American voters are in the midst of a Russian redux, warns David Hickton, the former U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh whose office uncovered the 2016 Russian election hacks.
Hickton, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, was U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania from 2010-16. In 2016, his office opened the case that ultimately became the underpinning for special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence operatives for election interference.
He is scheduled to host a discussion titled “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Tuesday at Pitt’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy.
For Hickton, it is an open question.
He said President Trump’s continued insistence that Russia had no role in undermining U.S. elections should concern everyone.
Trump, who dismissed intelligence that Russian interference supported his 2016 election as a “Deep State” conspiracy, has pushed back in recent days against reports of continuing Russian efforts to influence the 2020 elections.
This month, he dismissed a Senate Intelligence Committee report that recommended the executive branch prepare for continuing cyber attacks on U.S. elections. On Thursday, he disputed a New York Times report that national intelligence experts shared information on continuing Russian attempts to interfere with the 2020 election with House members.
The report noted that some of the president’s strongest GOP backers pushed back at the briefing, challenging the conclusions of multiple intelligence agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin had orchestrated a cyber campaign to support Trump’s reelection.
In a tweet Friday, Trump responded by calling the new reports of Russian activity on his behalf “Hoax 7!” He labeled it “another misinformation campaign by Democrats in Congress.”
But Hickton said intelligence that Russia is promoting disinformation on Facebook and other platforms mirrors his office’s findings in 2016.
“That is exactly what they did, in addition to intruding with election machinery in all 50 states. That’s all their playbook,” Hickton said. “Every American, no matter what their political persuasion, should be asking themselves the question, ‘Why does President Trump exhibit an unwillingness to get to the bottom of this?’ There is no rational reason the president of the United States wouldn’t dedicate every resource to this problem. And his denying its existence should concern everyone.”
Hickton credited his successors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh for continued success in targeting Russian state hackers. He said his staff’s experience investigating and prosecuting international hackers began in 2010 with the investigation of Russia’s Evgeniy Bogachev and led to the filing of criminal charges against Russian and Chinese hackers in 2014.
That led the FBI to turn to Pittsburgh in March 2016 with concerns about Russian interference in the presidential election.
“If you look at Russia, they started doing this in Estonia in 2007. They did in Georgia, and they did it in other satellite states. They did in France, in Germany and in the Netherlands. This is what they do. The Russian goal is to reconstitute the Soviet Union, and to do that they have to destroy the NATO union and the economy,” Hickton said. “Russia is interested in destroying democracy.”
The rise of the internet has coincided with the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, Hickton said. He noted at the same time movements sprang up like the Women’s March, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the Trump campaign — all of which were dependent upon the internet.
“Is the digital platform going to make us freer, or is it going to lead to oppression? These authoritarian leaders, many of them are using it to spy on opponents, oppress their opponents and spy on institutions like the free press,” Hickton said. “But if the internet allows people to engage in mass demonstrations like the Women’s March, which exceeded by three or four times the president’s inauguration and was organized in 48 hours, then it might make us more free.”
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