being clear that there is no evidence of Ukraine having interfered in our 2016 elections?”
Hale said, “I have seen nothing that is credible along those lines.” He reiterated, “[O]ur focus at the State Department has been, as it should be, on the proven Russian interference in the 2016 elections and plans to do so in 2020.”
Coons: Russia undeniably attacked our elections in 2016 and has every intention of doing so again, according the Director of the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence and as you confirmed in response to earlier questions from Sen. Menendez, as you yourself said in your opening testimony, “Moscow engages in election meddling and complex, well resourced, influence operations directed by the highest levels of the Russian government.”
I agree. You went on to say, “Understanding this threat is essential for developing a long-term response.”
Two weeks ago, Dr. Fiona Hill of the National Security Council testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the Russian intelligence services have in fact been promoting a false narrative that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 election and you previously told Sen. Menendez in response to his questioning that you’re not aware of any credible evidence that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 elections. Would you agree, as you said in your own opening, that understanding the Russian threat requires our also being clear that there is no evidence of Ukraine having interfered in our 2016 elections?
Hale: Yes, I do, Senator.
Coons: Have you seen any intelligence assessment or any open source reporting that would support the idea that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 election?
Hale: I have seen nothing that is credible along those lines, sir.
Coons: Are you aware of any U.S. diplomat ore executive branch official who is asserting publicly that Ukraine interfered in our 2016 elections?
Hale: Any diplomat?
Coons: Anyone other than President Trump.
Hale: That’s correct, sir.
Coons: So, if an American politician of either branch repeats this Russian disinformation effort, says falsely that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in our 2016 election, does that promote our diplomatic interests or our national security?
Hale: Well, it’s a free country, people can debate any ideas that they want, but our focus at the State Department has been, as it should be, on the proven Russian interference in the 2016 elections and plans to do so in 2020.
Coons: And would it be in the interests of securing our 2020 election to continue distracting the American public, American legislators, from that demonstrated Russian intent to interfere?
Hale: Well again, I said that I have seen no credible evidence about these allegations of Ukraine. So again, as foreign policy practitioners, our focus is not there, it is on the Russian problem.
Coons: On the Appropriations Committee, I worked with Senator Leahy and colleagues from both parties to secure an additional $250 million this year in election security funding in an appropriations bill that’s not yet passed the House and Senate.
This would prevent future cyber-attacks against our election machinery. Do you think that’s a wise domestic investment in our own election security and do you think we should be doing not just that but more to secure democracy here and in Europe against Russian aggression?
Hale: I am not familiar with the details of the legislation, but in principle I believe firmly that we need to do everything we can to deter and necessary defend against these attacks here at home and with our allies.
Coons: Thank you, Ambassador. As you have heard from many senators today, we agree Russia needs to pay a price for attacking our elections, for their annexation of Crimea, their ongoing support for separatists in Ukraine, their undermining democracy in Europe and separating the United States from NATO, their support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the list goes on.
One area of real interest to me where Russia has recently stepped up their brazen and exploitative activities is in Africa. Strengthening ties with African countries is one of Putin’s top foreign policy goals.
In October, he convened more than 40 African heads of state for a Russian-led conference in Sochi and they’ve demonstrated their influence, or attempted to influence, recent elections in Madagascar, in Guinea, in Congo, in Zimbabwe, and in the Central African Republic.
Last month, I introduced the bipartisan Libya Stabilization Act, which would include sanctions on those involved in the Russian intervention there and would require an administration strategy to push back against Russian actions there in Libya and according to recent public reports there is literally hundreds of Russian mercenaries now in Libya. What is the State Department doing to address or limit Russian influence in Africa, in Libya, and in some of the other countries I just mentioned?
Hale: Well again, it’s a topic of our conversations with Russian officials. I don’t think that that dialogue is producing or yielding results that are necessary for our national security. I think more significantly is to point to our policy toward Africa and toward African states.
We are trying our best to make sure that our relationships with Africa are well maintained, that we are promoting U.S. business there, we are also increasing our assistance levels so that U.S. business can be participating in the economic growth and development of those countries. I think that is a very important area. Also, our cooperation in areas of security in the Sahel, that’s very important.
In the matter of Libya, I would say our strategy there is of course to try to do what we can to try to bring about a ceasefire and compliance with various U.N. Security Council resolutions so that the situation’s stabilized. Meanwhile, we have thrown a spotlight on the Russian presence there in various statements, but it is most unsatisfactory.
Coons: Well, I see my time is expired. Thank you, Mr. Under Secretary and Ambassador for your testimony today, and I look forward to our working to keep an open line of communication between the administration and the Senate because I think continuing to cooperate in standing up to Putin’s aggression against our upcoming elections is very important for the future of our Republic. Thank you.