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Senators: Sanctions on Russia 'not working' against hacks, other aggressions

In this April 28, 2015, file photo, a man walks past a Microsoft sign set up for the Microsoft BUILD conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Microsoft has uncovered new hacking attempts by Russia targeting U.S. political groups ahead of the midterm elections. The company said Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, that a group tied to the Russian government created fake websites that appeared to spoof two American conservative organizations: the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute.

JEFF CHIU/AP

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2018

WASHINGTON – The efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to stop Russian computer hacking through sanctions are not working, a Senate panel said Tuesday.

Technology giant Microsoft Corp. confirmed Monday that a Russian military-affiliated group known as “Fancy Bear” had attempted to hack into websites for the U.S. Senate and think tank groups critical of Trump.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed dismay with State and Treasury department officials at the lack of progress to stop such Russian aggression, and mixed signals from the administration to fend off such attacks.

“My questions to you are really about why, given all the things we are doing, including sanctions, are we not making better progress,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told the officials. New Russian hacking “is ongoing even as we talk here today. I think sanctions are necessary… but it’s obviously not working. The way we would like it to.”

The new hacking reports and Tuesday’s hearing comes in the wake of U.S. sanctions instituted this month to ban certain exports to Russia following the chemical attack of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England.

Treasury and State department officials on Tuesday tried to assure lawmakers that the administration is combating Russian aggression at every turn.

To date, the Treasury Department has applied sanctions against 223 Russian individuals and entities under the Trump administration, Marshall Billingslea, the department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, told lawmakers.

The Treasury Department is also moving forward with new sanctions on two Russian shipping companies and six Russian flag vessels suspected of transferring petroleum supplies to North Korea, Billingslea said.

“Countering Russia aggression is a top priority for the Treasury Department,” he said. “Russian aggression is ongoing, but the Treasury Department has demonstrated to Putin and his inner circle that their behaviors will not be tolerated and they will incur significant costs.”

Yet, with Russia’s actions in recent years to annex Crimea from Ukraine, its occupation of parts of Georgia and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, there are concerns of what could be next, noted Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“These offenses are bad enough,” he said. “What does the administration expect that they will next do? The past teaches us that even worst things may lay just over the horizon if we fail to push back now and make clear to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin that our nation is united from the very top to the bottom and standing against his destabilizing behavior both in policy and in public posture.”

Some lawmakers questioned whether the Trump administration’s approach was the right one, or failed to go far enough. Especially in light of Trump comments creating confusion on whether Russia has been behind some of the aggressive actions, several senators said.

On July 16, Trump met with Putin privately in Helsinki.

“To date, we have received no real read out, even in a classified setting of this meeting,” Corker said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, R-N.J., ranking Democrat for the Senate panel, said Tuesday that he will formally request all classified and unclassified cables from the Helsinki meeting be turned over to Congress.

“More than a month after President Trump’s Helsinki meeting with President Putin, we remain in the dark about what the two leaders discussed,” Menendez said. “It’s not only embarrassing, but it’s lack of transparency has implications for our national security.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in one heated exchange with a State Department official that the Helsinki meeting played into Putin’s concept of how governments operate and compromising our democratic system.

“If you don’t stand up to Mr. Putin, he’ll take the situation even further,” Cardin said. “After that meeting, they were celebrating in Moscow and they were scurrying in Washington trying to figure out how to handle some of the statements that were made.”

Cardin asked Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary for the State Department’s bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, if he knew what happened during the Trump-Putin meeting.

Mitchell said he had been briefed with the appropriate information that he needs to carry out his job.

“The president has also been very clear… with regard to raising with Vladimir Putin the unacceptability of interference in our elections,” Mitchell told Cardin. But “I’m not going to litigate the specifics of every comment the president has made.”

Corker said Trump’s contradictory comments have muddied the waters for all involved in fighting the Russian attacks.

“Some of the undisciplined comments that the president makes creates as much trouble for these people as they do for us and the rest of our country,” he said.

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales
 

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