Senator Mark Warner Wants to Talk with Facebook Some More About Russia’s Fake News Ops

The ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee says there are some outstanding questions about what kind of guidance—if any—our adversaries obtained or was given.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said he would “like to have more” conversations with officials at Facebook to better understand how Russian actors spread fake news stories on that platform in the critical months and weeks leading up to the vote.

Speaking to The Daily Beast from his office on Capitol Hill, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that he does not believe Russian officials weaponized the voter data they reportedly hacked from various states during the 2016 election. But there are significant holes in the information the committee currently possesses with regard to that data, holes that he’s keen on filling.

Among other things, Warner said it’s unclear if Russian operatives were flying blind, taking cues from the Trump campaign, or utilizing voter data that they unearthed from states, which included private information like driver’s licenses and partial Social Security numbers, according to Time Magazine.

Some state governments have been lax in revealing all the information that was taken. Warner said this was partially because of the decentralized structure of state election systems and partially because some Secretary of State offices don’t have security clearances to be told the extent of the hacks.

But another way to find answers is to examine the publishing platforms on which Russia spread fake news. And in 2016, Facebook was the biggest such platform.

Warner already travelled to California to talk with leadership at the social networking company. The Daily Beast has also learned that the committee’s chairman, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), held talks with Facebook officials. Burr’s office declined to confirm the meeting while a spokesman for Facebook said that the company has “been in touch with a number of government officials who are looking into the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.”

“We will continue to cooperate with officials as their investigations continue,” the Facebook statement read.

The use of fake media is just one component of what the Intel Committee is investigating as it looks into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Warner, in the interview, meticulously avoided offering even parcels of information that could reveal other investigative routes being taken.

The Senator did not entertain a question of whether the committee currently has Trump’s tax returns, acknowledging only that “more information is always going to be helpful” while cautioning that his was “a counterintelligence investigation.” Twice, Warner spoke of his desire to ensure that there was no partisan taint on the committee’s final product. At one point, he emphatically stressed that the undertaking was “not a fishing expedition.”

But Warner also didn’t hide his credulity with how Donald Trump, the Trump family, and president’s close aides have handled themselves during the investigative process.

He noted how conspicuous it was that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and top aide (and Trump son-in-law) Jared Kushner all forgot to list meetings with Russian officials on their security clearance forms. “I believe there is an awful lot of dots,” said Warner. “My job, particularly in this, is to withhold judgement.”

He remarked on the “cast of characters” -- many from non-traditional backgrounds, many with ties to Russia -- that made up Trump’s foreign policy team during the campaign. And he was practically baffled with the president’s involvement in editing a statement in response to reports that his son Don Jr. attended a campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer during which he was offered dirt on Hillary Clinton.

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“Why would the President of the United States, when he is off on an international mission, feel that this was so important that it would take his personal time and he would want to personally dictate his adult son’s response?” Warner asked.  “If true, it goes back to what I said: For an administration that keeps saying this is a witch hunt, and that there is no there there, those don’t seem to be the actions of there [being] no there there.”

A senior administration official called Warner’s characterization of the president, “surprising.”

“It shouldn't matter if you are overseas or what your age is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a father giving a son advice,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It's incredibly sad if he doesn't understand that.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee began its investigation back in January. It is unclear how much longer it will go on, though Warner acknowledged mounting pressure from all sides to move faster. Republicans, he said, are invested in moving beyond the investigation while Democrats presume there is enough guilt already. The Senator’s hope is to keep the committee focused, and its reputation intact, as it comes to a full rendering of what happened in the 2016 election. But he also hopes that the committee’s work will spark a legislative response to address the cyber vulnerabilities both of the U.S. election system and those of other countries.

“Because the President of the United States has not fully acknowledged that this is a threat there is no whole-of-government approach on how we protect ourselves going forward,” Warner said.